By: Eoghan McNamee
Since the departure of former World Champion Bobby Fischer, the game of Chess had slipped into irrelevance in the majority of the western world. Playing Chess was something reserved for seniors in a collapsing retirement home or for nerds of the absolute highest caliber. So why all of the sudden is it everywhere? People are playing it more now than ever before, and its explosion in popularity seems to have come from thin air, showing up in trending tabs across varying social media platforms. This article is breaking down the renaissance of chess in all of its aspects, even the ones that may have darker intentions than are offered on its surface.
For most of modern history, Chess was considered as something that was really only played often in Russia and surrounding nations. This is because of the Soviet Union’s policies of subsidizing Chess in order to create a medium for international dominance. After the Russian Revolution, Vladimir Lenin’s commander of the Soviet Army, Nikolay Krylenko, began to lay the foundation for state sponsored chess. He held tournaments, opened schools, and spread the game throughout the USSR. The first Soviet Chess tournament was held in 1921 and only six years later, the first Soviet would win in a world tournament, the famous Alexander Alekhine. By 1934, 500,000 Soviets had signed up for the state-sponsored chess programs, and it payed of as in 1948, Mikhail Bovitnnik would win the world championship and begin a streak of Soviet Dominance of the title almost completely unbroken, (Bobby Fischer from 1972-1975), until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Even now, even though FIDE, the World Chess Federation, has banned most Russian grandmasters from competing under their national banner during the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russian Super Grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi will be playing Chinese Ding Liren for the world championship this April and May as a nationless player. This dominance in the East left no room for inspiring Western grandmasters to grow support for the game during this long era of silence for western chess, but all of the sudden this has changed drastically.
In 2012, a young prodigy shocked the world by winning his group at the Tata Steel Tournament at only 13 years old. That boy was the Norwegian Chess Prodigy and future World Champion Magnus Carlsen. Magnus won the esteemed title of Grandmaster at only age 15, and would go on to become the youngest player to reach a player rating of 2800 at age 18 and at age 19, Magnus Carlsen would become the youngest player to reach a world FIDE ranking of No. 1. His peak rating, 2882, is the highest in recorded chess history. He won his first World Chess Championship in 2013, and since he has become the reigning World Champion in Classical and Rapid, different variations of time on the games. His success has maintained, as he remains the No. 1 in FIDE ranking in March of 2023, and despite his opting NOT to defend his classical world championship, he remains the top player. He holds the record for longest undefeated streak, and trails only Russian Garry Kasparov for longest time spent as the number 1 ranked player. Alongside the rise of Magnus Carlsen, another key Western grandmaster has taken the scene by storm. American Hikaru Nakamura, the “King of Speed Chess,” and current world Blitz champion, defeated Magnus Carlsen in a thrilling series. Despite being ranked FIDE No.6, Hikaru has not had the same level of traditional FIDE and classical success as Magnus, but he’s leaned into the online, cultural side of chess. He uses his charisma and sarcasm to create notoriety online, often seen playing with popular Twitch streamers and YouTubers. His speed and personality has drawn fans from these large audiences of Twitch and YouTube, and has unified the scattered western Chess community.
Just like every other industry, Chess has benefited greatly from the creation of the Internet. Chess going virtual has made the game more accessible than ever: now anybody with an internet connection can play against anyone else. No need for a board, a local partner, or a dusty old book of strategies. This also allowed for Chess theory to become more accessible and allowed for a climb in the skill level of a casual player. Opening databases and Chess computers have brought the game to a point that peak Chess is almost always bound to end in a draw, as highlighted by chess computer Deep Blue’s defeat of then champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. All of this rapid gain of ELO rating has come from internet access. The key players in online chess are Chess.com and Lichess.com, both websites that have recently had traffic increase to the point of struggling to maintain server connections. The explosion of the online player base has not only increased the odds of finding someone who you know that is versed in chess, but arguably more importantly, it caught the attention of online creators and media platforms. Some of the largest Twitch creators began playing Chess on their streams, including Felix “xQc” Lengyel, Ludwig “Ludwig” Aghren, and Charlie “Cr1Tikal” White. They were all streamers who hopped on the rise of Chess and exploded the games popularity.
With this rise in popularity, many Chess streamers who already existed began to blow up in popularity as the social media algorithms began recommending more Chess-tailored content. This list includes WFM sisters Alexandra and Andrea Botez, GM Hikaru Nakamura, IM Levy “GothamChess” Rozman, and GM Eric Rosen, who each saw massive spikes in subscriber count. Many of these content creators harnessed the explosion and set up the POGCHAMPS tournament series, a series of tournaments that are designed for content creators who haven’t made their bones playing Chess. Though there was controversy surrounding this dubiously serious tournament, most professional Chess players enjoyed the wider exposure that POGCHAMPS reached. Through 2022 and 2023, the most dominant chess streamer has been IM Levy “GothamChess” Rozman. Gotham’s popularity has stemmed from his sarcastic and hyper energy that he brought to his games and game reviews that starkly contrasts with the classical image of chess: a quiet, upper-class intellectual’s game for true geniuses. His coaching background has made for the perfect mix of entertainment and education to make him one of the most influential chess players of the modern era. Online Chess content has grown so much even that the popular Streamer Awards includes a Chess Streamer of the Year Award, won this year by GothamChess and the year previously by Alexandra and Andrea Botez. Sadly, as all things internet-related, online Chess has had its negative influences as well, including its utilization in the establishment of the dangerous kingpin of the “Sigma Male,” Andrew Tate.
Andrew Tate and his “Sigma” mindset have become some of the fastest growing topics online today. Before his arrest, Tate was one of the most widespread social media figures on every platform, and someone who is in the algorithm’s preferred demographic for his content struggles to escape him. Tate has associated his entire brand with Chess. His ties to Chess go way back, as his father, Emory Tate was an American Chess Grandmaster. More critically, Tate uses the intellectual image that comes with Chess to create the association that he is also an intellectual, even though his ideas follow little logical procedure. His brand has worked hard to build this association, even his logo has a knight piece at the end of his signature. Many of his interviews feature him playing chess while he answers questions, and many of his viral clips consist of chess games among other popular streamers who agree with his ideals. With modern algorithms, it's hard to watch chess without slipping on to his content. On the flip side of that coin, however, it's hard to watch Tate without slipping into Chess. Tate has inspired many of his followers to take up Chess, creating growth and expansion to a toxic demographic of players. The more influence that Tate can have on the Chess community, the more danger it’s in from being overrun by toxic Tate followers.