I Love Chess
Last week marked the conclusion of the PogChamps chess tournament on Twitch. The event pitted dozens of well-known YouTube and Twitch streamers against each other in a classical chess tournament that drew millions of views from around the world. Despite a handful of naysayers who thought the idea was an "embarrassment of chess," or those who believed chess could not be entertaining, it was a massive success. In fact, the endeavor generated more interest in competitive chess than Magnus Carlsen taking the World Chess Champion title from Viswanathan Anand in 2014.
Unlike others, I'm not going to claim PogChamps represents a paradigm shift in competitive chess such as Kasparov losing to Deep Blue. However, a quick scan of Twitch's most popular channels will immediately show that there are a lot of goddamn people playing chess nowadays. The tournament applied the pomp and circumstance of a fighting game tournament to a board game, and many are attempting to recapture that magic. But more importantly, it showed that when chess events avoid technical jargon or complicated descents into theory, there is a desire to watch and play chess. And that point was especially evident when penguinz0/Charlie checkmated xQc in six movies, and the highlight video drew nearly one million views in less than a day.
PogChamps Is The Best Thing To Happen To Chess In Decades
What was PogChamps, and why should you go back and watch the event if you missed it? The premise was simple: let's pit a dozen popular Twitch and YouTube streamers in a monied chess tournament with only the bare minimum of preparation. Chess.com, the host of the event, paired each streamer with an International Master or Grandmaster to be their coach. The training itself was rather humorous with some players not even knowing castling existed and virtually everyone struggling with the "en passant" rule. As a result, when the tournament started, the immediate appeal of watching it was apparent: the GMs were flipping out whenever their students blundered pieces or performed poorly under pressure. Look back at that video of xQc being checkmated, and look at Hikaru Nakamura's reaction.
During the start of the event, the reception was mixed. Many felt it was no better than watching a Fine Bros. reaction video, as the main appeal was watching grown adults scream at the top of their lungs. However, as time passed by, storylines emerged, and the players visibly got better. Additionally, due to the players not being able to calculate odds, checkmates, which are rare in competitive chess, became viable. The hard swings of the matches were otherworldly and ensured that every match had the potential to favor either opponent. Finally, the larger than life personalities even made the "squash matches" fun to watch. What it showed was a point I feel like I have been trying to make for years: when played in a low-stakes environment, chess is a lot of fun.
PogChamps' success is due in no part to United States Grandmaster, Hikaru Nakamura, one of the event's driving forces and its primary commentator. For those who may not be "in the know," Nakamura is a chess champion who recently has taken to Twitch to stream chess and explain concepts and theory for free. If you haven't checked out one of his streams, I cannot recommend them enough. However, what makes Nakamura different from other chess streamers is how he makes a concerted effort to be a chess communicator to the general public. He avoids going into theory and consciously moderates his vocabulary. I have seen some people liken him as the "Bill Nye of Chess," though that seems unfair to Nakamura. I mean, he was the second highest-ranked chess player in the world and is the current leader in the FIDE Blitz Rankings.
Elitism In Chess Is Still A Problem
Now, it would be bereft of me not to mention the negative response PogChamps has had among the traditional chess elites. There were, of course, opinion-editorial pieces calling the event an "embarrassment to chess." But, there were other prominent figures such as Ben Finegold, who made more inflammatory and disrespectful comments directed at the event and its hosts. These comments, and the backlash from the "old guard" of the chess elite, has discouraged some from immediately jumping into the chess community.
I want to make this point clear as day: this is not just an issue about jealousy. Though there is some bitterness that PogChamps outdrew EVERY major chess tournament this year, and Magnus Carlsen has less than a quarter of the viewers than any of these Twitch matches, jealousy is not what is driving this reaction. Luckily, chess ambassador agadmator and PogChamps participant penguinz0 posted excellent video summaries on their impressions of the problem. I'll link you to those videos and state that I agree with almost everything they say. If there is one point I'd like to mention, this elitist sentiment is strongest felt by the older members of the chess community. The current and future generations of chess talent showed their support for PogChamps as they appreciated seeing some of their sources of entertainment normalize their hobby and profession.
If there is one criticism of PogChamps I do agree with it is that the event must do better about which Twitch streamers they select to participate in their activities. As many already know, the event's main selling point was xQc's participation, despite him being a HIGHLY PROBLEMATIC figure on Twitch. For those unaware, xQc (a.k.a., Félix Lengyel) has a history of using racially disparaging language and stands by his use of racially dubious Twitch emoticons. Other streamers, such as Flicker and Yassuo, have faced Twitch suspensions related to drug use or DMCA violations. If Chess.com wishes PogChamps to be a welcoming event for a new wave of chess consumers, they have to do a better job of curating their partners or maintaining behavior expectations.
What's Next For People Who Enjoyed PogChamps?
With PogChamps finished, for now, the question many chess neophytes have is where to go next. First, I'd recommend creating a Chess.com account, playing as many games as you feel comfortable, and not letting early losses discourage you from getting better. However, if you are looking for events or YouTube channels that are guaranteed to fill you with the same "rush" that PogChamps provided, look no further. First, I'd like to recommend the most recent season of the Top Chess Engine Championship. For those of you who enjoy following the evolution of technology, this is the event for you! TCEC is a yearly competition that pits neural networks and computer engines in a high-stakes chess tournament.
If you are in the mood for a more "historical" approach to competitive chess, that still maintains an approachable level of vocabulary, then your best bet is agadmator's Chess Channel. agadmator (a.k.a., Antonio Radić) runs a YouTube channel that provides step-by-step commentary of popular chess matches from the past as well as games from recent or pending tournaments. What makes his channel a cut above the rest is his dry sense of humor and the lack of chess jargon. If you are up for a YouTube "wormhole" to get you through the pandemic, I recommend his series of Charles Morphy. Nonetheless, if you are a true neophyte to chess and have never seen the Evergreen Game or Game Six of the 1960 World Championship, I envy you. Both are widely considered the greatest and most beautiful games ever played.
Finally, we have Alexandra Botez, a Woman FIDE Master who runs a highly successful Twitch account. Botez works alongside Chess.com, but I recommend her standard Twitch channel as she regularly covers the women's chess scene and hosts matches with her fans. She's also willing to stream things outside of chess and often has a regular rotation of guests and family members that make every stream a delight. Well, with that, I'm going to sign off. Hopefully, this blog encouraged you to check out chess and have fun during these incredibly trying times.