Online chess is thriving, a calming constant in a chaotic year

Why We Wrote This

When so much else has shuttered because of the coronavirus, an unlikely pandemic success story has emerged. Online chess has not only survived, but also thrived – evolving in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

Crystal Fuller/Courtesy of Saint Louis Chess Club
Grandmaster Irina Krush competes in a chess tournament during the 2020 Cairns Cup in February 2020 in St. Louis.

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When Irina Krush was diagnosed with COVID-19 in early March, she faced a monthslong recovery and numerous obstacles that significantly limited what she could do. Her one constant in a chaotic year: chess. 

This is especially fortunate because Ms. Krush is the country’s top women’s chess player, and even represented the United States this May in the Nations Cup, in which her team placed second. Her story embodies the downs and ups of chess in 2020. Traditional over-the-board play has suffered since the start of the pandemic. But the sport has grown online – ushering in a generational renaissance in play and interest. 

As play and instruction go virtual, the game itself is changing. Gone are perceptions of stodgy intellectualism that once surrounded the sport. Chess in 2020 is younger, faster, more adventurous, and more diverse, welcoming large numbers of women to a sport that has long been heavily male. 

Yet most important to Ms. Krush and millions of other players is that chess, unlike so much else this year, never left. 

“Chess can survive these rather unpleasant circumstances,” says Ms. Krush. “It can survive and it can even thrive.”

When Irina Krush’s symptoms began in early March, she didn’t know what was wrong. A trip to an urgent care clinic sent her to the emergency room, where doctors took a CT scan and diagnosed her with double-lung pneumonia and tested her for COVID-19. Ms. Krush tested positive.

In the months since, Ms. Krush hasn’t fully recovered. She still has trouble breathing. Despite treatment, days can be good or bad. 

“Recovery is a dream,” she says. “It just goes on and on.”

But in her long haul with COVID-19, Ms. Krush has felt especially grateful for the game of chess, one of her only constants in a chaotic year. 

Ms. Krush is the country’s top women’s chess player, and even represented the United States this May in the Nations Cup – in which her team placed second. 

Her story embodies the downs and ups of chess in 2020. Traditional over-the-board play has suffered since the start of the pandemic. But the sport has grown online – ushering in a generational renaissance in play and interest. 

Online platforms like Chess.com and Chess24 report surging activity. Chess-themed streamers, who play live on the video-sharing website Twitch, have tripled and quadrupled their followers. With the world’s best players just a click away, grandmasters are more accessible than ever – hosting events that have broken viewership records.

As play and instruction go virtual, the game itself is changing. Gone are perceptions of stodgy intellectualism that once surrounded the sport. Chess in 2020 is younger, faster, more adventurous, and more diverse. 

Yet most important to Ms. Krush and millions of other players is that chess, unlike so much else this year, never left. 

“If I was an athlete … I would have not been able to participate in my sport,” says Ms. Krush. “Chess definitely has that advantage. Even under pretty extreme circumstances like this, and even when your health goes down, you’re still able to participate.” 

An elegant evolution 

With just 32 pieces and 64 squares, chess has a gift for complexity through simplicity that has helped it survive for centuries – even remotely. Since the early 1900s, correspondence chess players living worlds apart have mailed each other their moves via postcard, playing games that lasted for months, says Tony Rich, executive director of the Saint Louis Chess Club. 

Courtesy of Saint Louis Chess Club
Grandmaster Fabiano Caruana plays grandmaster Wesley So online in the Clutch Chess USA finals tournament. Amid the pandemic, interest in online chess has surged.

But the last time chess experienced a renewal like this year’s came in the 1990s, when computers began to challenge the game’s doctrines, says Mr. Rich. In that way, the boom in online play is now just accelerating the decadeslong marriage of chess and advanced technology. 

“Chess and the internet, it just works really well together,” says Jennifer Shahade, the women’s program director at the U.S. Chess Federation. “You don’t have to reset the pieces; you start a new game right away. … It can sometimes be enhanced online, which is often not the case for other subjects.”

What’s different now is the volume of interest, says Nick Barton, director of business development at Chess.com. The website added 650,000 or so users in each of the first two months of 2020, says Mr. Barton. Since March, those numbers have entered the millions – with more than 1.6 million joining in June. 

This growth involves enormous demographic change. Chess has long been heavily male, but Chess.com’s users include a disproportionately high number of women and girls, says Mr. Barton. Its new players also skew younger, he says. 

The chess personalities attracting these new users are, in turn, changing the face of the sport itself. 

“We’re kind of seeing the great chess player merged with the great entertainer,” says Ms. Shahade. 

Chess Twitch streamers – who garner an avid following – balance education and entertainment. Without an in-person audience, live commentators have become livelier as well. 

“It’s high-class entertainment,” says Maurice Ashley, a grandmaster and commentator, who helped launch Clutch Chess, an innovative international tournament developed this year. 

Part of what aids that excitement is the fast-paced nature of online chess, compared with over-the-board. Among its most serious players, in-person chess matches can last four to five hours. Many online games – known as blitz or bullet chess – last only five to 10 minutes, which forces players into more intuitive and unpredictable – and hence exciting – tactics.

“You make all these beautiful designs and plans, and all of a sudden somebody plays some wild idea that you didn’t suspect and the pieces clash,” says Mr. Ashley. “It’s just chaos, pandemonium all over.”

Forget esports or streaming, he says: Why wouldn’t someone want to watch war on a board? 

Ms. Krush certainly does, but she prefers playing. On a good day, she spends an hour or two online testing strategies against unwitting opponents. 

Since the advent of summer camps and other chess classes she runs, there’s been less time for casual play, she says. But chess is still there, even when her health is not. 

“I was always aware that chess was very good for the infirm and disabled and sick,” she says. “It’s literally the only thing I can really do. Where else can I compete in top-level events when I feel this way?”

She looks forward to the return of over-the-board play and returning to it herself. But until then, she’ll continue playing and watching, learning and teaching – adopting all the lessons chess has to offer, in a year of such tumult. 

“Chess can survive these rather unpleasant circumstances,” says Ms. Krush. “It can survive and it can even thrive.”

Editor’s note: As a public service, we have removed our paywall for all pandemic-related stories.

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