The World of Chess Streaming – BusinessToday
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 tiles. Each set is neatly arranged on the board’s four sides, according to their color—red, blue, yellow, and green. Beside them is a smaller rectangular box divided into four rooms with as many faces peering in from them. There is another face hanging in a corner outside the rectangle, frantically checking to see if everything is okay.
What you see in action is a game of the new age, OTT avatar of one of the world’s oldest and toughest sports, chess, played by four players to a YouTube audience. The four staring faces, the players, are Indian Grandmaster (GM) Vidith Gujrathi with red pieces; GM Anish Giri from the Netherlands (blue pieces); FIDE champion 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.
Finally, it’s the commentator and host, stand-up comedian Samay Raina, who flags the game with some smart advice for the players to make friends on the chessboard, then betray them or perish. When the game begins, the live stream is filled with the voices of these acute chess players trying to trick and cajole each other into going after the other players’ pieces.
This is not “serious” stuff, in the sense that this is not a professional tournament. But live streaming of chess games now attracts participants ranging from professional GMs and Woman GMs, to comedians, cricketers and even business personalities. The usually 64-square board – sometimes there are 160 squares in four-player chess – witnesses several off-the-record, live-streamed games and tournaments.
The origin of chess streaming lies in the FIDE Online Chess Olympiad 2020 which was organized after the 44th Chess Olympiad was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, says Indian GM Srinath Narayanan. “The streaming started when I saw the amount of interest – 70,000 people watched the final. It was amazing, the passion of the people. How willing they were to help the team in any way possible. As soon as the Olympics were over, I started streaming in a week or so.” Narayanan belongs to the growing tribe of Indian chess pro players, enthusiasts and followers who cover professional tournaments, live stream their informal games and/or review and comment on chess games played around the global professional chess circuit.
As more chess players have become streamers, the game has had a huge advantage. It has started to lose its reputation as a boring, incomprehensible mind bender. And audiences are drawn to the live streams and recordings because of the lively banter and trash talk that usually accompanies any showdown between the highly competitive top pro chess players. The joy of watching them take down their opponents and explaining how they do it is a fierce combination.
Try 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 champion Botez comes with the insight that all the GMs cannot unite against the streamers and the alliance must be broken. Host Raina suggests that Gujrathi is a veteran of the format and all three should first join hands to eliminate him.
A shocked Gujrathi says in disbelief that he cannot trust the alliance with Giri and makes a move to test his loyalty. In response, a slightly hurt Giri allows his bishop to be taken by Gujrathi to prove him wrong. Suddenly, the quiet but observant Agadmator says 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 about targeting his bishop. Giri confidently replies that he is only defending his own bishop. As the two Grandmasters settle their little dispute, Botez slyly asks Agadmator if he’s interested in working as a team to take on the GMs, as she senses a crack in their alliance.
The combination of shop talk and trash talk is almost irresistible. On display to the audience is every bit of nuanced calculation, permutation, combination, cooperation, collaboration, deal-making, deal-breaking and negotiation skills available in the players’ arsenal, deployed by them to gain the upper hand in the game. .
While there is much to learn for a keen student of the game, the sheer entertainment factor of the streams combined with how interesting and insightful the game itself is has made chess accessible again, says International Master (IM) and Woman GM Tania Sachdev. “There is a serious image associated with chess. But suddenly seeing chess players just having fun has made it more accessible again. People have rekindled their love for the game and I think streaming has a big part to play in that.”
Srinath agrees: “I had never seen so many people interested in chess. There were a lot of people who were interested in chess, but people who didn’t know how to play chess but still wanted to watch, it was something new to see.”
Although 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 hasn’t stopped the game from cultivating a loyal fan base in the country. “You now have people watching people play chess. They love it when you play tournaments; they are connected to you. It definitely became something that everyone liked, but it was this catalyst that was needed to make it a more mainstream thing. Everyone knew about chess, but people were almost afraid to play. It can be very frightening. 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 offers many opportunities for growth in terms of streaming of official tournaments, sponsorship deals, coverage and review of professional matches, engagement with viewers, subscribers and the players themselves. Says Ashish Pherwani, EY India Media & Entertainment Head: “Unlike broadcasting which only allows content with mass appeal, streaming allows content with a niche appeal to find a home and be distributed, and Chess fits into that. It’s not a mass sport, it’s extremely intellectual, but it has a dedicated following. Streaming chess games provides a kind of lower cost model with lower reach, but a very dedicated fan base of people watching.”
Similarly, Sagar Shah, an IM and co-founder and CEO of ChessBase India, continues that although he started the company in 2017 with the intention of supporting the growth of the game in India, the business has also grown significantly over time. . He adds that when they started, there was no fixed revenue model except that the ChessBase software brought in traffic so they could continue and maintain the website.
“Our sources of income are divided into the sale of products and the media-related activities we engage in. But from the perspective of collection, 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 put our energy into developing the sport.”
But the economic aspect of the game is not what drives the community of chess players and the public 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 their minds as they engage in friendly competition against their peers.
For example, in the flow described above, the true color of the players’ intentions is 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 persuade Agadmator to go after Botez’s pieces, which will eliminate her from the game. Agadmator says that if he does, he’ll 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 when Agadmator refuses to checkmate Gujrathi’s king, giving Gujrathi an opportunity to take Giri’s queen.
The live stream continues like this for another hour with lots of bumping and parrying 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 as they were not very familiar with the format. And so it goes again.
Meanwhile, to satisfy your chess streaming urge, watch the 44th Chess Olympiad being held in Mamallapuram, Chennai. India have fielded 30 players across six teams and the streaming platforms are buzzing with the tournament’s live feed, news and tidbits.