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Anal beads, cheating scandals and trash talk: the changing world of chess

Chess and anal beads aren’t usually words closely associated in sentences, but the sex toy has found itself lodged firmly in the middle of one of the board game’s biggest scandals.

After snatching a shock victory against world number one Magnus Carlsen, 19-year-old Hans Nielmann has been widely accused of cheating, with one slightly wilder theory suggesting he used vibrating anal beads to signal which pieces to play on the board against his arch rival.

Nielmann has since insisted he wasn’t picking up any good vibrations, and has offered to play again, only with a new caveat: he will take to the game entirely naked. 

So how has a simple game of chess, a game of wits and strategy favoured by royalty and enjoyed by some of the world’s best and brightest minds, resulted in mud-slinging over sex toys?

Having already racked up over 1000 years of history, chess is now entering yet another new era after a huge surge of interest has welcomed a fresh generation of young fans, ready to take to the board.

No longer a game relegated to stale church halls and played by stuffy and socially awkward young men, the rise of new platforms has now allowed chess, and the personality of players behind the 16 pieces, to appeal to younger audiences that favour electronic devices – be they computers, or potentially even sex toys.

It’s easy to attribute the hit Netflix show, The Queen’s Gambit, for a sudden rise of an interest in chess. After all, Netflix scored a global checkmate with the limited series, which was thought to have been watched by 62 million viewers. eBay registered a 215% increase in chess set sales since the series launched in October 2020.

However, according to those in the know, chess’s renewed popularity has been long on the rise before Anya Taylor-Joy was cast as Beth Harmon.

‘Chess has changed a huge amount since I was young,’ explains grandmaster and three-time British champion, 31-year-old David Howell. ‘There weren’t many of my peers around, people would drop out of the game because there was no real way to make a living or pursue chess as a career unless you made it to the very top of the field.

‘Now there are several new avenues to play chess professionally. During the coronavirus pandemic, streaming became far more popular, many tournaments went online and people could watch competitions on services such as Twitch.’

In fact, Twitch has been a significant game changer for the chess community since it launched in its current iteration in 2011, making stars out of the people who live streamed their matches and tournaments online.

Since the beginning of 2022, chess has been watched for over 54.8 million hours on the gaming platform, with some of the top streamers making millions from their prominent platforms.

American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, who boasts 1.5 million followers on the platform, is thought to be worth an astounding $50million, largely in part due to his online following which he fostered through his distinct style.

‘Streaming has allowed chess players to show more of their personalities,’ Howell agrees. ‘Hikaru broke onto the chess scene a few years ago and made a name of himself as a bit of an antihero, as he likes to antagonise and trash talk his opponents.

‘Elsewhere, the Botez sisters, who are in their early twenties, have used their chess career to launch into other e-sports and do live meet and greets. They did a meet up in a Berlin nightclub where they all danced around and played chess. Personality is so important nowadays. The most successful players are the ones who are the most distinct. It’s not just about those 64 squares now, it’s about personalities.’

Meanwhile, seeing younger players who buck the usual stereotypes about chess is only a positive thing for younger people willing to try the game, explains best-selling chess author, coach and master Sabrina Chevannes.

‘Thanks to Twitch, chess is seen as a lot more accessible,’ she tells Metro.co.uk. ‘There’s loads of Twitch channels where people can see lots of young people play, and more young women playing on there and are gaining visibility. Everyday people, “cooler” people are playing it now, than “dorkier” people who we might usually associate with the game.’

However, there’s one particular chess player that has changed the image of the game to outside observers. Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, currently the world’s number one player (a role he assumed in 2011, aged just 19) is thought to have had a huge influence on the game’s perception: at 31, the Norwegian player is young, handsome (he modelled alongside Liv Tyler for a 2010 G-Star Raw campaign) and charismatic.

He regularly quips about his abilities, saying in one interview his favourite new chess player was ‘himself, three or four years ago’ – a far cry from the socially awkward, older and somewhat obsessive image some grandmasters may have had in the past.

With a combined total of over 1 million Twitch and Twitter followers, Carlsen was an early adopter of speaking directly to chess fans on social media, regularly sharing videos and making memes to communicate with others enthralled by his game.

‘Magnus was one of the first chess players to really embrace the social media aspect of the game. He’s is a bit of a Firestarter in the chess world,’ says Howell, who himself is no stranger to drama after setting a World Record in 2002 when he was just 11, as the youngest person ever to have scored against a reigning World Chess Champion – Vladinir Kramnik – in a single match.

‘Chess has had this image for a reason that nobody wanted to buck the trend or change the system or tear down the world and build it up again.

‘Magnus is not afraid to do that. There’s always something that comes along and mixes things up and you either love it or hate it. It helps drive the sport forward.’

One of the formats that Carlsen has helped propagate is ‘speed tournaments’, which for some have made chess matches nail-biting, must-watch entertainment: vastly different from the lengthy battles on the board some of us may have had to endure in our youth.

Computers have made us all a bit paranoid within the chess community

‘Each game is a maximum of 15-30 minutes, compared to long form tournaments which can be seven hours,’ explains Howell. ‘It makes chess very dramatic and entertaining, and Magnus has really been driving that aspect of speed, seeing chess perceived like an e-sport. He is one of the few people who has physically trained in the gym to help his chess game.’

However, this has led to somewhat of a sharp divide between the old guard and newer players more intrigued by exciting formats.

‘Some more traditional players aren’t a fan of these formats,’ Howell admits. ‘They feel they lessen chess as an artform, or science. Younger players argue that the game should be even faster to make it even more dramatic.’

The rise of new technologies have also led to widening divides in the chess community, with fears of cheating fuelling paranoia and uncertainty between prominent players and key matches.

Chess engines have become increasingly sophisticated compared to their early inception, with apps on a smartphone able to run a chess-playing computer which could easily defeat even Magnus Carlsen himself.

Cheating in the chess world is nothing new though – in 2006, the game was hit with scandal when Bulgarian player Veselin Topalov accused Russian grandmaster Vladimir Kramnik of cheating, claiming Kramnik was visiting the toilet too many times and suggesting an electronic device may have been hidden in the men’s bathroom. The fallout resulted in the chess community dubbing the scandal ‘toiletgate’.

But chess’s recent controversy spilled out from online forums and into mainstream media when Carlsen was floored by Hans Niemann, a wild-haired 19-year-old from the States who has had a meteoric rise to the crème de la crème of chess.

While Carlsen didn’t directly accuse his rival of cheating at the time, the world number one faced Niemann again in an online match, before choosing to quit the game almost immediately. He then took to Twitter to issue a lengthy statement to explain his actions and denounce perceived cheating in the chess world.

While Niemann has denied any allegations of cheating in that match, having said he only cheated in online matches when he was 12 and 16 and was ‘now clean’, a new report by Chess.com has claimed Niemann has cheated upwards of 100 times, and as recently as 2020.

Ongoing cheating scandals have resulted in an ‘existential’ crisis for chess, says Howell, who has also experienced losing to a competitor that won by defraud.

‘Computers have made us all a bit paranoid within the community,’ he says. ‘In Covid when tournaments were online so many people were cheating from the comfort of their own home. That’s why nowadays, everyone’s looking at each other. 

‘I think that’s where it stems from – a general sense of paranoia of scepticism, if someone plays in a way we don’t expect them to or in a way that surprises us. But it’s hard as you can’t always prove it beyond reasonable doubt – it’s not like cycling or football or other sports where you can prove doping took place.’

In a bid to curb cheating fears, security has largely increased around in-person chess matches.

‘It’s actually really uncomfortable,’ Howell confesses. ‘Tournaments are clamping down massively. There are more serious checks now with mental detecting, airport control type processes before you even sit at the board nowadays. I was scanned before the games, sometimes during the game someone would come up to me and just scan my ear.

‘Ideally, we wouldn’t need this stuff. I miss the old days when we didn’t have to constantly worry about chess computers and cheats.’

Meanwhile, chess competition organisers have faced criticism from players, arguing they’re far too lax on those who have used deceptive means to win a game.

In Howell’s case, his opponent was caught cheating after he admitted to using a signalling system with his coach in order to make the right moves to win. However, as punishment he merely faced a two year ban before being allowed to play again. 

‘I don’t think anything can be done unless the governing body actually do something about cheats,’ Chevannes adds. ‘The problem is that they’re just not punished enough. People accuse others and no investigation is actually done. Stringent measures need to happen. 

‘We really need to crack down on electric devices, otherwise there will be complete paranoia forever and no one will be able to play a really good game without facing accusations.’

For now, the future of chess looks uncertain, with the advent of new technology having revolutionised both how the game is played and how grandmasters behave.

‘I think online chess is great and accessible,’ Chevannes says, arguing the e-sport element of chess games allows it to have a broader appeal. ‘It has helped the masses get into chess and will allow amateurs to get big online followers, but for professional chess players, the important games will be the traditional, over-the-board games.

‘Chess is a classical game that has been around for thousands of years. It’s not suddenly going to change due to tech.’

However, Howell asserts that chess’s growing popularity, even if it’s in its newer, faster format, has allowed the game to slot into more mainstream interests. 

‘There’s still record numbers of people playing it at the moment,’ he says. ‘My non chess friends all seem to have an interest, they all know what’s going on nowadays, which is promising. Chess may never be as big as mainstream sports like football or tennis, but it’s becoming part of our culture, which is the main thing. 

‘Whether it’s Twitch streamers or lots of old men playing in a stuffy new room, there’s something that can attract people into the beauty of the world of chess.

‘Now, new opportunities in chess means more doors are open to young people to have more experiences. It has allowed me to travel all over the world and meet so many different people. It breaks down barriers.

‘The game is open to any gender, any race, all around the world. People are now learning chess can be cool, we just need to keep an open mind.’

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