Beth, Botez, Beads: chess in pop culture

Credit: Courtesy of Tom VanAllen via Flickr Credit: Courtesy of Tom VanAllen via Flickr
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As a chess player, I’m grateful for any attention brought to the game, especially in pop culture. There is something special about chess, in terms of the almost inherent respect most people have for it. In that respect is a channelable fascination, which shows like “The Queen’s Gambit” took advantage of two years ago, bringing countless new players to the game. Almost in tandem, several chess streamers skyrocketed in popularity, such as BotezLive and GMHikaru (Hikaru Nakamura is first and foremost a professional chess player, but his stream has blown up in the last couple years). While I have my ups and downs with the way chess is becoming more mainstream, the recent scandal involving Grandmaster Hans Niemann really pushed me over the line.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that to make something more popular, it often has to be sexualized. In the case of “The Queen’s Gambit,” Beth Harmon is a prime example of this. By virtue of being an attractive, sexually active woman, her character and story become more interesting to your average person than if she were less attractive, or even not a woman. This in itself isn’t surprising, as other shows like “Game of Thrones” do the exact same thing with Daenerys Targaryen, using sexuality as a sort of entry point for casual, perhaps otherwise uninterested viewers.

Two summers ago, I was lucky enough to meet Alexandra and Andrea Botez while they were playing chess in Union Square. They told me about their frustration with this sort of thing, especially with how prevalent sexualization is on Twitch. Many viewers go so far as to say that their skill in chess could partially be chocked up to their “distracting attractiveness.” Their response was to have Andrea play games wearing traditionally male, non-revealing clothing, to “test” if that was really the case. Even just as a chess fan, I find it disappointing that this needs to be demonstrated. It’s disappointing how an “entry point” to chess can come to characterize a person’s interest in it.

The Hans Niemann story, oddly enough, is not totally separate from this. It points to a deeper, more frustrating reality in the chess world.

As a brief recap, Niemann was accused of cheating by world champion Magnus Carlsen. The ensuing investigation sprouted countless theories explaining how Niemann could have cheated. While there were some interesting theories produced, the one that gained the most traction suggested that Niemann used anal beads, to receive vibratory signals telling him what moves to play. This is obviously funny, but I’m more interested in why it’s funny.

Humor almost always comes from a subversion of expectations. A good punchline, for example, is always an unexpected one. It’s why kids are typically so unfunny; their humor is highly predictable. Take, then, Hans Niemann. He’s a professional chess player, and not particularly attractive, so conventional expectations tell us that he’s awkward, antisocial, boring. This can clearly be subverted by association with anal beads, something “out there,” that you would never imagine someone like him using. It’s funny because it’s so outrageous. Now, however, the truth of the matter is a little clearer. The average person didn’t care so much about the cheating — the anal beads, however, were hilarious.

Over the last few years, chess has skyrocketed in popularity. With that, one would expect that the popular perception of chess players would change, but I’m convinced that it hasn’t. The stereotype of chess players (primarily professionals) being antisocial, boring, serious people has not gone anywhere. It has only been subverted, by Beth Harmon, by the Botez sisters, by Niemann’s beads. Even Hikaru Nakamura’s stream has picked up a larger following for similar reasons — he subverts your expectations by having a personality, by being passionate and exciting. Yet, these examples are not seen redefining the rule, they are exceptions to it.

I don’t know what the remedy for this is, or if one exists at all. Our society is one that deals in stereotypes. When anyone gets ahead, they don’t change the status quo; they are only “not like the others.” Beth Harmon, the Botez sisters — they are “not like other girls.” They aren’t like other chess players. This attitude, this rhetoric, is so deeply rooted in our social fabric that modernizing it seems impossible.

I think the best solution is patience. Over enough time these “exceptions” to the rule stop being novelties, they become the expectation. In that way the “hot chess player” or the “cool chess player” would cease to exist. A similar cycle has already taken place with superhero movies, where humor was used to subvert the expectation of superheroes being serious, intense people. However, over the last 10-15 years, humor has become the standard among superheroes, so people are turning to “edgier” takes, like 2022’s “The Batman.” That’s all to say, it might take a decade or two for the popular perception of chess players to really change. While I wish there were a quicker solution, it’s better than nothing. Until then, people will slowly come around — I mean, the chess speaks for itself.