Chess Is BACK BAYBEE! - Let's Talk About PogChamps & Chess' Explosion On Twitch

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ZombiePie

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Edited By ZombiePie  Moderator

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. Elitism in chess is a real issue. 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.

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imhungry

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#1  Edited By imhungry

I probably sound like a crusty, boring person saying this but my biggest problem with the tournament was I largely couldn't stand like 75% of the personalities competing. I barely watch any streamers at all, so it's probably just personal incompatibility, but it was disappointing (but understandable) to me that a majority of the field matched up with the stereotypical view of Twitch streamers. It makes total sense from a audience draw perspective, because that's proven to be entertaining to so many people, but a wider variety of participants would be good if this continues going forward.

Personal feelings aside, it's pretty great that they put this thing together. The idea and format itself is absolute gold; watching the reactions of the IMs and GMs as they commentated was perfect and exactly the kind of thing that helps new people get interested in these personalities from the "real" chess world.

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I couldn't agree more with ZombiePie, the Pogchamps was a very fun tourney to watch and since it ended Hikaru and Alexandra have become two of my favorite streamers. Not only do they both play high level chess on stream, but they occasionally give lessons to new or lower level players that are extremely educational. I've started playing myself on Chess.com and even though I am completely terrible, I am really having a good time with it.

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ArmCommander

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I started watching a lot of chess IMs and GMs on Twitch recently and it got me back in to playing once in a while. I've been enjoying myself even though I'm not very good.

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I've always enjoyed and respected chess since playing it in school on breaks... for money... like the bunch of badass kids we were, so i'm happy to see it have a surge of popularity, but yeah i'm watching these videos and not really clicking with anyone involved, they all seem a bit too deep in the Twitch game for me.

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Shindig

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I played it at school as well but the breaks were never long enough to really get a game finished. The competitive 'sport' of it might as well be a foreign country to me.

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@imhungry: I liked watching it (and cheering for Hutch), but I largely agree with you. It funnily seemed to end with the two playoffs being the winners brackets with tolerable streamers and the losers brackets being obnoxious assholes. Watching some of that was just awkward as fuck, especially when you had, for example, Sliker just blurting out vaguely racist shit like purposefully getting Hikaru Nakamura's name wrong several times and just being a complete fucking asshole after he lost.

The final of Hutch vs. Voyboy was so cool though, holy shit I don't think I've felt so tense watching a competition in years.

Also, people I'd recommend following if you want to watch chess or get into Chess personalities: Hikaru Nakamura, a chess grandmaster who also streams games and other stuff. He's a really chill dude and is great at explaining chess. Then you have Qiyu Zhou, a young women's grandmaster. I'm currently right now at the time of this post watching her play Valorant, she is also a good chess commentator. And finally, you have Levy Rozman aka Gotham Chess. He's the one for you if you want a funnier streamer, he's got incredibly dumb imitations of chess pros. Incidentally, you can check any of their channels for the same commentary of the Chessable tournament going right now that features grandmasters duking it out. Hikaru is playing in the tournament, while Levy and Qiyu are doing the commentary for the tournament.

One incredibly cool aspect about chess tournaments on the internet is that the chess.com ones include a chess engine showing who is winning, which helps following the match SO much even if the engine isn't always accurate.

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If you like interesting, but bad, chess then I recommend Tom 7's video and "academic" papers for the annual SIGBovik conference (a satirical scientific conference). Particularly his tournament last year for the worst chess engines, "Elo World" and this year's paper on the longest possible chess game.

It almost definitely won't help your chess game. Though there are some interesting (and counter-intuitive) takes on chess strategy and rules.

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This event got me back into chess and was an absolute blast to watch and follow the storylines lol There really were some great moments of hilarity.

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ZombiePie

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#10 ZombiePie  Moderator

Hey everyone, I normally make it a habit to share input to any comments posted on my blogs, but recurring health issues prevented me from doing so. Nonetheless, better late than never!

@imhungry said:

I probably sound like a crusty, boring person saying this but my biggest problem with the tournament was I largely couldn't stand like 75% of the personalities competing. I barely watch any streamers at all, so it's probably just personal incompatibility, but it was disappointing (but understandable) to me that a majority of the field matched up with the stereotypical view of Twitch streamers. It makes total sense from a audience draw perspective, because that's proven to be entertaining to so many people, but a wider variety of participants would be good if this continues going forward.

@cikame said:

I've always enjoyed and respected chess since playing it in school on breaks... for money... like the bunch of badass kids we were, so i'm happy to see it have a surge of popularity, but yeah i'm watching these videos and not really clicking with anyone involved, they all seem a bit too deep in the Twitch game for me.

@retris said:

@imhungry: I liked watching it (and cheering for Hutch), but I largely agree with you. It funnily seemed to end with the two playoffs being the winners brackets with tolerable streamers and the losers brackets being obnoxious assholes. Watching some of that was just awkward as fuck, especially when you had, for example, Sliker just blurting out vaguely racist shit like purposefully getting Hikaru Nakamura's name wrong several times and just being a complete fucking asshole after he lost.

I somewhat predicted that the main piece of input I would receive on this blog would be related to the Twitch and YouTube streamers. Given recent events, especially when it comes to xQc, I regret not spending more time talking about the need for Chess.com to better "vet" the affiliates for this event. I do, however, stand by that the format and concept of this event is excellent. What's to say you do not try a similar format with sports athletes or other communities?

Regarding Slicker, I get where all of you are coming from, but I will give the guy credit for changing his behavior as the tournament progressed. When he made it past the first round of losers bracket, he showed a great deal of humility and even reflected on how learning about chess customs and rules has helped him become a better person. Only time will tell if this is as long-term as one can hope.

@ronnasty said:

I couldn't agree more with ZombiePie, the Pogchamps was a very fun tourney to watch and since it ended Hikaru and Alexandra have become two of my favorite streamers. Not only do they both play high level chess on stream, but they occasionally give lessons to new or lower level players that are extremely educational. I've started playing myself on Chess.com and even though I am completely terrible, I am really having a good time with it.

I started watching a lot of chess IMs and GMs on Twitch recently and it got me back in to playing once in a while. I've been enjoying myself even though I'm not very good.

This event got me back into chess and was an absolute blast to watch and follow the storylines lol There really were some great moments of hilarity.

I guess these are the comments I enjoy the most. PogChamps is not by any stretch of the word "perfect," but it is bringing a new audience to a hobby that is getting older and progressively more elitist. Events like this will allow for more top-tier chess tournaments to take place as it increases the prize pool, and it will allow the hobby to prevent a post-COVID slump when other traditional sports restart.

Also, I thought about including Samay Raina's YouTube channel at the end of this blog and regret not doing so. He's a comedian rather than a traditional chess player, but his videos have the benefit of showing a more personal side to the professional players that join him.

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ArmCommander

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Hey everyone, I normally make it a habit to share input to any comments posted on my blogs, but recurring health issues prevented me from doing so. Nonetheless, better late than never!

Oh no! I hope you feel better soon, my friend.

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MonkeyKing1969

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This is a side thing, but relevant to the chess discussion. Our library installed a stone chess table outside and we have a set of chessmen set up. About 70% of the players are children. That was awesome to see when we noticed the trend! And, yes, they are playing chess. Chess should be for everyone and is for eveyone. My library had a chess teacher as well that taught kids too, but he passed away. He was an excellent teacher who taught any child who came.

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