In January of 2020, chess was a game. Chess websites were becoming more popular but were primarily used as a convenient way for chess players to play games with one another. Media coverage of chess was limited; the leading story at the time was the Candidates Tournament, scheduled for March, to select the player who would challenge Magnus Carlsen for the world championship in 2021.
By January of 2021, chess was more than a game – it was entertainment. Online chess surged in popularity during 2020, among casual as well as serious players, as a pastime that could be enjoyed at home during the pandemic. The series “The Queen’s Gambit” became a huge hit in the fall, causing sales of chess sets to increase by 125%, according to the NPD Group. Online streaming of chess games shot up, driven by a partnership between Chess.com, the largest chess playing website, and Twitch, the largest game streaming website. By January of 2021, viewing chess on Twitch had increased more than tenfold from 2019 and was among its top gaming categories, along with League of Legends, Fortnite, and Valorant.
While world class Grand Master Hideki Nakamura is the most viewed individual streamer on Twitch, viewing of chess games streamed by celebrities also became popular once Chess.com introduced its PogChamps tournaments. PogChamps features non-chess streamers, YouTube personalities, and other celebrities playing one another. The players are mostly novices but are helped by coaching from GM Nakamura and other popular chess streamers. The games are far from top level, but their unpredictability provides some entertainment value and has broadened the audience for chess. Here’s a recent example:
White: Rainn Wilson (actor)
Black: Michelle Khare (YouTuber & actress)
1e4, c5 2Nf3, Nc6 3b3, d6 4Bb2, Nf6 5Nc3, e5 6Bb5, Be7 7Bxc6+, bxc6 80-0, 0-0 (So far both players have played well, perhaps thanks to opening advice from their coaches, but…) 9Ne2?
9…d5? (First white, then black leaves their e-pawn unprotected.) 10exd5?!, cxd5? (10…e4!) 11Nxe5 (White wins a pawn.) Qd6 12d4, cxd4 13 Qxd4, Bf5 14Rac1, Rac8 15Ng3, Bg6 16Nxg6, hxg6 17Rfe1, Ra8 18Re3, Nh5??
19Qxg7+?? (White thinks he’s checkmating black but doesn’t see that the black knight on h5 is protecting the g7 pawn. 19Nxh5 would have won a piece and threatened mate.) Nxg7 (This should have decided the game in black’s favor, but just wait…) 20Rce1, Nh5 21Ne2 Qc5 22Nd4, Rac8? 23Rxe7
23…Qxe7?? (With her last 2 moves black drops a piece and loses a queen for a rook.) 24Rxe7. White is back in the game and won on move 55.
Keith Holzmueller has been the head coach of the Evanston Township High School Chess Club and Team since 2017. He became a serious chess player during his high school years. As an adult player, he obtained a US Chess Federation Expert rating for over-the-board play and was awarded the Senior International Master title by the International Correspondence Chess Federation. Keith now puts most of his chess energy into helping young chess players in Evanston learn to enjoy chess and improve their play. Please email Keith at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have any chess questions.
One of the most popular chess streamers in the U.S. hails from Skokie, IL, right next to Evanston. You can find International Master Eric Rosen on YouTube at youtube.com/user/RosenChess, or follow him on Twitch at twitch.tv/imrosen.
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