Amidst a pandemic that had people confined to their homes, the popularity of online chess streaming with the added twist of comedy has soared
In July, when Aniket, a 13-year-old boy, watched Vidit Gujrathi take on Alexandra Botez the American-Canadian FIDE chess master on YouTube and win despite being blindfolded, he was astounded. “I was surprised as to how someone can remember each pattern and picture exactly the position of each piece on the board,” he says. From there on, he was hooked and has been following online streaming of chess.
Aniket is not the only one who discovered the wonders of a 64- square chess board during the pandemic-induced lockdown. In fact, many like him are finding that the game has become their favourite pastime.
In the US, Hikaru Nakamura, world number one in blitz chess has been livestreaming on Twitch, a leading platform for gamers. His entertaining style of engaging viewers has found a lot of traction. The New York Times reported last year that from March through August, people watched 41.2 million hours of chess on Twitch, which is four times more than previous months.
Nakamura has an explosive style of playing, he is never afraid of sacrificing his pieces in order to gain position or tempo. He plays with a do-or-die attitude and leaves no quarter when it comes to allowing his opponents to settle down–a style that defines the rising popularity of a game long associated with careful planning with slow gameplay.
A classical chess game normally lasts for up to five hours, often attracting an esoteric audience, who spend long hours pondering over every move. While blitz chess or speed chess is now gaining prominence due to the shorter play time, as competitors have to make their moves within the allotted time frame. This is the format more and more streamers and fans alike are flocking to.
Anna Rudolf, Hungarian international master and woman grandmaster (Anna_Chess), and Levy Rozman, American international master (GothamChess), are a few of the women setting new standards of chess streaming with their rising popularity.
In March, stand-up comedian Samay Raina, 23, started live streaming chess games and also hosting friendly chess tournaments on his YouTube channel. Raina, unlike Nakamura, who is a grandmaster, does not analyse or leave his audience awe-struck with his play in the game. However, his unique style combines humour with chess, and with other stand-up comedians, streamers, Grandmasters, masters joining his live streams, he has amassed quite a following on his channel. He now has half a million subscribers starting from a few tens of thousands, a testament to the growing popularity of the fast-paced gameplay and its live streaming format.
Raina has been continuously streaming chess since March. From world number one Magnus Carlson to five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand many have made appearances on his channel.
Now, he has started a membership drive in a bid to create a community of fans of the game.
Many streamers, especially those streaming live games, have found a community of followers. Most of these followers seem to be attracted more towards the new fast-paced techniques and presentation styles rather than the technicalities of the game.
The idea of marrying humour with chess has made the game so popular that even grandmasters have started streaming and making videos of their games. The contest between Indian number two chess player and Grandmaster Vidit Gujrathi and Dutch Grandmaster Anish Giri is a different attraction altogether.
A mini-series based on Walter Tavis’s novel, The Queen’s Gambit, about an orphaned girl, a chess prodigy who defeats Russian Grandmasters, released in last week of October, has also resulted in a remarkable number of new joinees on social networking and online chess playing websites like lichess, chess.com and chess24.
In November, Netflix tweeted that 62 million households watched the show in just 28 days. And although the number of members of chess.com increased during the pandemic, even in November 2.8 million people joined chess.com, an after effect of the sheer popularity of The Queen’s Gambit. Before that, since March, Chess.com was attracting one million new users every month. As per reports, the website has more than 37 million members now.
Although chess.com, the market leader, has benefited immensely from the pandemic and the release of The Queen’s Gambit, other websites like Lichess have also seen growth during the pandemic.
Also, the number of women players has witnessed a significant increase in chess. Bloomberg reported in December that after The Queen’s Gambit, the percentage of women players increased from 22% to 27%.
However, this newfound popularity of online streaming with touches of comedy and fast-paced gameplay may have come at the expense of classical chess, which requires hours of play. Speed chess has ignited the spark in people to play and even watch online chess, an ancient game that seemed to have lost its fan base. And the role of the pandemic and lockdowns in contributing to this rise in popularity cannot be denied.