Chess is having a moment. The centuries-old analog game has found new life online, and it hasn’t just grown in popularity — it’s exploded. As people turn toward digital entertainment amid the pandemic, and game streaming becomes ubiquitous, it’s reaching more people than ever.
Hikaru Nakamura, 32, is an American chess grandmaster, chess streamer, and one of the figures leading this renaissance. You can find Nakamura, aka GMHikaru, on Twitch any given weeknight, listening to chill beats and schooling haters at the king’s game.
Nakamura is a bona fide chess prodigy. At 15, he became one of the youngest Americans to reach the title of grandmaster. He’s now 32 and is thinking of leaving the traditional world of over-the-table (OTB) chess behind to stream full-time. An average Nakamura stream can see up to 10,000 viewers at a time.
His online presence reached a new height at the end of August 2020. He was recruited by TSM, one of the largest streaming teams active today.
“Chess has remained popular on Twitch, and when we looked into it further, Hikaru is the reason why,” Leena Xu, President of Esports for TSM, said in a statement. “Hikaru is able to engage with the Twitch community in an authentic way, and his mission of expanding chess’s audience really resonates with TSM.”
Nakamura, in a video about joining TSM, said that “one thing I really want to do, is whomever I represent, try to bring home titles, bring home trophies. And I feel that my best opportunities to do that will be at TSM.”
Xu said that with most tournaments moving online due to COVID-19, the chess community will only continue to grow. This is a huge change from how the chess community worked a couple decades ago.
Before the internet, chess thoughts, strategies, and gameplay tactics were collected in books or magazines and would come out periodically.
“In the old days, if you wanted to know what a grandmaster was thinking you’d have to read about it,” says Joshua Anderson, a 45-year-old chess journalist and teacher.
In 1993, the game saw a resurgence with the release of the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer. This was reinforced by the man-versus-machine matchup of chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov and IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer. Suddenly, chess was no ancient game, but a sophisticated, modern measure of intelligence.
Chess.com and streaming reach a new audience
Chess.com became the go-to destination for online chess games just as Twitch saw its own rise to popularity, presenting the chance to consolidate the Chess community. According to Nick Barton, the director of business development at Chess.com, the website saw streaming as an ideal way to create a community around the game.
Chess.com started its own Twitch channel and made deals to build out more channels for casual chess fans. These streams would go on to attract between 100 and 500 concurrent watchers.
Followers for Chess.com’s Twitch channel grew from 73,000 in late 2016 to 110,000 in October 2018. As of October 2020, it has more than 350,000.
The collaboration between Chess.com and Twitch started small. They worked together on features like emotes in the channels, and graphical support during streams. Slowly but steadily, it mushroomed. Followers for Chess.com’s channel grew from 73,000 in late 2016 to 110,000 in October 2018. As of October 2020, it has more than 350,000.
The pandemic drove the largest growth ever on Chess.com. That’s not just because people are staying home. Streamers like Chessbrah, a group of masters who stream together on one channel, or Ludwig, who listens to electronic music and has a breezy personality. Or, of course, Nakamura himself.
There’s a whole online subculture that lives on Reddit, and in memes. Some streamers have changed the vernacular of the game, calling a knight “the horsey piece” or calling a discovered check “a fossil.” Younger players are making the game fresh.
Barton believes chess is popular on Twitch for the same reason as Super Mario Bros. speedruns. It’s a nostalgia thing. Many gamers remember playing chess as a child, and now they can watch it being played by their favorite streamers.
Chess.com’s Pogchamps tournaments are boosting viewership, too. The tournaments are a competition where Twitch streamers best known for playing other games — often shooters or other action titles, like Fortnite or Call of Duty — try their hand at chess.
These streamers introduce their own audiences to chess, which creates a domino effect, bringing more awareness to it. Young players can now play every day and watch their favorite streamers every night.
Vasishta Tumuluri, a 15-year-old with 10 years experience playing the game, is one of those young players. He plays online nearly every day and keeps tabs on chess streamers when he can’t.
Tumuluri is rated at 1,686 by the U.S. Chess Federation, at the time of this writing. He wants to be a grandmaster one day, and he’s plugged into the world of Twitch as another tool to get him there. “I watch streams four to five times a week, pretty much daily,” he said. “If it’s a streamer I like, I’ll watch.”
Chess is usually a “silent, furious game,” and it’s refreshing to see streamers with a relaxed, cool vibe, says Tumuluri. “You see they’re not just a chess player. They’re also a person.”
Add to that the fact these streamers can make a living from streaming now, and it’s easy to see why Barton thinks this is only the beginning of a new era for chess.
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