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Increasingly popular, chess also has its dark side



There is something particularly despairing about trying your best, practicing relentlessly for months, only to be soundly beaten by a six-year-old. Last December, I tried to escape a gloomy day by going to the Mechanics’ Institute, a venerable chess club in San Francisco, where the 22e edition of the McClain Memorial Tournament. It was the first competition I had ever attended in person, and I was pumped.

I found myself facing a stern-looking little boy wearing a stained sweatshirt with a cartoon penguin on it. He didn’t say a word. He either fidgeted or stared at me with a killer glare. Between blows, he spent most of his time wriggling under the table—an interesting destabilization technique, but one I couldn’t see myself successfully replicating.

Early in the game I made a rookie mistake that cost me a knight. From there it was over for me, although I didn’t realize it right away. Checkmate didn’t take long.

Get into the game

My first game was against an older asset manager, and we talked about how strange it was to play against children (he beat me too). After a disgraceful lunch of Doritos and a chocolate-flavored protein drink, I still managed to snatch a victory against my third opponent. In this case, she was a tech employee in her early twenties, who had taken care to tell me that she had a “bad hangover”. She also had a tendency, which was very useful for me, to let out an exclamation when she realized she had made a mistake. At this point, I was taking any shred of dignity I could glean.

For the first thirty years of my life, I had shown, in fleeting phases, a timid interest in chess, playing a game from time to time, either online to distract myself from other tasks at hand, or in person, in front of a chessboard, but with a drink in my hand. But the intimidating intensity of the game, and the fact that it was associated with a superior intellect, dissuaded me from delving into it further. But in recent years, it has become impossible to escape the media hype surrounding this pastime that was considered stuffy. So much so that, like so many others, I ended up getting caught up in the game.

Cultural changes

Chess.com, the world’s first chess site (installed in the United States and launched in 2007), regularly breaks attendance records – in February 2023 it hosted more than a billion games per month – to the point of occasionally crashing under the influx of demand. The strict confinement during the pandemic and the resounding success of the Queen’s Gambit on Netflix have initiated an entire generation. Chessboards can even be found on reality TV sets. Twitchers and other YouTubers have won over millions of subscribers and inaugurated a radically new culture where everything moves very quickly, where the meme is king and controversy is queen.

If chess is more popular than ever, its dark corners have never been more exposed. The very features that have made it so popular online—a simple eight-by-eight grid, a strategy that leaves no room for chance—have also made it a cheater’s paradise. At the same time, endemic sexism runs rampant at the very heart of the game.

What the hell happened to the “game of kings”? To get to the bottom of it, I decided that I had to progress and confront each of my interlocutors (who I would meet to write my article).

Deep-rooted machismo

In 1990, when the talent of Judit Polgar, the greatest female chess player, burst forth, the world champion, Garry Kasparov, downplays his prowess on the grounds that “She is a woman, after all…” “Actually, it comes down to the imperfections of female psychology, he argues. No woman can sustain a duel for long.” (The Hungarian prodigy is the only woman to have qualified for the International Chess Federation (FIDE) World Championship, in 2005. She also beat Kasparov in 2002, leading the Russian giant to revise his words.)

This sexism persists, at all levels. In 1990, according to the American Federation, only 4% of players were female. Today, they are 14%. There are countless testimonies of female players being belittled, mocked, bullied, insulted. This ranges from sarcastic remarks, at the club, about having “lost to a girl” to sexist comments during an online game. San Francisco graphic designer Juliana Gallin tells me before starting a game on Chess.com (she gave me a good beating) that she has taken care to avoid any reference to her gender on her online profile.

Even in the professional circuit, many women find that commentators and the public sometimes focus more on their physical appearance or their clothing than on the quality of their play. The International Chess Federation, Fide, requires anyone who files a complaint of misconduct to pay a 75 euro fine beforehand.

In 2023, the chess world experienced its movement #MeTootoo. It all started when Jennifer Shahade, a (female) grandmaster, accused Alejandro Ramirez, an international grandmaster and prominent coach, of sexual assault. Several other allegations would follow against Ramirez – and against the lack of reaction from the American Federation (Alejandro Ramirez denied these accusations).

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