Anal beads threaten chess. Just a few months ago it would have taken a wild imagination to fit a sex toy and the honorable game of kings into one meaningful sentence. But then the case of Hans Moke Niemann shook the chess world. The 19-year-old grandmaster from the USA actually defeated Magnus Carlsen, the world champion, at the Springfield Cup last year. Carlsen, 32, then withdrew from the tournament and accused his young competitor of cheating.

Niemann, who once admitted to cheating at online chess as a youth, quickly faced harsh allegations. Wild speculation ensured that the media around the world reported on the scandal. Suddenly even the tabloids were interested in chess. A false tooth was considered a cheating implement – and throbbing anal beads. Targeted vibrations could have given Niemann an advantage on the board, according to one of the theories.

The smoldering conflict between Carlsen and Niemann is fueling the popularity of chess, which has grown sharply since the corona pandemic and for decades was mostly played in small, musty clubs. Two dazzling figures of a sport that many still associate with checkered wool jackets and high thinker foreheads. A dispute that represents opportunities and problems in equal measure.

Chess is a battle of information. The struggle for the best position among hundreds of thousands of possible positions requires a mental effort that is almost incomprehensible to the average person. The great duels in the history of the World Chess Championships, such as Lasker versus Capablanca, Fischer versus Spassky or Kasparov versus Karpov, captivated viewers for hours, days and weeks. In April, Jan Nepomnjaschtschi and Ding Liren play 14 games with classic time control to win the title. But the current boom is mainly based on the more spectacular chess variants.

“The advantage of chess during the corona pandemic was that you could also play online. In the meantime, more online tournaments are being played than ever before,” explains Kevin Högy, sports director of the German Chess Federation (DSB), in an interview with WELT AM SONNTAG. In addition, the mode of blitz and rapid chess is responsible for people also enjoying watching the sport. Blitz games are scheduled for three or five minutes per player.

“Twenty years ago, these variants lived a purely niche existence. The few such tournaments that existed took place behind closed doors,” says Georgios Souleidis, who is one of the best-known streamers in the scene on YouTube and Twitch under the name “The Big Greek”. Souleidis comments on the new Armageddon Championship Series for WELT. The short reflection time makes these formats much more attractive for TV broadcasts and streams. “The commentators don’t have to bridge half-hour periods of reflection like they do at the World Cup. In addition, the spectator can switch to the next game after a game,” Högy sees as an advantage over the classic variant of chess. “The entertainment factor is much higher for the general public.”

The numbers of the boom are gigantic. The Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit got viewers hooked on the game during the pandemic. The chess portal announced 100 million members shortly before Christmas, compared to 35 million in June 2020. Most recently, tournaments had to be interrupted because the provider’s servers were overloaded. Thanks to the (almost) unlimited possibilities of the Internet, the once elite sport is becoming more and more accessible. According to estimates, 600 million people around the world now play chess on a regular basis, analog or virtual.

“More and more people are coming to the clubs who can already play well because they have practiced or observed online beforehand. This is a very positive development for the clubs,” emphasizes Högy.

The sports director of the DSB calls the case Christian Glöckler. The twelve-year-old played thousands of games on the internet and immediately became second in the championship for Germany in his age group at his second real chess tournament. He is now number six in the world in the U12s. The case is exceptional, but gives an indication of where things are headed in the coming years.

With popularity comes responsibility. There has always been cheating in chess, but increasing popularity and prize money make the use of unfair tools more attractive. Online with special chess software or on the real board, possibly even with vibrating sex toys, as Niemann is accused of doing. Many see credibility in jeopardy. “If you can’t guarantee that the players are all playing fairly, then the integrity of the entire sport is at risk,” warns Högy. Cycling with its doping crisis is a warning example. At the DSB, Klaus Deventer fights against fraud as anti-cheating boss.

In addition, the public takes a closer look at how the world association deals with sensitive issues such as Russia, Iran or problems such as the still underrepresented women in sport. Although chess has been modernized in many areas in recent years, the main burden of work in many clubs and associations is still based on voluntary work and traditional structures.

In any case, among the traditionalists of the sport, there is an inner resistance to the current developments. One of the accusations is that the meaning of the board game, whose origins go back around 1000 years in northern India, is being questioned. The kings would be sold off to the common people. “Chess is a competition between two individuals, in which creativity is required. Quite simply,” says Raj Tischbierek, describing the essence of his great love. Tischbierek, 60, is a grandmaster and editor of the specialist magazine “Schach”. He regards the hype with displeasure.

“What we have already experienced in cinema, television and music is now being made up for in chess. Consumption is paramount. In my eyes, chess players are no longer perceived as masters of a spiritual art, but they are vicarious agents of the amusement business,” Tischbierek summarizes his view of things in an interview with WELT AM SONNTAG. He fears that the Grand Master’s reputation in society could suffer permanently.

A comparison to darts, which has matured from a pub game to a recognized sport in recent years, lags behind for Tischbierek. “People throw an arrow on the board and when it hits, the spectators drink a beer,” exaggerates the chess traditionalist and explains calmly: “Chess is not at all suitable for the general public because it is too complex. You can’t even grasp what’s happening on the board in a year.”

In fact, the fascination of the game of chess for many is based primarily on the protagonists’ mental ability. Concentration, patience, strategic thinking and solving highly complex problems are the qualities of a grandmaster.

More and more amateurs are also trying to train their intellectual abilities in chess. More and more schools and educational institutions are integrating chess into their curriculum. Tischbierek warns that this learning effect threatens to be diluted in the increasingly popular blitz and rapid chess. In general, he was skeptical. “First we have to see how sustainable the boom in chess is.”

Chess streamer Souleidis, on the other hand, does not believe in a split in the chess world, but sees the chance that the current upswing will strengthen his sport in the long term. “If more fast chess is played now, then the classic will not be completely ousted. Nothing is lost either. There will be a coexistence,” the expert is certain. Beginners who want to become good would first have to learn and master classic, much slower chess anyway.

Magnus Carlsen, who also contributes to popularity with his unorthodox manner, which is interesting for the media and the many World Cup successes, pondered the prospects of his passion in an interview with the “Guardian” in 2018. He sees chess as an “intellectual challenge” and hopes that people will recognize the game as such and not just as “entertainment”. A good four years later, the traditional sport is walking the fine line of riding the wave of euphoria without being overtaken by it.