There's something inherently perverse in calling chess "open source." It's a bit like saying France "pivoted" from monarchy to republic, or that indoor plumbing was a "10x idea."
Nevertheless, it's true: Anyone has free rein to make a chess game.
This makes it all the more surprising that one company — Chess.com — dominates the world of online chess. A company representative estimated that 65% to 70% of online players use Chess.com. As of this writing, there are 427,580 people around the world playing games on the site. Total registered users grew from 20 million in 2017 to over 57 million today.
Some of Chess.com's success has to do with the network effect, since having more players improves matchmaking, which in turn attracts more players. Chess.com also excels at detecting cheaters and bots, an essential capability when we're all just a few clicks away from consulting Magnus-level chess engines.
In 2018, Chess.com acquired an engine of its own, Komodo, which was once considered the best but has since been narrowly usurped by the open-source Stockfish project. Regardless, investment in engines has been another key to Chess.com's success. Komodo offers post-game analysis, revealing player blunders and missed mate opportunities. Chess.com's engineers have also developed dozens of opponent AI personalities for the community: Some are adaptive, meaning they adjust the skill of each move according to how well the opponent plays; others bring chess legends back to life, using old game logs to emulate their skill and style of play. Following the release of "The Queen's Gambit," Chess.com worked with Netflix to develop engines that simulated Beth Harmon's gameplay from different periods in the show.
These factors are foundational to the success of Chess.com, but they haven't been driving the incredible growth over the last year. That would be streaming.
"The first thing to understand is that this is many years in the making," Nick Barton, VP of business development at Chess.com, told Protocol. "We've had a partnership going with Twitch since 2018 in which the onus was on Chess.com — because of our market position within the playing sphere, the size of our playing platform and the size of our player base — to try to grow what we would call now the middle class of streamers."
Chess.com has showcased how investing in a streaming community can provide immense returns over time. Building out from a core group of Chess.com-sponsored streamers, chess has taken Twitch by storm. Throughout February, for instance, Chess.com has been hosting the latest iteration of its signature PogChamps tournament featuring Twitch megastars xQc, Rubius and Pokimane as well as rapper Logic and actor Rainn Wilson. Altogether, Twitch users watched 18.3 million hours of chess in January 2021 — nearly as much as they consumed in the entirety of 2019. And for a brief period last week, chess surpassed League of Legends, Fortnite and Valorant to become the top gaming category on Twitch by viewers.
A star is born
When he was 2, Hikaru Nakamura moved with his family from Japan to the U.S. At 7, he played his first game of chess, and at 15 years and 79 days old, he became the youngest American Grandmaster ever, breaking Bobby Fischer's record. Nakamura has since become a five-time U.S. Chess Champion and the top-ranked player in blitz, a high-speed chess variant.
This is all to say that Nakamura is one of the greatest to ever play the game, which makes his status as a bona fide Twitch celebrity even more improbable.
Top chess players have historically been shrouded in mystery, more like academics than movie stars. Legends such as Wilhelm Steinitz, Emanuel Lasker and José Raúl Capablanca spent much of their lives sequestered indoors, developing chess theory in a bid to elevate the game to new heights. Tournaments gave the world an opportunity to behold their genius, though to the untrained eye, the events provided little in the way of entertainment.
Nakamura began streaming in July 2017. Danny Rensch, chief chess officer at Chess.com, had been an early advocate for Nakamura to take to Twitch. Looking back on his first stream three years later, Nakamura joked that Chess.com locked him in a room and told him to stream if he wanted a contract. By his own standards, Nakamura's first stream was unpolished (referring to himself: "This dude needs to get some energy and some excitement because he sounds really depressed."). The inaugural stream still managed to attract several hundred viewers, thanks in part to promotion on the Chess.com landing page.
In late 2018, despite being on the globetrotting professional chess circuit, Nakamura began streaming on a semi-regular basis. His camera presence improved, as did the channel's production value, thanks to a small team that included Chess.com employees.
Nakamura turned out to be a genuine streaming talent; his hard-hitting chess content was just as likely to garner views as his exhaustive ranking of fast-food chains or his session playing the Windows XP pinball game. His streams tap into the appeal of watching a prodigy show glimpses of being an otherwise ordinary person, as when Nakamura tries to identify the meat in his breakfast croissant or scrolls through memes posted by the r/HikaruNakamura subreddit.
By the start of 2020, Nakamura amassed over 80,000 Twitch followers — enough to be in the ranks of professional streamers, but not breaking the top 100.
Then lockdown happened. Sports leagues shut down and boredom became a way of life. This led to what Chess.com's Barton calls the chess meta.
"A meta on Twitch is sort of this respectfully ironic engagement of [something] like a game from childhood or an inside joke among a community," Barton said. "A few key content creators really wanted to tap into what we call the nostalgia meta … and chess became part of this."
One of those creators was xQc, a French-Canadian streamer and retired professional Overwatch player. xQc is one of the top personalities on Twitch, where he regularly streams nine or more hours a day, bouncing between games that catch his interest. Nakamura offered to give xQc a chess lesson while streaming. They went over fundamental tactics in this first session, which now has over 1.4 million views on YouTube.
Though Nakamura's channel was already gaining viewership from the chess meta, his lesson with xQc marked an inflection point. In the weeks leading up to the lesson, Nakamura's channel would attract around 2,000 live viewers; by May 2020, average live viewership had soared above 13,000. His livestreams now average over 24,000 viewers, making him one of the top global streamers.
Nakamura wasn't the only chess streamer benefitting from the broader Twitch community's interest in the game. In fact, his channel accounts for around 20% of total time spent watching chess on Twitch — a sizable amount, but he's not the only show in town.
Prior to the pandemic, Chess.com sponsored most of the top chess streamers, even though many of them averaged only a few hundred live viewers per stream. This early investment in the community paid off, as channels such as BotezLive (Alexandra Botez and Andrea Botez), GothamChess (Levy Rozman) and Chessbrah (Eric Hansen) saw viewership increase significantly over the course of 2020.
This wasn't a simple case of a rising tide lifting all boats. Chess.com helped facilitate collaboration between streamers, which helped build a sense of online community and sustain viewers' interest in the game. The Botez sisters faced off against a blindfolded Nakamura, Nakamura invited Rozman on his channel to help rank the greatest chess players of all time, Hansen challenged Alexandra Botez to a series of blitz games with $1,000 on the line — the cycle went on and on.
"We were able to create this roster of diverse personalities so that someone could log on and watch an untitled player that might be at the same level they are or they could watch Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, who now has over a million followers on Twitch, and everything in between," Barton said. "This was the core focus for us for quite a few years, and it took a very long time for it to catch on."
Streaming provided a secondary benefit to the chess community in that it gave lifelong players a new way to monetize their talents. Similar to aspiring professional athletes, chess amateurs often dedicate their youth to the game, hoping to become one of the top 20 or so players who can make a living on tournament earnings alone. If amateurs failed to reach this ultra-elite status, their remaining options within the chess world were primarily limited to coaching or migrating to the business side.
The Botez sisters are exemplary of the new paradigm. Alexandra and her younger sister Andrea started playing chess at age 6. They trained with their father and began winning competitive tournaments — so much so that they both were chosen to represent Canada in the Chess Olympiad. Alexandra won the U.S. Girls National Championship at 15 and later captained the Stanford chess club.
Despite all the accolades, Alexandra and Andrea didn't think they could make a living from chess. Andrea told Protocol that Alexandra began streaming while at Stanford "as a hobby, just something for fun, because she missed playing in competitive tournaments." After graduating, Alexandra co-founded a social media startup, but it folded in 2019.
It was only after the pandemic hit that the Botez sisters began streaming together regularly. Alexandra moved back home, and Andrea was wrapping up high school. "That was right before the chess boom, so we were able to build our foundation as a sibling channel," Andrea said. Since the start of the pandemic, BotezLive has seen live viewership increase by more than 1,600%. In December 2020, Alexandra and Andrea signed to Team Envy, a top esports organization.
Sustaining the meta
If xQc's first stream with Nakamura was the most important event for jumpstarting the chess meta, then PogChamps has been the most important for sustaining it.
Chess.com put up $50,000 in prize money for the first PogChamps tournament in June 2020. It featured many of Twitch's top streamers, including xQc, Ludwig, moistCr1tikal and VoyBoy. Nakamura and Alexandra Botez coached the participants and later served as commentators for live matches. The inaugural tournament broke all sorts of viewership records, including the first chess stream to break 1 million unique views and the first time a chess video reached 150,000 concurrent viewers on Twitch. Many of these records have since been eclipsed by the second and third iteration of PogChamps, as well as the BlockChamps tournament (for Minecraft streamers) produced by Chess.com in collaboration with the Botez sisters.
PogChamps significantly raised the profile of chess in the esports and streaming world — so much so that the wider chess world took notice. Most feedback was positive, but a few prominent voices complained that it degraded the sport. Stefan Löffler, an editor at ChessTech, likened PogChamps to reality TV in which "celebrities embarrassed themselves for attention, publicity and a handful of cash." On his own stream, Grandmaster Ben Finegold disparaged PogChamps participants (referring to xQc as "QVC") as having "negative talent in life." Grandmaster Yan Nepomniachtchi was a bit more even-keeled when he tweeted, "With all respect towards [Chess.com] and amount of work they put into promoting chess, #PogChamps3 as a popcorn stuff is replacing and displacing any real chess content and this is just terrifying."
Politics aside, the simple fact is that Chess.com's streaming efforts have helped chess reach a broader audience than perhaps ever before.
This expanded audience includes people like Sunjay Josyula, a product manager in Michigan. Josyula turned to streamers after "The Queen's Gambit" renewed his interest in chess, which he hadn't played since childhood. "Now when I have time after work, I would rather fire up a chess game and play that versus watch a show," Josyula told Protocol.
Similarly, after lockdowns shut down the pickup basketball scene, D.C.-based journalist Cole Carnick found himself without a competitive outlet. He stumbled upon Nakamura and Rozman chess content on YouTube. He has now played over 4,000 games on Chess.com. "At the time, a lot of people were talking about how they wanted to get a pandemic hobby," Carnick said. "That wasn't the situation — it was just something I started doing, and then I realized I was playing several matches a day."
For those worried Twitch and PogChamps are changing chess for the worse, there may be some comfort in appreciating the longevity of the game. "Chess has been around for a very long time, and it will continue to exist long after the term esports has ceased to exist," Barton said.
Correction: This story was updated Feb. 22 to correct the spelling of Sunjay Josyula's name.