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Sexism, cheating, and nightclubs: inside the dark heart of modern chess

Rob Price   

Sexism, cheating, and nightclubs: inside the dark heart of modern chess

There is a singular misery to trying your very best, after months of training, only to be crushed by a 6-year-old.

Last December, I spent a cloudy day holed up at the Mechanics' Institute, a venerable chess club in San Francisco, to play in the 22nd annual McClain Memorial Tournament. It was my first in-person chess competition, and I was full of optimism.

I faced a severe-looking child who wore a food-stained sweatshirt emblazoned with a cartoon penguin. He did not speak. He alternated between fidgeting uncontrollably and fixing me with a disconcerting death stare. He spent much of his time between moves crawling around beneath the table (an interesting psych-out technique, but not one I think I could pull off).

Early in the game, I made an amateur mistake that left me down a knight. From there it was all over, even if I didn't immediately realize it. A checkmate soon followed.

My first game had been against a middle-aged asset manager, and we'd discussed the strangeness of us adults competing against children. (He also beat me.) After an undignified lunch of Doritos and a chocolate protein shake, I managed to eke out a win against my third opponent. A tech worker in her mid-20s, she noted she was nursing a severe hangover, and she had a helpful habit of involuntarily gasping whenever she realized she'd made a mistake. At that point, I'd take whatever modicum of dignity I could salvage.

For the first three decades of my life, I'd had fleeting phases of mild interest in chess, playing the occasional game online while procrastinating or over the board with a drink. But the game's foreboding density and association with supreme intellect dissuaded me from going any deeper. Over the past few years, however, a drumbeat of fanfare and tabloid headlines about the seemingly staid game became inescapable. Like so many other people, I got chess-pilled.

Chess.com, the world's leading chess site, now regularly reports record numbers of players — it said that in February 2023 it hosted more than 1 billion games a month — sporadically crashing under the weight of demand. The pandemic's enforced isolation and Netflix's smash hit "The Queen's Gambit" collectively introduced an entire generation to the game. Socialites are playing chess on "The Real Housewives of New York City." Twitch streamers and YouTubers have racked up millions of followers and ushered in a radical new culture — meme-drenched, rapid-fire, and drama-prone.

Chess has never been more popular, but its ugly side has also never been more exposed. The same characteristics that have driven its popularity online — an easy-to-understand eight-by-eight grid, a strategy without chance or luck — have also made it a cheater's paradise. Meanwhile, rampant sexism festers at chess' heart.

What the hell was happening to the game of kings? To find out, I decided I needed to get better at the game and face off against everyone I talked to.


In 1990, when Judit Polgár, the greatest female chess player, was emerging as a child prodigy, the world champion Garry Kasparov dismissed her as "after all, a woman."

"It all comes down to the imperfections of the feminine psyche," he said. "No woman can sustain a prolonged battle."

Sexism persists in every level of the game. In 1990, according to the US Chess Federation, only 4% of chess players were women. Today it's 14%. There are innumerable tales of how women were belittled, mistreated, harassed, and abused — from snide remarks about "losing to a girl" at a chess club to sexist comments during online play. Juliana Gallin, a graphic designer in San Francisco, told me before a game on Chess.com (she wiped the floor with me) that she had deliberately omitted any references to her gender in her online profile. Even at professional tournaments, many women say commentators and audiences sometimes fixate on their appearances and clothes rather than the quality of their chess. FIDE, the international chess body, requires anyone wishing to make a misconduct complaint to first pay a fee of 75 euros.

In 1990, only 4% of chess players were women. Today it's 14%.

In 2023, the chess world had its own #MeToo moment. It started when the grandmaster Jennifer Shahade accused Alejandro Ramírez, a grandmaster and well-connected coach, of sexual assault. A slew of further allegations against Ramírez — and claims that the US Chess Federation had failed to act — soon followed. (Ramírez has denied the allegations.)

Shahade and I played a quick game — she smothered me, picking off my pawns until my structure crumbled — and talked. Shahade told me that, in addition to the gender imbalance, part of the issue is that chess is "complex to attack because there's so many different cultures," adding that "every country might have its own policy for safe play." Beyond that, she said, "all ages play together — which mostly is a really awesome thing about the game that we love — but unfortunately for bad actors that could be an opportunity for grooming."

And there's no easier place for bad actors to take root than in chess' most popular venue: online.


More than anything else, the internet has transformed how chess is played and talked about. It has infused the 1,500-year-old game with modern video-game sensibilities and smack talk. Online chess can feel a world away from the carefully considered hourslong games of old; many modern players prefer "bullet chess," whose warp speed games take less than three minutes. Beyond Reddit hubs like the more pedantic r/Chess (1.1 million members) and the oddball, shitposting r/AnarchyChess (500,000), ground zero for chess' reimagining is video platforms like YouTube and Twitch. Dedicated chess influencers like Levy "GothamChess" Rozman (nearly 5 million YouTube subscribers) and the Botez sisters (1.5 million subscribers) offer guidance to amateurs like me, dissecting tournament games and diving into the nearly constant beef between chess celebs. Even grandmasters — historically cast as cerebral recluses — are getting in on the action. The five-time US champion Hikaru Nakamura (2.3 million subscribers) has become one of the most prolific streamers out there.

"You definitely can make in general a lot more from making content than what you can from playing competitive chess," said Anna Cramling, a fast-talking 21-year-old Swedish player with nearly 900,000 YouTube subscribers. After we chatted, we played a quick game; I timed out with no good moves open to me. All the time in the world wouldn't have made a difference.

The seedier side of internet culture has also wormed its way into chess. "The biggest downside to what I do is I don't always feel safe," Cramling said. Some of her followers, she says, are often "trying to get to know things about me." Poor sportsmanship abounds: Some players rage quit when they make mistakes, try to "stall" their opponents, or abort games if they don't get to play as white. Chat rooms are full of normalized abuse, often sexual or racist. Sometimes dark behavior bleeds out beyond the screen: In late 2023, Nakamura said the police had turned up at his home after someone tried to "swat" him.

But is playing online as fulfilling as playing over the board? As I explored, I kept up a steady stream of middling games on Chess.com — my Elo rating slowly rising — but wanted a more immersive experience. I decided to devote an entire day to playing bullet chess.

By hour two, the games were blurring into one another — aching hands, no time for strategy, just vibes.

In the version I played, a 1:1 time control, each player was allotted one minute total for the entire game plus one additional second per move. My first game went beautifully: excellent piece development, no big mistakes, and a neat checkmate. During game two, I started to feel a little frantic. By hour two, the games were blurring into one another — aching hands, no time for strategy, just vibes. When I took a break for a virtual doctor's appointment, I was seized with a compulsion to fill out the intake forms at blitzkrieg speed.

I had a breakthrough when I switched up the time control. Now I was playing just a flat minute per player, no additional time. Suddenly I was winning clearly lost games because I was just a bit faster on the draw. All I had to do was hide my king in the corner and make my structure just convoluted enough, and I'd win by default as my opponents timed out. It was a lightning-fast game of pattern recognition and counterstrike reflexes, and totally unconducive to improving my actual chess skills.

Eight hours later, I was 150 games down and completely exhausted. It was time to log off.


Out in the world, chess' resurgence has been accompanied by a wave of new clubs and events.

In April 2023, The Washington Post reported that chess was causing an "epidemic of student distraction." In Berkeley, California, a controversial unlicensed street club has become a flash point for debates about gentrification and police brutality. When I visited, I was bested by a guy who I suspected was extremely high and who got up to dance to Bill Withers between moves.

A couple months into my chess journey, I was in New York City for the week. I made a pilgrimage to the Marshall Chess Club, a 109-year-old institution in Greenwich Village.

Beneath impressionist murals of naked women, and among candles and pumping EDM, an eclectic crowd of hipsters, skaters, and the occasional dyed-in-the-wool chess nerd mingled.

Inside, rows of players sat in perfect silence as the bust of the club's founder, Frank Marshall, the American chess champion of 1909, frowned down at them. But my itch to play could not be scratched: The club was hosting a tournament that day, a nice man told me apologetically, for high-ranking players only. Even the youngest attendees would demolish me. "These aren't your normal kids," he said.

The following evening, I went to an East Village bar and found a very different scene at Club Chess. Beneath impressionist murals of naked women, and among candles and pumping EDM, an eclectic crowd of hipsters, skaters, and the occasional dyed-in-the-wool chess nerd mingled. There were no chess clocks in sight, and downstairs there was a full-on dance floor. It was standing room only. Founded in 2023 by Alexander Luke Bahta — who spent the evening swanning around, tailed by a photographer and reporter for a lifestyle blog — Club Chess has been described by The Guardian and New York magazine as the epicenter of chess' ascendance in nightlife.

I played a young Canadian mycologist in an evenly matched game that she ultimately resigned. Then came a wiry Romanian in athleisure — Elo rating 2200, extremely good — who inexorably ground me down, trapping one of my bishops and stomping through my pawn structure. Afterward I watched him play the burly security guard and checkmate him barely a dozen moves in. The bouncer "plays unconventionally," the Romanian said diplomatically.

"That guy's a monster," the bouncer told me later.

With work looming the next day, I left the party, still going strong, at about 11 p.m., feeling rejuvenated. It had been chess at its purest and most freeing — no scores or internet trash talk to be found.


If you've heard anything about chess in the past couple of years, it's probably been about anal beads.

In 2022, the world champion Magnus Carlsen accused the grandmaster Hans Niemann, chess' enfant terrible, of cheating in a tournament. What followed was a breathless debate (not by Carlsen) over whether Niemann had managed this with a device hidden in a particularly intimate part of his body.

The consensus among serious chess players is that the specific allegation is absurd, but paranoia about cheating pervades the game, from grandmasters playing in tournaments to amateurs whacking away at each other online. Chess.com bans 90,000-odd players every month for cheating.

I understand why. I've cheated at chess.

Years ago I periodically played online against a college buddy. He beat me, a lot. So in one or two games, purely out of curiosity, I booted up a chess engine, plugged in the moves he made, responded with the computer-determined optimal moves, and won handily. I told him promptly what I'd done. But there was also a prurient little thrill to winning, no matter how undeserved. And I'm hardly the only one who feels this way.

If you've heard anything about chess in the past couple of years, it's probably been about anal beads.

Chess is an extraordinarily easy game to cheat at. Computer programs have handily beaten human players ever since Deep Blue versus Kasparov in 1997. And there's no easy remedy. At the most basic level, there's the risk of people copying computer moves by rote, but that's relatively straightforward to detect. For more sophisticated players, cheating on a single move at the right moment is sometimes enough to give them the edge. Even just a signal — a cough, a gesture, a vibration — that their seemingly innocuous next move will actually be critical, even if they're not told what the right move is, can be enough to make a player slow down and find the pathway to the (ill-gotten) win.

Hence a constant fear of cheaters and a string of minor scandals. The former world champion Vladimir Kramnik has in recent years repeatedly cast aspersions on other high-profile players, including Nakamura. (Chess.com subsequently said it investigated "dozens of players" whose play Kramnik had questioned and found no evidence "in the vast majority of cases.") The grandmaster Fabiano Caruana said in a recent interview that he'd "bet a lot" that someone in the top 10 players had cheated at some point.

The concern can taint players' enjoyment of the game.

"It just sucks because you're trying your hardest — but it kind of doesn't matter because you're just playing god, essentially," said Dan Timbrell, a 33-year-old working in machine learning in the Netherlands. "You are pulling your heart and soul into really trying to win a game, and then you just realize it is just punching a brick wall."


Over four months, I played a shit ton of chess, and I learned a lot by being summarily beaten by nearly every person I talked to. But I also felt more and more burned out by the game. I found myself constantly fretting about my Elo rating. It distracted from what actually mattered: the chess.

Chess is a notoriously brutal game for the ego. If you lose, it's simply because you weren't good enough. Chess is a skill that can be learned, like any other, but that doesn't stop people online from discussing ad nauseam whether there's a correlation between chess prowess and IQ. Add internet-tracked Elo ratings, and you've got a potent recipe for an inferiority complex.

As a 27-year-old musician in New York City who got into chess after watching "The Queen's Gambit," told me: "You either make good moves or bad moves. So it's very easy to say, 'Oh my, I've made a terrible move — I'm so stupid.'"

I could relate. When I was playing online, I began gravitating toward anonymous, logged-out games — a far more relaxed affair.

Chess' problems aren't unique. But it is uniquely positioned to act as an accelerant for the internet's worst impulses: sexism, abuse, cheating, elitism, and toxic nerdery. It's a far cry from what Juliana Gallin described to me as "the stunning, breathtaking beauty and magic of chess." My most memorable chess experiences, the places where I encountered that magic, weren't online. They were playing in the crowded thrill of Club Chess in New York, or trading pieces with a buddy over a gin and tonic in a Lake Tahoe cabin, or battling it out in the cafeteria of a Russian bathhouse in San Francisco.

As I was wrapping up this story, YouTube recommended me a video by ChessPage1, a janky instructional channel. At the high levels, the robotic-sounding voice said, players need an encyclopedic knowledge of openings and theory and a grand strategy to execute. But among us mortals, people screw up in minor ways several times a game.

"If you can be the guy who just doesn't blunder and also spots the opponent's blunders," the voice said, "you can easily become a very good chess player without having to pull off some complex mastery game plan … You don't have a game plan, your opponent doesn't have a game plan, everybody is confused. But confusion means high probability of blunders, and if you don't blunder, you will crush 99% of your opponents. Congratulations, you are now enlightened and smart." They added, "Remember, whenever you feel like you need a complex strategy, just don't blunder."

It's good advice for chess, and for life. If in doubt, remember that basically no one else has it figured out either. Just try not to screw up too badly.


Rob Price is a senior correspondent for Business Insider and writes features and investigations about the technology industry. His Signal number is +1 650-636-6268, and his email is rprice@businessinsider.com.




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