During the most intense phases of pandemic-induced Inside Time, millions of bored people turned to chess. The game’s popularity exploded on Twitch and Youtube throughout 2020, and a number of unlikely microcelebrities were born. Hikaru Nakamura, former prodigy and current world No. 11, became such a popular streamer that FIDE leadership allowed him to play in the ultra-prestigious Candidates Tournament despite not having played in a classical chess tournament since 2019. As the community grew, it fostered some classic streamer drama and has now produced a few genuine oddities, which brings us to Rey Enigma, whose deal I will now explain to you.
Rey Enigma is a Spanish chess player who is named as such because he is A) extremely good at playing chess, skilled enough that calling himself the Spanish word for “king” isn’t an egregious overreach, and, B) a mysterious guy who wears a full-body checkered spandex suit whenever he appears in public. Enigma started playing blitz games in the park in Madrid, offering 100 Euros to anyone who could beat him, and he’s been posting videos of himself doing so (against, say, someone dressed up as Beth Harmon from The Queen’s Gambit) since early 2021. He told Chess.com earlier this year that he quit his day job in September 2021 to focus on being a masked chess guy, which has really worked out for him. He first blew up on TikTok, then Youtube, and while he is not a rated player, he’s holding his own against a number of grandmaster and international master-level players (Nakamura speculated that Enigma would be rated a very respectable 2400). His biggest break came in the 2021 final of Got Talent Spain, when producers surprised him by unveiling former world champion Anatoly Karpov. Enigma got Karpov to blunder, although because time was running so low, he missed his chance to skewer Karpov’s rook and queen, and the two played to a draw.
Enigma appeared on that show with a voice changer, and when he isn’t in position to use one he affects a high-pitched squeak, though Chess.com’s wrote that “one could hear a very deep, almost baritone voice croak out” when he coughed or cleared his throat. He told the Spanish paper ANGRY that only eight people know his real identity. “There have been times when I’ve been with friends who have shown me videos of Rey Enigma and I’ve had to act as if it were the first time I’d seen him,” he said. Because of his high level of skill and quick integration into the online chess creator economy, chess fans have speculated that Rey Enigma is in fact the alter ego of a much more famous chess player. This idea is plausible, although it seems unlikely to me, since Enigma spends so much time in Madrid producing tons of videos and already has his own line of chess courses in Spanish. One person we know he is not is Levy Rozman, whom he played a few times last winter when he came to New York.
He made several appearances during the 2022 Candidates Tournament, which was held in Madrid, and leaned into the bit.
As much of a delightful surprise as it would be if Rey Enigma turned out to be, like, Daniel Naroditsky running an extremely long con, a con whose goals are scarcely clear even in theory, I think he’s just a guy from Madrid who wears a cool outfit and plays a lot of chess. Barring a Scooby Doo–style dramatic reveal, all we can hope for is that he continues to pursue chess in character and gets into some big-time tournaments wearing the costume.