In this special report, Finito World’s Patrick Crowder examines the post-pandemic chess world, from local clubs to the world’s largest chess website.
Like many, I started playing chess during the lockdowns to break the monotony of endless media consumption and to give my brain something to do other than worry and slowly rot away. Here at Finito World, we believe that important lessons can often come from unlikely sources. Chess isn’t only something to learn, it is something to learn from. Chess teaches to deal with and learn from failure, to teach compassionately, and trains concentration. It is also a rapidly expanding industry which is brimming with possibility for those who decide to take the plunge.
Lately, chess has gone out of the chess pages into the entertainment and even the front pages. Of course, there was the Queen’s Gambit which brought the sport – if in fact it could be called a sport – onto people’s radar, and then there was the cheating scandal which led to the lawsuit between Magnus Carlsen and Hans Niemann. This is all very interesting, but the bigger question is “Can chess be a career?” World famous chess player Hikaru Nakamura would certainly say yes, as he makes a very good living not only by playing in tournaments but also by streaming chess-related content on Twitch. For truly great players, there is quite a bit of money to be made from tournaments alone. Chess.com awards $20,000 in prizes every weekend, $1M in the global championship, and every Tuesday sees $5,000 in total prizes as part of the Titled Tuesdays event. In-person events such as the Sinquefield Cup also have prizes in the high six-digit range. Chess is often seen as one of those routes in life which you find yourself in because the game came unusually naturally from a young age. However, there are now more jobs out there than you might think, and you don’t need to be a grandmaster to get in on the action.
Battersea Chess Club
Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura, Maria Emelianova/Chess.com
Other than a few games with friends I had never played over the board, so I was eager to see what attending an actual chess club was all about. I am not a very good player (about 900 ELO if anyone’s curious) and I feared that the environment may be unwelcoming, but after a Tuesday evening at Battersea Chess Club, I realised my worries were misplaced.
Leon Watson is fully immersed in both the online and in person, or over-the-board (OTB) chess worlds. He serves both as Secretary of the Battersea Chess Club and as Head of PR for world champion Magnus Carlsen’s online chess teaching venture Play Magnus Group.
“We are one of the biggest chess clubs in London, and one of the oldest chess clubs in London. We formed in 1885, and we’ve been a fixture in the community for all that time. We’ve survived two World Wars, a World Cup, and we continue going to this day. Even through the World Wars we carried on playing,” Watson says, “We cater to everyone from casual players to very serious players, from beginners to grandmasters. We’ve got members ranging from age seven to 92, and these people are all from different backgrounds. Some members are really struggling in life, and others are high-flying city bankers. That’s what’s great about chess; It doesn’t matter what age you are, your background or your gender, it’s a game where you can come in, sit down, have a pint or an orange juice, and just have some fun or take it seriously. It’s up to you,” Watson says.
Both myself and my opponents that evening took the “just have some fun” approach, and there was never a hint of pretension or ego. I relate this experience not for the purposes of self-insertion, but to describe the great benefits of trying new things which require concentration in unfamiliar environments. The confidence required to walk in cold to a chess club surely exercises the same parts of the brain as a job interview, and the carefully considered strategy required to play the game itself represents a meditative disconnection from the outside world that is becoming ever harder to find in our busy lives. Watson too has seen the benefits that chess can bring, both to himself and his family.
“There are lots of benefits to chess. Of course there is the social aspect, but there are also claims that chess is very good for educational reasons. I’m not an educational specialist, but I personally find it very helpful for learning to focus and concentrate on things, and that helps me in life. I also have a seven-year-old son who’s learning chess, and I feel like it is helping him focus… hopefully on his schoolwork! A grandmaster has lost more games of chess than I’ll ever play in my life, but the thing about chess is that you can take a game that you’ve lost, analyse it, look at your mistakes and make sure you don’t make them again. I think that’s a great lesson for life, and as a dad I hope that I can impress that upon my kids,” Watson says.
Helping people make the transition from playing online to over-the-board is something that the kind folks at Battersea Chess Club excel at. Though new OTB players must learn how a chess clock works and remember not to touch a piece unless they plan to move it, the game itself is of course unchanged. The experience, however, changes greatly. You can play slow, contemplative chess online, but it is much easier to do so if your opponent is in front of you and your environment is free from distraction. Online games are excellent for practicing faster time controls, and online game analysis is an indispensable tool for improvement, but the social and mental benefits of OTB chess are far more applicable to daily life, from the experience of this author.
The Online Effect
Hikaru Nakamura, Maria Emelianova/Chess.com
Since the dawn of the internet, people have wanted to play chess online. There have been many interesting offerings which provide this service, including caissa.com, chess24, the fully free site Lichess, and play-by-email options dating back to the 1970s. Now, Chess.com is the most popular chess website in the world.
Chess.com has been instrumental in the growth of chess. The website, which first started in 2005, is now a massive business which holds the title of the largest chess website. International Master Danny Rensch helped found Chess.com. As someone with experience both playing and teaching chess, he realised the potential for a website which combined chess training, casual play, and tournaments which would attract the strongest players from around the world.
“I learned to play when I was 10 and I was quickly made aware that I had a knack for the game, and I got good very quickly. Knowing what I know now about the levels of chess, it’s not necessarily fair to say I was some sort of child prodigy, but I was definitely one of the best players in the US at one point,” Rensch says, “At around the age of 19 I had some health problems and was kind of forced to stop playing and travelling, which turned out to be a really important, pivotal crossroads in my life. I jumped all-in to running a chess teaching business in Arizona where I’m from, which was an after school scholastic enrichment programme. It was sort of the traditional professional chess player’s gambit at the time.”
Teaching chess is an extremely common way for professional chess players to monetise their talents, and now online teaching has become the norm. With the Queen’s Gambit came millions of people new to the game who were eager to improve. Rensch has found that the best teachers seek to understand how their students think rather than focusing solely on accuracy and rote memorisation.
“I think honesty without tact can at times be cruel or disingenuous, and then at the same time explanation without understanding of whether someone can digest the information is also not useful. You have to have an appreciation for what the next steps are for someone’s learning process rather than just saying the answer, because anyone can understand the answer to an algebraic or calculus equation in the back of the book, but your ability to solve it is a muscle that you build along the way. I think you have to focus on it more as a language than simply a problem that you expect someone to solve. You don’t expect someone to read before they understand how to sound out letters and syllables and vowels and put them together, right? People always approach chess as a thing for people with brilliant IQs as if it’s an unsolvable problem, which it is, in many ways, but the core of being a good chess player is about pattern recognition. You can’t expect people to see patterns that are complex before they see basic patterns. I think a good teacher appreciates the need to reach someone at their level of understanding and cares more about them taking the next step in their learning process than they do about whether they’re ultimately right,” Rensch says.
This understanding of what it takes to teach effectively can be translated to life outside of chess, of course. Compassion and understanding are hallmark traits of a good educator in any field, and Rensch realised in the relatively early days of the internet that this teaching style could be delivered to a far wider audience online than in person. Rensch’s vision led him to look into online options, and through a chance encounter, to the very start of Chess.com.
“I was running this chess teaching business and putting most of my energy into that rather than travelling due to my health problems, but then the internet happened. The world was changing rapidly before our eyes, and I think I quickly saw the internet in terms of what it could be for chess in a non-traditional sense. I was immediately looking to build an online chess business, so having learned about SEO and keyword optimisation I went to get the domain name ‘Chess.com’. And there, like ships in the night, I found that my eventual business partners and co-founders Erik and Jay had just acquired the domain name out of bankruptcy in the Bay Area,” Rensch says, “Their vision for chess.com was to be the MySpace of chess, and my vision was for it to be a place for professionals to coach and to teach, as well as a place for tournaments. When I came on board, within about a year after launching I was always pushing things in this direction, and that’s why when Erik, Jay and I talk about it I’m considered an honorary co-founder.”
Now, Chess.com is a platform which allows people to play, teach, communicate, and entertain. Before platforms like it existed, the only way to enter the chess world was to attend a chess club or read chess publications to improve your game. Without a large emphasis on chess in the US, Bobby Fischer’s rise to fame and eventually the World Champion title was unprecedented. It also came at a time when chess was highly politicised. The 1972 World Chess Championship wasn’t merely a game between two men, Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, it was a battle between the US and the Soviet Union. Fischer’s success was attributed to the mind of a prodigy, a rare chess genius who was born in America, but intelligence and prodigy are spread across all nations. Now, the accessibility of the chess world is beginning to allow these prodigies who would otherwise be unknown to reach their full potential.
“Traditionally, before online chess existed, if you didn’t have a very rich chess culture in your backyard, you had no chance of developing into a world’s top player. Even Bobby Fischer was in New York – Greenwich Village and the Marshall Chess Club were a block away from where he lived – and so he grew up around the best of chess in the US at the time. There’s a reason that all of history has seen dominance by Soviet chess players. And I say Soviet because it’s not just Russia, it’s all former Soviet states. At the peak of the regime chess was a state sponsored sport throughout all of these countries, which is why until Bobby Fischer you saw only Soviet world champions. Since Bobby Fischer we had Kasparov and Karpov, and they were great players, but since then we’ve had Viswanathan Anandfrom India, we’ve had Magnus Carlsen from Norway, and I would say that we are on the verge of potentially having a Chinese World Champion in Ding Liren. But regardless of the label of world champion, what we have are prodigies rising from all over the world because of their access to the best chess players. What’s happening online is actually changing the game,” Rensch says.
Chess coaching was, and still is, a major way for players to earn enough money to compete, but now online tournaments also offer that chance. As we will explore later, this has led to some significant challenges in terms of ensuring fairness. Rensch is confident in Chess.com’s robust anti-cheat methods and explains how the good that these tournaments bring outweighs the risk of misconduct.
“Just to talk directly about the elephant in the room in terms of anti-cheating and the scandals that currently face the chess world, people don’t know that we’ve been dealing with scandals effectively and appropriately,” Rensch says, “It has allowed us to continue to invest and increase the money that’s in the game, and therefore the opportunities for professionals and therefore the livelihood of coaches, and who knows what trickle effect that’s having downstream on the next generation.”
The Rise of Chess Entertainment
Daniel Rensch, Daniel Rensch’s personal collection
The sudden, massive interest in chess following the Queen’s Gambit formed an unlikely link between the worlds of chess and e-sports, and the pandemic ensured a captive audience. Now, chess streaming is a multi-million-pound industry which is only growing. Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, who is one of the best players in the world, streams on Twitch, interacting with fans and providing funny, insightful commentary. International Master Levy Rozman, who goes by GothamChess online, has provided countless free lessons on YouTube and frequently streams games, and reviews the games of his followers. The Botez sisters, IM Eric Rosen, and many more have become stars of the chess world, both for their skill on the chessboard and through their engaging personalities. Not only is online streaming a way for people to interact with top chess players like never before, it is also yet another way to make money in a field where it was once so difficult. Danny Rensch believes chess streaming’s influence goes beyond mere entertainment.
“I think chess players are approaching the game in a much more social way, not just online but because the community has grown,” Rensch says, “I would say that’s another reason why technology has been so good for chess, because it’s brought these communities together. Chess has merged communities that existed locally in pockets all around the world. You had the Detroit chess community and the Moscow chess community. Well, guess what? Now you can actually see them online together at the same time, sometimes on camera with a grandmaster from Michigan playing against a grandmaster from Russia. And there’s something really cool and unique and challenging about that, and it’s pushing people’s stereotypes of chess players.”
At first glance, there is something slightly surreal about seeing the Twitch stream format applied to chess. Watching streamers yell into their microphones, fully hyped up about what many consider to be a quiet, dignified game has an element of the absurd to it, but on closer examination, it’s really not that strange. Twitch streaming is one of the main forms of next-generation content taking hold today, and many young people are interested in chess, so the marriage of the two is simply a natural progression. What is unique about streaming chess is that you don’t have to be a master at the game. It certainly helps, but there are plenty of streamers who have a relatively low rating – it’s their personality and ability to entertain which keeps people watching, not their skill. For the first time ever there is a way to make money and gain popularity from chess without teaching lessons or playing major tournaments, and it is a new industry begging for further exploration.
The Prodigy’s Gambit
If you’ve seen chess in the headlines recently, that’s probably the doing of Grandmaster Hans Niemann. In what has become the biggest story to hit the chess world in many years, the major cheating scandal involving a $100m lawsuit against top players and Chess.com has taken many turns and is at the time of writing unresolved.
Hans Niemann is a 19-year-old chess player who has shown unrivalled skill and progression. He achieved the title of Grandmaster at only 17, and he has since gone on to perform well in top-level competitions against other extremely highly rated players. The scandal began when Niemann beat current World Champion Magnus Carlsen in the prestigious Sinquefield Cup tournament, breaking Carlsen’s 53-game winning streak. Even more remarkably, Niemann beat Carlsen while playing with the black pieces, putting him at a disadvantage as the player with the white pieces makes the first move. During Niemann and Carlsen’s matchup the next day, Carlsen made one move against Niemann then resigned and withdrew from the tournament. This led to wild speculation online and prompted Carlsen to author a Tweet which implied he was in “big trouble” if he spoke out.
Niemann admitted to cheating in his chess career while playing online, once when he was 12 and multiple times when he was 16 to grow his online streaming career, but he insists that he has never cheated in an OTB game, and that he does not cheat now. This was already known at the time of the Niemann-Magnus scandal, but it prompted a further review by Chess.com, analysing Niemann’s games on the website for signs of irregularity. Niemann’s Chess.com account was closed, and he was banned from competing in the upcoming Chess.com Global Championship before the release of a damning report which asserted that he had cheated over 100 times on the website. The alleged online cheating occurred in games against other top players, while Niemann was streaming his games, and in events with large prizes attached to them. The report was careful to point out that Chess.com had no concrete evidence of any cheating OTB at the Sinquefield Cup, and stressed that Carlsen’s team had not pressured them to take action against Niemann.
On October 20th, 2022, Niemann filed a $100m defamation lawsuit against Magnus Carlsen, Chess.com, and Magnus Carlsen. Describing “devastating damages that Defendants have inflicted upon his reputation, career, and life by egregiously defaming him and unlawfully colluding to blacklist him from the profession to which he has dedicated his life,” Niemann seeks damages and vindication for what he sees as a massive attack on his livelihood. It is unclear what will be proven should the case go to court, but top players have predicted that finding evidence of cheating will be extremely difficult.
Many media outlets have reported that cheating represents an existential threat to chess, but chess experts insist that cheating is not as prevalent as reported. Large-scale cheating would threaten the sport, however online cheating is already fairly easy to detect, so it is far more likely that we will see higher security measures and new methods of cheat detection at OTB tournaments. These could include a time-delay between live play and broadcast, which would make it difficult to run chess positions through an engine in real time, and it is also possible that players could compete in a Faraday cage which eliminates cellular and radio frequencies.
Despite the drama, it is clear that chess is here to stay. The game which has fascinated mankind for over 1500 years continues to do so today, and there is clearly a reason why people keep playing. The mental and social benefits of chess cannot be ignored, and as an industry it shows massive room for growth. The new horizons of online streaming, teaching, and playing allows the game to be accessible to anyone with an internet connection, and chess entertainment has proved to be an excellent way to monetise a love of chess and the talent of charismatic presentation. The world of chess is very much worth diving into, and the breadth of opportunities available is surprising, so if you think chess could be for you or you think you might want to return to the game after many years away, there’s only one thing to say: your move.