The Virtual Gambit

Chess.com+hosts+games+for+people+to+face+off+against+each+other+in+similar+skill+ratings+%28Photo+Courtesy+of+Enoch+Orozco%29.

Enoch Orozco

Chess.com hosts games for people to face off against each other in similar skill ratings (Photo Courtesy of Enoch Orozco).

COVID affected and continues to affect multiple different aspects of the world in multiple different ways. Weirdly enough, the in person chess community took an initial unexpected hit as the pandemic led to shutdowns and a boycott of physical get-togethers. Pre-pandemic, almost all chess tournaments or gatherings were done in person in large gatherings around the 8×8 checker patterned board.. Very few aspects of chess were handled online, and a large number of professional chess players considered it taboo to host serious online tournaments. For the most part, chess has been handled the same way for close to 2000 years. Handling it any other way was considered almost sacrilegious to the older chess players. Websites such as chess.com and lichess.org were for casual players and lesser tournaments with no real stakes besides ranking.

However, as the pandemic swept the world, the serious tournaments had to be put on pause and many people who made a living out of chess tournaments were left with nothing. Websites such as chess.com and GM (Grandmaster) chess players, such as Hikaru Nakamura, deftly responded and filled the checkerboard-sized hole by starting to host professional tournaments online. After some serious cooperation between the two parties, along with streaming platforms such as Twitch, the chess scene opened completely virtually. According to the founders of chess.com, participation on the website has easily doubled since the pandemic. The shift has even brought more inclusiveness to the scene, as more female chess players have participated in big tournaments post-shift. The pandemic, as well as the release of the Netflix original series The Queen’s Gambit, seemed to be the perfect storm for the chess scene.  In terms of genuine, competitive chess, most everyone seems to agree that the virtual shift was an extreme benefactor to chess’s popularity. 

However, this isn’t to say it is perfect. Lots of older chess professionals have spoken out in saying that the new wave of virtual chess goes against the bare essentials of chess. Most professionals say that only some things, such as sportsmanship and meta-gaming, are lost when competing online. In a NYTimes article, Arkady Dvorkovich, chess FIDE president says “We are missing the emotional part when people meet and shake hands. People love when they look over the board into the eyes of their opponent. People are missing that.” Given the circumstances, only losing a few aspects of the competition is still a huge plus. It goes to show the innovative powers of the founders of chess.com, as well as Nakamura, making the transition as seamless as possible. The transition has also provided other unexpected bonuses, specifically, the popularity chess has taken to streamers and gamers alike.

One major proponent of the chess wave in the gaming community is Felix “XQC” Lengyel. XQC is a former Overwatch professional, who now spends his time streaming on twitch.tv. He plays a variety of games for anywhere from 12-24 hours a day, broadcasting the entire time to 50-150k people. In a very unexpected collaboration, Nakamura ended up coaching XQC on how to play chess as he was broadcasting. XQC’s viewers, as well as his fellow streamers, quickly jumped on this train and started playing/broadcasting themselves playing chess, specifically on chess.com.

This has led to many things, such as Chess becoming its own category on twitch, and twitch collaborating to host tournaments specifically for new chess streamers. The “Pogchamps” are tournaments held by twitch, where low-rated streamers participate and battle it out to figure out who the best chess player is. The sheer popularity of “Pogchamps” is shown in the most recent tournament, when actor Rainn Wilson (Dwight from The Office), along with famous rapper Logic were two of the 12 participants. The other participants featured a star-studded streamer cast, such as XQC, Ludwig, Pokimane, and MoistCritikal. The tournaments are still ongoing and recently had record-breaking numbers, as 150k people tuned in live to watch XQC participate.

Overall, the Virtual Gambit could have either pushed professionals away or drawn in a much-unexpected chess community, and it paid off very well for chess as a whole.