Stella Schwartz, 16, got on the chess wagon earlier this year after hearing about the game from her older brother, Hugh, a senior in San Francisco. Alex Post, a freshman at Colorado University, started playing in February after some chess-related videos appeared on his Tik Tok feed; then he got his whole fraternity playing.
Many other teens and young adults said they too had recently developed a regular chess habit, though they couldn’t remember how it started. But by all accounts – from players, parents, teachers, website stats – the popularity of the game has exploded.
Since early November, the number of daily active users of Chess.com, a website and app where visitors can read chess news, learn the game and play against each other and computer opponents, has risen from 5.4 million to more than 11 million. sharply after the start of the year. (In December, Chess.com also bought the Play Magnus Group, a company founded by world chess champion Magnus Carlsen with a mobile chess app.)
The biggest growth comes from players aged 13 to 17: 549,000 visited Chess.com in January and February, more than twice as many as in the previous two months, according to the company’s estimate. The second fastest age group in the same period was 18 to 24 year olds. “It’s everyone, every day,” Ms. Schwartz said. “I’ve seen people play at parties.”
Casual observers, as well as newly avid chess players, may attribute the trend to pandemic lockdown and boredom, or perhaps to the popularity of the 2020 Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit.” But a grandmaster plan was also quietly unfolding, carefully crafted by Chess.com to increase the appeal of the game and turn millennials and Gen Z into chess pawns. Were they playing chess, or was it playing chess with them?
“Everything was focused on high school, college, and high school,” said Erik Allebest, CEO of Chess.com.
The strategy “was very deliberate,” he said: to erase the perception of chess as a grueling, geeky battle of wits and instead package it on social media as less intimidating, fun, even funny. The games offered on Chess.com also play to impatience. Timed games can be played at a variety of lengths: 10 minutes, three minutes, or if that seems endless, one minute. Still too long? Enjoy a 30 second match! Sometimes, Mr. Allebest said, it’s just about sport for sport’s sake, “not about getting better.”
Soon, before anyone knew exactly what had happened, it was game over and chess won. “It happened in a very short time,” Mr. Allebest said of the game’s online growth, “thanks to a handful of crazy seeds.”
Coincidence — the coronavirus, word of mouth, Mr. Carlsen’s beauty — played a role. From February 2020 to February 2021, Chess.com app usage increased from about 1.5 million daily active users to about 4.5 million.
Behind the scenes, Chess.com worked to change the image of the game and attract new players. This was good for business. While the app allows users to play for free, its financial model depends on service levels, ranging from $6.99 to $16.99 per month for additional features such as tutorial videos and computer analysis of a player’s games and moves. The strategy was simply to rebrand chess as old-fashioned fun.
“When I was a kid, chess was for nerds,” said Mr. Allebest. “We started selling the fun of chess and community more than just the top players and news from top players. In 2020, the site began hosting tournaments featuring online influencers who weren’t particularly skilled at chess but had a large following among young people. These include xQc, a professional video game player and streamer; Ludwig, an esports streamer; MoistCr1TiKal, another streamer and commenter; and mr. Beast, a 24-year-old YouTube sensation with 147 million subscribers.
Chess.com hired students to manage its social media presence. The students were encouraged to be irreverent, funny and create memes, Mr. Allebest said. A recent blog post on the site was titled “Why chess sucks” and offered the main reason: “I always lose!”
The site’s Instagram account features short, offbeat videos, including the regular appearance of a bearded man in a puffy green pawn costume, who at one point trips over an electrical cord. Joker takes pawn.
The Botez Gambit
Before long, a string of online chess personalities had emerged.
Levy Rozman, 27, is an international master and lively, charismatic commentator better known as GothamChess; Mr Allebest described him as a “chess prophet spokesperson for 14 to 25 year olds”. Grandmaster GMHikaru has 1.91 million YouTube followers. Alexandra Botez, 28, another chess celebrity on Twitch and YouTube, earned a particular claim to fame: Once, while streaming a match, she blundered to lose her queen and responded with an endearing, stunned shock that made the blunder cool corpses. Accidentally losing your wife is now known as the Botez gambit.
Mr. Post, the freshman at Colorado University, said he was drawn to “a bunch of clips” — GothmanChess TikTok videos — at a time when he was “a little bored.”
That was early February; now he plays every day, sometimes in class too. And he himself turned into a chess influencer. At a fraternity event, he said, he asked a frat brother, “‘Yo, are you good at chess?'”
“He said, ‘Let’s play,’ and then another guy said, ‘I’m decent,’ and it was like a domino effect,” Mr Post said.
Mittens to D4
Chess.com allows users to play against other people of their own skill level or against computer programs of different skill levels, including AI opponents who have names and personalities and can be outspoken.
Fabigi, described by Chess.com as a “hard-working Italian-American plumber”, is an advanced beginner. Depicted as a long-haired human with a reptilian body, Boshi plays at the beginner level and is “everyone’s favorite dinosaur sidekick,” according to a Chess.com description.
But the mother of all Chess.com bots, introduced only for the month of January, was Mittens, an anime-esque tabby cat with big green eyes that look a little sad. Mittens was advertised by Chess.com with a chess score of 1 – the worst. In reality, Mittens was a stone-cold killer with a sadistic streak.
Mittens was created with world-class skills and was unlikely to lose to the world’s top grandmasters. Mittens played slowly and seemed to give the opponent a chance while muttering strange and unpleasant taunts. (“Meow, I’ve become mittens, destroyer of kings.”)
“We’ve made it strong enough to beat just about any human player in the world, but not quickly,” said Mike Klein, the chief chess officer of ChessKid.com, a division of the Chess.com company.
In January, 40 million games were played against Mittens, whom Slate described in a headline at the time as “the evil cat bot that destroys players’ souls”.
Mr. Klein travels the country to convince schools to include chess in the curriculum. He argues that chess is good for the brain, but he admits that the scientific studies he cites linking chess to better performance on standardized tests are “quite old or don’t have a good control group or don’t have enough samples.” .”
Whether chess offers anything more valuable than other online games is unclear, said Dr. Michael Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the founder of the Digital Wellness Lab, which studies the health aspects of technology use. It all depends, he said, on whether one is playing with patience and learning, or just for fast digital thrills.
Some teachers complain that chess is more of a distraction than a teaching tool. “They play it all the time, in school, and it’s gotten to the point where they don’t turn in anything and play chess exclusively,” an anonymous high school teacher said of students in a post on Reddit, which saw several threads on the topic. Mastery turned out to be an afterthought, the teacher wrote: “The only thing is… are they all very, very bad at it? They are absolutely awful.”
Ms. Schwartz, a high school sophomore in San Francisco, said she generally avoided playing in class and that it benefited her brain. “Chess is a smart game,” she said.
Her mother, Emily Stegner-Schwartz, agreed. “I’d rather she play chess than, what’s that game, Jewel Crusher or Candy Land,” she said, referring to the Candy Crush game. Online chess “is to chess what pickleball is to tennis,” she said.
Her son, Hugh, a high school senior, couldn’t remember what got him playing Chess.com for the first time earlier this year – friends maybe? “I don’t know, it’s weird,” he said. Now he plays twice a day. And if there was a corporate strategy to capture him, did it really matter?
“Everyone is now manipulating people on social media,” he said. “Chess isn’t the worst thing to be manipulated with.”