Friday, January 3, 2020

Chess: 1500 Years Young

Have you ever been a chess player? I don't mean "have you ever played chess?" Everyone has played chess once or twice in their lives. I mean, have you ever determined, intentionally, "I'm gonna be a chess player. I'm going to really learn how to play."

I tried that for the first time this year. I think you should too.

If you care about games, you should care about chess. Chess feels like a myth, like it's more legend than reality. It hangs over the world of games like an all-powerful deity. Try as other games might, nothing has ever truly been able to replicate the raw potential and power of chess. It's maybe the oldest game on the planet still played daily by millions of people, and yet to study it still feels like you're stumbling upon one of the most innovative and complex game designs ever conceived.

Amazingly, as the rise of the digital world has left so many other analog games and hobbies behind, technology seems only to have enhanced chess's power as a game. I don't know if you know this or not, but chess might actually be the biggest its ever been today. I had no idea until I started paying attention, but chess isn't only alive and well, it seems to be in a kind of quiet golden age.

At the time of writing, chess as a game has 586,000 followers on Twitch. By comparison, Teamfight Tactics--one of the hottest new games of the year--has 858,000. Chess is never the most popular game on Twitch, not by far, but as you start to pay attention you'll frequently see Chess break into the top 50 as different events happen around the world. Hikaru Nakamura, one of the great American grandmasters playing the game today, enjoys a respectable 83,832 Twtich followers at the time of writing. Any way you count it, Chess has a real, healthy audience even on a digital-native platform built specifically for the world's newest and biggest videogames.

But that's just Twitch.  Over on YouTube, agadmator's Chess Channel has 533,000 subscribers, and is closing in on 200 million total views. For its part, at the time of writing boasts 32,788,996 members on its home page, with 3,694,695 games played per day. Compare that to Rocket League--one of esports' darlings of the last 5 years--which was boasting 50 million players in 2018. is impressive, but it's also a business. treats chess more like a traditional free-to-play videogame--you get a certain number of puzzles and plays per day for free, and you can buy additional access to tutorials, lessons, puzzles, and more via different subscription tiers. That's all fine and good, and I'm genuinely glad to see it succeed--especially because is one of the major funders of many of the biggest chess events of the year, which I've loved watching.

However, because Chess is so old, one of the greatest things about it is that no one owns it, so it can also live outside the bounds of traditional gaming monetization and business models. To see what that world looks like, you can head over to

When I discovered Lichess last year, it felt like cheating the system somehow. Like it couldn't be real and at some point there would be some kind of catch. Turns out, there isn't. Lichess is one of those rare moments where all of the best parts of the internet and humanity come together to create something that's just genuinely good--and truly free.

Number of games played per month on Image source:

You can think of Lichess as the Wikipedia of chess. It's open source, was created by volunteers and is maintained entirely by donations. It's been in the works for years, and thanks to countless hours of work by untold numbers of enthusiastic volunteers, now enjoys a huge number of features, including live broadcasts, tools to study and learn, connections to live coaches around the world, customizable boards and pieces, as well as nine different versions of chess to play and a wide range of time limits and modes. You can challenge friends, strangers, or multiple levels of AI, and you can even have the AI analyze your games after the fact to show you where you made mistakes and what would have been a better move.

You can also do this:


This is a game between me and a coworker, which you can now freely study, replay, and analyze right here on my blog with a fully-functional embedded tool--again, all for free. This is the kind of amazing stuff that can happen when a game isn't owned by a company, but instead is free for enthusiastic fans to do whatever they think people would want to do with it.

I can't help but think that all of these digital tools (and of course I haven't even begun to scratch the actual surface of everything computers have done for chess), has also helped bring about a golden age of chess skill. By literally every measure, the greatest chess player ever to play the game is playing today--and he's not some old dude, he's this guy:

Magnus Carlsen. Image source @MagnusCarlsen on Twitter
Born November 30, 1990, Magnus Carlsen is technically younger than me (by like two months, but still). He's currently the world champion in classic, rapid, and blitz (again). He has achieved the highest FIDE rating ever recorded, along with about a million other achievements, most of which start with "youngest ever to..." To call him the "Michael Jordan of chess" would be an understatement. I'm not sure even saying "Michael Phelps of chess" is saying enough. He's probably among the highest achieving competitors in any international competition of any kind in human history. I honestly don't think that's an exaggeration. And he's a millenial. And his game of choice isn't Fortnite or Call of Duty or FIFA (although he's also currently ranked number 1 in the world in the Premier League's official Fantasy League, so...kind of), it's chess.

Yeah, but maybe he's just an anomaly. The rest of the guys playing chess are all old, though. Right? Well, here's number two in the world right now:

Fabiano Caruana, number 2 in the world. Image source Wikipedia.
This is Fabiano Caruana. This guy's even younger--born July 30, 1992.

I think I've made my point: despite being one of the oldest games still in existence, chess is being driven today by the latest technology and the rising generation. In a time where everyone is lamenting the death of old traditions and non-digital interaction, chess is maybe more alive and well than it's ever been--on and off the internet.

Did you know all this? Maybe you knew this. But I didn't. And I learned it all this year because I got frustrated with crappy mobile games (again) and decided to just pay $2 to download a chess app. I started getting into it, so I started Googling around. I don't know what I was expecting of chess, but it certainly wasn't this vibrant golden age of the free technology and greatest minds to ever play the game. Why aren't we talking more about this?

In the end all I'm saying is this: if you've never been a Chess player, but you think you might want to try, amazingly, there's literally never been a better time than now. This game's 1,500+ years old and it's bigger and better than it's ever been. It's a modern human miracle and I love it.

No comments:

Post a Comment