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The World of Chess Streaming

The World of Chess Streaming

Like the game of chess itself, live streaming on OTT platforms can be an uphill task. But not if you cross the strategic prowess of a community of GMs and IMs with the ease of streaming available today

The genesis of chess streaming lies in the FIDE Online Chess Olympiad 2020 (Illustration: Nilanjan Das) The genesis of chess streaming lies in the FIDE Online Chess Olympiad 2020 (Illustration: Nilanjan Das)

Imagine an oddly-shaped but familiar square board game on your mobile screen, only this one is adorned with not two but four sets of 16 pieces. Each set is arranged neatly on the board’s four sides, according to their colour—red, blue, yellow and green. Beside them is a smaller rectangular box divided into four spaces with as many faces peering in from them. There’s another face hanging in a corner outside the rectangle, frantically checking to see if everything is in order.

What you see underway is a game of the new-age, OTT avatar of one of the world’s oldest and stodgiest sports, chess, being played by four players for an audience on YouTube. The four peering faces, the players, are Indian Grandmaster (GM) Vidith Gujrathi with red pieces; GM Anish Giri from the Netherlands (blue pieces); FIDE Master and prolific YouTube chess streamer from North America Alexandra Botez (yellow); and chess commentator and player Antonio Radic from Croatia, better known by his YouTube moniker, Agadmator, with green pieces.

Lastly, there is the commentator and host, stand-up comedian Samay Raina, who flags off the game with some sagacious advice to the players to make friends on the chess board, and then betray them or perish. As the game begins, the live stream is filled with voices of these acute chess players trying to goad and cajole each other to go after the other players’ pieces.

This isn’t ‘serious’ stuff, in the sense that this is no professional tournament. But live-streaming of chess games now attracts participants ranging from professional GMs and Woman GMs, to comedians, cricket players and even business personalities. The usually 64-squared board—sometimes it’s 160 squares in four-player chess—witnesses several off-the-record, live-streamed games and tournaments.

The genesis of chess streaming lies in the FIDE Online Chess Olympiad 2020 that was organised after the 44th Chess Olympiad got postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, says Indian GM Srinath Narayanan. “The streaming started when I saw the amount of interest—70,000 people watching the final. It was incredible, the passion of the people. How willing they were to help the team in every way possible. As soon as the Olympiad ended, I started streaming in about a week or so.” Narayanan belongs to the growing tribe of Indian pro-chess players, enthusiasts and followers who cover professional tournaments, live-stream their casual games, and/or review and commentate on chess games played around the global professional chess circuit.

As more chess players have turned streamers, the game has benefitted immensely. It has started shedding its reputation of being a boring, incomprehensible mind-bender. And the audience is attracted to the live streams and recordings due to the lively banter and trash talk that usually accompanies any match-up between the very competitive top pro-chess players. The pleasure of watching them take down their opponents and explain how they are doing it is a heady combination.

Sample this: As the first pieces move across the board, GM Gujrathi pitches for an alliance and GM Giri takes him up on his offer; FIDE Master Botez chimes in with the insight that all the GMs cannot gang up against the streamers and the alliance needs to be broken. Host Raina suggests that Gujrathi is a veteran of the format, and all three of them should first team up to eliminate him.

A shocked Gujrathi disbelievingly says he cannot trust the alliance with Giri and makes a move to test his loyalty. In response, a little hurt Giri lets his Bishop be taken by Gujrathi to prove him wrong. Suddenly, the quiet but observant Agadmator butts in to say that it makes sense to go after Gujrathi since he has an extra Queen converted from a Pawn. As Agadmator says this, Gujrathi confronts Giri on targeting his Bishop. Giri assertively replies that he is just defending his own Bishop. While the two grandmasters resolve their little kerfuffle, Botez deviously asks Agadmator if he’s interested in working as a team to take on the GMs, since she senses a crack in their alliance.

The combination of shop talk and trash talk is almost irresistible. On display for the audience is every bit of nuanced calculation, permutation, combination, collaboration, co-operation, deal-making, deal-breaking and negotiation skills available in the players’ arsenal, deployed by them to get the upper hand in the game.

While there is a lot to learn for an astute student of the game, the sheer entertainment factor of the streams combined with how interesting and insightful the game itself is, has made chess approachable again, says International Master (IM) and Woman GM Tania Sachdev. “There is this serious image attached to chess. But suddenly seeing chess players just have fun has made it more approachable again. People have rekindled their love for the game and I think streaming has a big role to play in that.”

Srinath concurs: “I had never seen such numbers of people interested in chess. There were a lot of people interested in chess, but people who didn’t know how to play chess but still wanted to watch, that was something new to see.”

Even though chess is said to have originated somewhere in the Indian subcontinent, the roots of the game are lost in the sands of time. But that has not prevented the game from cultivating a loyal fan base in the country. “You now have people who are watching people play chess. They love it when you play tournaments; they are connected with you. It has definitely become something that everyone enjoyed, but there was this catalyst that was required to make it into a more mainstream thing. Everyone knew about chess, but people were almost scared to play. It can be very intimidating. But now, once you get into it, people are just addicted to the game,” is how Sachdev puts it.

Although live streaming of chess games is in its infancy in India, it presents a lot of opportunity for growth in terms of streaming official tournaments, sponsorship deals, covering and reviewing professional matches, engaging with viewers, subscribers and the players themselves. Says Ashish Pherwani, EY India Media & Entertainment Leader: “Unlike broadcast that only allows content with mass appeal, streaming allows for content with a niche appeal to find a home and get distributed, and chess fits into that. It’s not a mass sport, it is extremely intellectual but it has a dedicated following. Streaming of chess games provides for a kind of lower cost, lower reach model but a very dedicated fan base of people watching.”

In the same vein, Sagar Shah, an IM and Co-founder & CEO of ChessBase India, continues that although he started the company in 2017 with the intention of supporting the game’s growth in India, its business, too, has grown substantially over time. He adds that when they started, there was no fixed revenue model apart from the fact that ChessBase software brought in inflow whereby they could keep going and maintain the website.

“Our revenue sources are divided into the sale of products and the media-related activities that we do. But from the perspective of cashing in, we are very careful. Our vision is to grow chess and make it the most popular sport in the country. The money will follow if we direct our energy in growing the sport.”

But the financial aspect of the game is not what keeps driving the community of chess players and audience into each other’s arms. Rather, it is the thrill of watching the very serious and competitive professional chess players let their hair down and blow off some steam while engaged in a friendly joust against peers.

For example, in the stream described above, the true colour of the players’ intentions are revealed when Gujrathi takes Botez’s Queen with his Queen and Giri takes one of her Pawns with his Queen. In turn, she takes Gujrathi’s Queen with her Knight, and Giri and Gujrathi try to cajole Agadmator to go after Botez’s pieces, which will eliminate her from the game. Agadmator says if he does that, he will be left to fight two GMs alone, which doesn’t seem like such a good idea. The alliance between the GMs comes to an abrupt halt as Agadmator refuses to checkmate Gujrathi’s King, which gives Gujrathi an opportunity to take Giri’s Queen.

The live stream goes on like this for another hour with many a thrust and parry of pieces moved forward to attack or pulled back to defend, and as the game ends with Giri eliminated first, followed by Botez, all the players agree that a rematch is in order since they were not very familiar with the format. And, so it goes again.

Meanwhile, to satisfy your chess streaming urge, go watch the 44th Chess Olympiad being held in Mamallapuram, Chennai. India has fielded 30 players in six teams, and the streaming platforms are buzzing with the tournament’s live feed, news and tidbits.