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I Want My ChessTV

It's perhaps an unlikely eSport, but tens of thousands of viewers are tuning in for the fast-playing, trash-talking, chair-throwing, high-stakes world of online chess.

When you think of chess, what do you picture in your head? Chances are it’s either Bobby Fischer staring at a set of chess pieces like he wants to light them on fire, or it’s two kids in glasses sitting at one of those tables with the built-in gameboards, playing after school while they wait for their parents to pick them up.

Compare that to a typical session with the Chessbrahs, the most popular chess streamers on Twitch. Over the course of one of their streams, which can last up to four hours, you might see chairs thrown amid a torrent of f-bombs, freestyle rapping mid-game, and a never-ending barrage of trash talk. This is the new, online era of chess—set to the soundtrack of dance music.

Twitch, for the unfamiliar, is a website where people watch other people play video games. If that sounds insane to you, then you probably aren’t one of the 150 million users and 1.5 million broadcasters who visit every month, nor are you likely part of the reason it sold to Amazon for nearly a billion dollars in 2014. “eSports”—competitive, livestreamed video gaming—has grown into a $1.5 billion industry that’s expected to reach $2.3 billionin just five years. While video games like League of Legends and Counter-Strike are what Twitch is best known for, chess, when played online, also qualifies as an eSport, and there’s a significant and growing community of chess players on the site. Of all the chess players regularly streaming on Twitch, among the most popular are world top 10 and multiple-time US champion Hikaru Nakamura and the Chessbrahs, founded and anchored by 25-year-old Canadian grandmaster Eric Hansen.

 

“A lot of people don’t do chess or try chess because they’re afraid of what their friends will think.”

 

During the early 2000s, Hansen was a misbehaving kid with an ADHD diagnosis growing up in Calgary. He began playing chess after school as a way to keep his mind occupied. By the time he was a teenager, he’d gotten serious about the game. He earned his grandmaster title—the highest honor available to a chess player, given by the world organizing body FIDE—at the age of 20, after spending a year playing for the University of Texas at Dallas on a chess scholarship, and then moving to Europe to play professionally.

During Hansen's stint in college, he also became one of the first people to livestream himself playing chess. He started streaming purely for fun, sometimes for as many as 10 hours a day on the old Livestream platform, even when only 2 or 3 people were watching. In 2014, after a few years playing in Europe, he returned to Canada. There, burnt out from traveling and hustling on the pro circuit and inspired by the rise of eSports—Hansen was also a serious Counter-Strike player in high school—he decided to see if there might also be an audience for live chess online.

Hansen would sometimes stream for 60 or 70 hours a week, attracting just 10 or 20 viewers. But as he grew his channel, which he called Chessbrah, Hansen drew inspiration from public fitness gurus who invited fans and followers on social media into their lives and their habits. “There might be these top players in the world, but they’re very inaccessible,” he explains to me over the phone. “You don’t know what Magnus Carlsen’s life is like.” Carlsen, a 27-year-old Norwegian who is the youngest-ever player to make world number one and the reigning world champion, is basically the LeBron James of chess, and his name is often mentioned as a catchall for the top levels of the game, in terms of both celebrity and skill. “Usually he doesn’t do a lot of interaction with the crowds,” says Hansen, “because either the organizers don’t organize these things or the players aren’t using Twitter and Instagram. So I was like, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to try to utilize all this modern stuff.”


 

From the start, the brashness of Chessbrah belied the stereotypes that tend to plague chess: that it’s stodgy, quiet, the domain of old Russians and lonely kids. Hansen and his chess-player friends were into dance music and partying, and they’d get together to drink beer, goof around, and go to raves. They were typical twentysomething Canadians in every way—except that their parties often involved high-speed chess. Rather than conform to notions of what the chess world was like, they decided to make it their own.

“We always thought the stereotypes were something we could change and that didn’t even apply to us, and it wasn’t necessarily fair for the whole game itself,” Hansen says. “One of the reasons why I did Chessbrah, and why it’s called Chessbrah, is that a lot of people don’t do chess or try chess because they’re afraid of what their friends will think.. But the game itself is really fun, and I’m sure a lot more people could like it than the current numbers indicate.”

In Europe, Hansen explains, the game enjoys a different, hipper, “nicer” status as a sport. People of all ages and all genders play, sometimes in bars; during his time there, he says, girls clamored to meet him and his fellow players. Part of Hansen’s genius is combining the communal, European embrace of the game with the North American penchant for being loud, controversial, and, well, a bit of a bro. (Like so much of the internet, it’s hard to tell how much of Chessbrah’s frat-boy persona is genuine and how much is a kind of pro-wrestling put-on—seeing Hansen curse and throw a chair after losing to Nakamura, you’re reminded that the Twitch audiences reward this kind of outlandish behavior—but there’s no question that it’s about as far from visions of golf commentary and hushed tones as it gets.)

 

“You might see chairs thrown amid a torrent of f-bombs, freestyle rapping mid-game, and a never-ending barrage of trash talk. This is the new, online era of chess.”

 

Chessbrah, of course, has its critics: Hansen says that the channel was extremely unpopular with the vibrant chess community on Reddit at first. The comments his stream initially received from Redditors were often brutal. In addition, his approach could be mystifying to more conventional chess players and fans, who tended to see the game as incompatible with dance music and trash talk.

But detractors had to contend with the fact that Hansen is also really, really good: He’s currently the 152nd-ranked player in the world, and the Chessbrah channel is filled with other grandmasters, including universally respected GM Yasser Seirawan, whose regular presence adds some gravitas.

“It was a really hated stream for the first year or so. I didn’t mind because—and again, this is more part of the North American culture—but if you don’t have haters you’re not being yourself and expressing your opinions,” Hansen says. “It’s something that I have no issue with, taking criticism and negative feedback. People will really insult you, but we’re not a PC stream. We’re just all over the place, and we knew that would generate controversy and that chess was very conservative. But the whole point was to disrupt some of the traditional chess ideas.”


 

At the other, more traditional end of the online chess spectrum, at least in terms of demeanor, is John Bartholomew. Bartholomew, 31, is an International Master (IM), the rank just below GM, every chess player’s ultimate goal. Though, according to the World Chess Federation there are 1,598 GMs and an additional 3,674 IMs, Bartholomew stands out from the pack thanks to the 50,000 subscribers to his YouTube channel, where he’s become one of the best sources online for learning how to play the game well.

Though it’s often said there have been more books written about chess than all other games and sports combined—a claim that probably dates back to the early 1900s, a time of great development and theorizing for chess—one of the biggest problems with learning chess from books is that many of them don’t become comprehensible until well into a student’s journey. Even works for beginners can be daunting if one isn’t familiar with, or interested in, the notation and move variations that fill their pages.

Bartholomew, on the other hand, is remarkably easy to understand, simplifying his explanations to the point that even a brand-new player can follow his beginner videos with relative ease. His “Chess Fundamentals” series features the 31-year-old playing through a number of games online with a particular focus on the cornerstones of solid chess, like undefended pieces, typical beginner mistakes, and pawns. Collectively, the five videos have generated more than 400,000 views, making them among the most popular on his channel.

Bartholomew has been teaching chess for a decade. Growing up in Minnesota, he began playing in the second grade, honing his skills against an old-school chess computer. Once he beat the 72nd and final level of the computer program, a process that took him a year and a half, Bartholomew started playing in tournaments and working with a local Russian coach. At the age of 15, he became National Master, the level below IM, making him the youngest NM in the history of the state of Minnesota, a record since broken by another popular online player, GM Andrew Tang. That triumph was followed by numerous victories in national tournaments and, eventually, a full-ride scholarship to play chess at the University of Texas at Dallas. (Yes, full-ride scholarships for chess do exist.)

 

“The thing that chess has is it’s a great game. It’s like getting vegetables, but you don’t realize you’re getting vegetables.”

 

After graduating in 2009 with a degree in business—which was followed by one semester in law school—Bartholomew decided to commit to teaching chess full time. He quickly found that, even though he’d moved to New York, most of the teaching he was doing was happening online. He returned to Minnesota in 2012 and launched his channel the following year with the idea that an audience would keep him accountable to practicing and playing more. Also, he wanted to prove that he wasn’t nuts.

“I had been really working hard at building my teaching business, trying to make a legitimate career out of chess—or at least enough money to support myself and prove that it was a viable thing going forward, and that I wasn’t crazy for foregoing using my degree or dropping out of law school,” Bartholomew explains.

Back then, a few other players were also dabbling in the YouTube world—the German IM Christof Sielecki, whose information channel Chessexplained served as an early model, and American IM Greg Shahade, now the commissioner of the PRO Chess League—but he was still surprised by how quickly his audience grew. After a month or two, he posted one of his videos on the chess subreddit, where he remains beloved among the 85,000 or so subscribers. The channel took off from there.

Since then, along with his series for beginners, he’s produced hundreds of videos that feature him analyzing his own games against other titled players and skilled opponents. He maintains a friendly, almost gentle demeanor, like the nicest guy you knew in high school if he was really good at chess. Bartholomew’s videos usually involve visuals of the game he’s playing placed alongside footage of him talking into a webcam. While this might sound monumentally dull to the uninitiated, it’s the chess equivalent of being able to see an NFL game through the quarterback’s eyes as you listen to his thoughts. (Bartholomew’s audience isn’t there just for the chess: as is so often true on YouTube, they’re also there for the personality.)

In a testament to how invested his audience is, Bartholomew’s recent videos chronicling his progress toward becoming a GM, which he hopes to accomplish in the next year, have been receiving thousands of views, even though they’re just Bartholomew summarizing his performance in earlier over-the-board games. He recently received a $1,369 donation while streaming on his new Twitch channel. One of the reasons the platform is so appealing to players is that audience members have the option to subscribe to streamers, and watching someone react to a donation is a major part of the draw.

“If you’ve watched a top-level chess player analyze, oftentimes they’ll do these variations and they’ll just rattle them off, and the person who’s interviewing them at a tournament or asking them about the game is completely lost,” Bartholomew says. “I think that’s one reason that chess has actually been lagging behind in the online space compared to some other games. I think for a long time, top-level players have either not wanted to talk down to normal chess players or even completely casual players, or they haven’t been able to do that en masse, and only now are you starting to see guys like me, Eric Hansen, and Christof emerge.”


 

If Hansen and Bartholomew represent two different ends of the chess streaming spectrum, then Chess.com and IM Danny Rensch, 32, are what occupy the center, giving online chess a firm foundation and a place from which it can build. The company, which began in 2005 with the savvy acquisition of its URL, functions like a combination of ESPN and a worldwide amateur sports league. It features a slate of original programming and top-level competitions with commentary, while also hosting 1 million amateur chess games a day. While there are other chess-specific platforms online, including the popular lichess.org, Chess.com is the biggest and most robust. At any given time, you can see titled players online and drop in on their games; you can take lessons and practice tactics; and you can watch ChessTV, which offers up content like GM-led teaching shows and live broadcasts of competitive tournaments.

Rensch, who describes himself as the CCO—Chief Chess Officer—of Chess.com, is also the face of ChessTV. A young phenom who made National Master at 14, becoming the youngest-ever NM from the state of Arizona, Rensch had his career stunted by a series of health issues in his late teens. He used the illness-generated downtime to get acquainted with the growing world of YouTube, Google AdWords, and e-commerce, and, in 2007, bought the URL chesscoaching.com and set off on a career in teaching. Soon afterward, he crossed paths with Erik Allebest and Jay Severson, the owners and founders of Chess.com, and within a year he was on salary at their new company.

Chess.com runs the most significant competitions in online chess, including the second year of the PRO Chess League, which features 32 teams from around the world. (Magnus Carlsen plays for the Norway Gnomes and Hikaru Nakamura for the Seattle Sluggers. Bartholomew and Hansen are also featured, the former on the Minnesota Blizzards and the latter on the Montreal Chessbrahs.) In addition to driving enormous amounts of traffic to the site, these leagues and tournaments have served as significant signposts in the evolution of chess into a major eSport. The 2016 Speed Chess Championship, which featured a final between Carlsen and Nakamura, was the third-most-watched stream on Twitch, with 195,220 unique viewers and a maximum concurrent audience of 30,942. Last year’s rematch boasted twice as many unique viewers and a maximum concurrent audience of just under 35,000.


 

Building this sort of audience and programming wasn’t instant—or easy. Five years ago, Rensch was tasked with figuring out what the future of chess broadcasting might look like. One of his first ideas was reaching out to Twitch, where Chess.com became one of the platform’s earliest partners and, in another marketing coup, he secured the Twitch.tv/chess URL. Second, he realized that Chess.com’s original approach to programming, which focused on shows anchored by one player and coverage of over-the-board—chess-speak for IRL—events, just wasn’t working. What was working, however, was a show he hosted called “Bullet Brawls,” in which he simply turned on a webcam, played chess, and chatted with fans.

“I was shocked by the success of [it],” says Rensch. “[It] was something that I didn’t understand about the chess community that the Chessbrahs have frankly done better than all chess streamers combined, which is that they get to know the people in the chat and the fans, and they engage, and they just hang out and listen to music and act like idiots, right? And it’s like, what are you doing? But guess what, people love it!”

The success of “Bullet Brawls” led to further discoveries, supported by data and analytics. The fans liked commentary and analysis, but at a level they could understand. They liked faster games with less time for players to complete their moves. These shorter time controls led to more mistakes and more suspense. (Think of what the shot clock does for basketball.) This learning greatly influenced the way Chess.com designed its leagues. There was an operation that already existed called the US Chess League, run by the IM Greg Shahade, but it had longer time controls and required players to show up in person, negating two of the major assets online chess has over over-the-board play. When the two organizations ultimately partnered up in 2016, they adopted the Chess.com rules, shortening the time controls and letting players play from home.

“What’s made the PRO Chess League successful? The fact that Magnus Carlsen can play in his pajamas with his shirt off!” Rensch says.

As for their non-league programming, Rensch and the other Chess.com streamers began integrating even more fan interaction, including programs like Amateur Hour, where Rensch partners with lower-level players and gives them feedback on their games.

 

“Chess was very conservative. But the whole point was to disrupt some of the traditional chess ideas.”

 

One of those players, former-NFL-offensive-lineman-turned-MIT-math-PhD John Urschel, 26, has been a particularly popular, and frequent, guest on the program. Urschel freely confesses that he wants to become a master—and considering he once played at the highest levels of professional football, it’s hard to doubt his prospects. Since his retirement, he’s become an avid chess player and frequent streamer. Aside from his appearances on Chess.com’s programming, where he’s also played celebrity games against the popular videogame-streamer Hutch and has a show called Urschel Learns Chess, he streams regularly on Twitch, something he was encouraged to do by Rensch.

“I actually really took to it. The best part is interacting with so many people all across the world who also love chess, who also want to learn and also want to get better,” Urschel says. He also praises Hansen and GM Aman Hambleton, another face of the Chessbrahs. “[They] have done so much to popularize chess and dispel this notion that chess players are just these strange fringe people who sit in a room by themselves all day and just study chess, don’t talk to anyone, are antisocial,” he said. “Chess can be very collaborative, it can be very fun, and it can be cool.”

Aside from the pure entertainment of it, Urschel sees chess as a game with immense potential to help people, including kids, engage their intellectual capacities.

“The thing that chess has is it’s a great game, but at the same time, it’s something that’s really, really training your quantitative skills in a really good way,” Urschel says. “It’s like getting vegetables, but you don’t realize you’re getting vegetables.”


 

Of course, chess isn’t immune from one particular dilemma that plagues eSports, not to mention the rest of the Internet and the world: sexism. The gender gap in chess is a longstanding and controversial problem, and it’s hardly a shock that bringing the sport to the male-dominated world of Twitch and online streaming didn’t help to solve the issue. While there are a number of master-level female players who feature in Chess.com’s coverage and programming, one doesn’t have to spend much time on one of their streams to see the typical dynamics play out—comments about looks and assumptions about how being a woman affects players’ qualifications and opinions.

Alexandra Botez, 22, a Woman FIDE Master (WFM), the title with slightly lower rating requirements open only to women, recently made $850 in donations in about four hours streaming on Twitch. Botez is another Canadian. The 22-year-old won a number of Canadian girls’ national titles as well as the US girls’ title when she was 15, then she went to Stanford, where she founded a startup. For Botez, making “a month’s rent over two two-hour streams” is a perk of using Twitch. But for women, streaming comes with a price men don’t have to pay.

 

“A lot of the streams are super-masculine. People love to see streamers get super upset or super excited.”

 

Botez says that last year when she was streaming on Chess.com, “half of the messages started turning out extremely sexual, the kind of stuff that is totally R-rated and nobody wants to deal with. … It was just offensive and I felt terrible.”

She stopped streaming soon after that, wanting to avoid the medium entirely. But after about a year away, Botez decided to return, and the addition of a moderator—an anonymous individual who goes by chessbae94 and moderates a number of chess Twitch streams—has helped to rectify the problem.

“She moderates my chat, she takes out all of the negative stuff, and somehow we’ve managed to grow it slowly, but still have a very positive community,” Botez says. “I’m also not as sensitive anymore to the male culture. I know that a lot of the streams are super-masculine, and that’s the kind of thing that people like to watch on Twitch. People love to see streamers get super upset or super excited. But I decided that either way, if I want to stream and I want to have a good time doing it, I’m going to have to be myself anyways.”


 

The question of what people want to watch is at the center of chess’s future as an eSport. Hansen believes that the viewer experience for streaming chess still has room for improvement, citing the robust production values and public visibility of other eSports as well as the continuing conservatism of much of the game’s culture. Bartholomew, meanwhile, is focused on building his own Twitch presence and making GM, a title he thinks is within reach this year. As for Chess.com and Rensch, they solidified their presence on Twitch with a recent deal that makes Chess.com and its streamers the centerpiece of chess coverage on the platform, in addition to offering benefits to streamers who partner with Chess.com. (The topic is of enough interest to the chess community that Bartholomew’s exclusive deal with Chess.com was the subject of a thread on the chess subreddit that received over 150 comments.)

The goal, as Rensch sees it, is a groundswell of support for both streamers and their audiences that can help further establish chess as a major eSport, with that popularity trickling down to all aspects of the game. “We believe that the market has been proven for chess on Twitch. Twitch believes the market has been proven. And now we want everybody to believe that they can stream,” Rensch says. “Just like in eSports, there’s the huge events, the championships, but where all of those players are building their brands and making money is they have their own personal Twitch channels all year, and they have huge followings.”

As with other eSports, streamed chess is now adding an IRL component. Chess.com and Twitch recently announced that the finals of the PRO Chess League would be held in San Francisco this year in a two-day event at the Folsom Street Foundry, where the players will appear live and the games will be streamed on Twitch, with Rensch and Botez providing commentary. Sure, it isn’t exactly Bobby Fischer versus Boris Spassky at the height of the Cold War—but an event at a San Francisco brewpub being streamed across the world is about as emblematic of chess in 2018 as Fischer and Spassky’s match was in 1972. A game doesn’t survive for hundreds of years if it doesn’t change to fit the spirit of the times, and with streaming, chess has entered a new age.

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