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In Chess’ Fight For Attention, Its Most Important Event Is a Step Backward

  • This year’s World Chess Championship, which has been underway since April 9, couldn’t even attract the best player in the world.
  • The game is experiencing a renaissance, growing more compatible with social media and attracting new fans with more speed and personality.
The sports of chess is goin through a transition phase.
Syndication: The Columbus Dispatch
The World Chess Championship, which began April 9 in Kazakhstan, has had everything a chess fan could want — surprising openings, complex middle games, and brilliant finishes.

Only one thing is missing: the best player in the world.

Chess is entering an exciting but awkward phase thanks to the fact that Magnus Carlson, the consensus best player of all time, chose not to defend his world title, saying he was “not motivated to play another match.”

Instead, previous challengers Ian Nepomniachtchi and Ding Liren are playing for the game’s most prestigious title and $2.2 million in prize money. Through eight matches, Nepomniachtchi is up 4.5-3.5. 

The center of gravity in chess has shifted with modern media to quicker formats and personality-driven content. In the battle for attention, “classical chess” has been left behind.

How we got to this moment reflects chess’ centuries-old history and how technology has changed its course in recent years.

“There’s a reason Magnus Carlsen is not playing the World Championship — and frankly, it has a lot to do with the format,” said Chess.com CEO Erik Allebest.

Timing Is Everything

At the World Chess Championship, a 14-round match in the classical format, players have multiple hours to make their moves. Each player starts with a certain amount of time, and the clock runs only on their turn.

But classical isn’t the only form people play or care about. 

Carlsen recently defended his World Rapid Chess Championship, in which players are given 15 minutes to think during their moves for the entire game, with 10 seconds added each time they make a move. He is also the world blitz champion, mastering a format in which players start with only three minutes and get two seconds added per move.

The faster speeds favor intuitive play and provide more latitude for unusual openings and plans. 

“Almost any [opening] works in blitz, even against grandmasters,” grandmaster Eric Hansen noted while playing in a Titled Tuesday tournament, a weekly cash prize tournament for top players hosted by Chess.com.

Streamers like Hansen have become a core part of the chess media world and generally stick to faster, more viewer-friendly formats while playing on camera. 

Allebest believes faster formats have the ability to reach a wider audience: “There’s a reason that the World Chess Championship isn’t on TV, and maybe it has something to do with the fact that games are eight hours long at times.”

Following on the heels of MLB introducing a pitch clock, faster games could produce more action and different, more human narratives.

In broadcast games, the air time is typically filled by grandmasters and international masters analyzing games and exploring directions the game might go.

“In some ways, there’s just too much analysis going on,” said Allebest. “It’s not the commentators’ job to necessarily explain the inner workings of the best players in the world to casual players. I think that misses the point. The reality is that there’s a bigger storyline going on. 

“I want to know more about the emotions of the players. I want to know about their worries in this position. How are they feeling? What are the types of structures and ideas they can be thinking about?”

A faster, more personality-driven game is a big part of Chess.com’s vision for broadening the game — but in that light, the game’s most important tournament is a step backward.

Man vs. Machine

In 1996 and 1997, perhaps the two most famous chess tournaments in history were held between two evenly matched opponents: Kasparov vs. Deep Blue. Garry Kasparov was the world champion from 1985-2000. IBM’s Deep Blue was the most advanced chess computer of its time.

Kasparov won their first match 3.5-2.5, but Deep Blue won the rematch, 4-2. 

If man and machine were roughly equal in 1997, they are nowhere close in 2023.

The wide accessibility of powerful chess engines has changed how players study and prepare. When engines entered the picture, they largely backed up theory forged over the centuries and helped advance it deeper into games, cutting out the need for more methodical preparation. Top players have often done their thinking ahead of time for at least the first dozen moves of a game — and often significantly more.

“One of the top 10 players in the world told me that they go in with so much opening preparation that they’re not even really playing the game until they’re 20 moves in,” said Allebest. “He has to slow down, to not make it look like he’s being reckless or being silly. He’s just intentionally slowing because he doesn’t want to look bad.”

The upshot: Chess becomes a much faster, more decisive, and more thrilling viewing experience.

In slower formats, the deep preparation and ample time to sift through myriad possibilities lead to many draws. The intense focus required in the latter half of the game wears players out, and in longer tournaments, including the world championship, many will enter certain games purposefully playing for a draw to save their strength.

A blitz tournament doesn’t have the gravitas of a high-level classical one, but it’s far more media-friendly: Games are action-packed, upsets more likely, draws less common, and in online formats, many players stream their matches and provide insight into their thinking as they play.

Content vs. Form

Chess draws strength from being one of the oldest games still played today, but while its most prestigious classical tournament goes largely unnoticed, the game’s future seems to be heading past competition itself. 

Players who embrace content creation over simply playing have attracted large followings on social media.

Levy Rozman’s Gotham Chess YouTube channel has 3.6 million subscribers. Hikaru Nakamura, who came just short of edging out Ding for a spot in the championship, has 1.9 million subscribers on YouTube and 1.8 million on Twitch. Alexandra and Andrea Botez have 1.3 million YouTube subscribers and 1.2 million on Twitch.

Carlsen, who is less of an active content creator, has just under 1 million subscribers on YouTube. 

Last year, Chess.com stumbled on a surprise hit: duck chess. The site offers several chess variants, such as one where the first player to deliver three checks to the opponent’s king wins the game. In duck chess, a duck token is put somewhere on the board with each move, preventing any piece from occupying that square.

It made for good fodder for chess streamers, and one grandmaster, Anish Giri, noted that even just having the duck on the board for the opening moves broke up players’ opening repertoires in a way that made the game feel more dynamic. It was exactly the sort of innovation that the world’s biggest chess hub is looking for to bring attention to the game. 

“I want to see a duck chess world champion, and I want there to be money on the line,” said Allebest. “There are definitely wheels in motion on this.”

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