Fabiano Caruana was in a bit of a hurry. The top-rated American chess player and No. 2 player in the world wanted to dispose of India’s Vidit Gujrathi as quickly as possible. He had to go to the bathroom.
Caruana was unable to take a momentary pause from the game, utilize the restroom and then return to action because he had to be in front of his computer at all times as per the anti-cheating rules of the FIDE Chess.com Online Nations Cup, which also included an arbiter and proctor assigned to monitor each player and multiple cameras showing every angle, including screens, at all times.
During in-person events, participants are able to walk around, use the restroom or compose themselves.
“I think cheating is an enormous problem for online chess,” Caruana says. “In online chess, if a player is not on camera if they’re not being monitored in any way and there’s a lot of money on the line, there are players who are tempted to cheat. For very large tournaments, I don’t know if there’s a solution for it because you can’t have 1,000 people on camera. I’m sure there’s a solution to the problem, but chess organizations who do online events will have to find it.”
Online chess—particularly faster games including blitz and speed chess—is seeing a rapid growth in interest and participation, particularly with most people confined to their homes as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Chess.com had 1.5 million new subscribers in April, compared with 670,000 in January; the site also estimates five years of growth over three months. Daily registration numbers at Chess24.com have tripled in many countries since the beginning of the pandemic while the number of games played daily on average has doubled compared with this time last year.
The International Chess Federation (FIDE) launched “Checkmate Coronavirus” on May 18—the biggest online chess marathon ever, with an estimated 1.5 million games to be played across more than 2,000 tournaments in 720 hours of nonstop action until June 16.
World No. 1 Magnus Carlsen, who defended his title against Caruana at the 2018 World Chess Championship in London, even launched his own online chess tour—the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour—with a combined $1 million in total purse making it the richest in online chess.
“Online chess was sort of making a resurgence in a way,” Caruana says. “A number of websites and creative events were coming up. We had already seen that happening, but because of the world situation, it’s now a necessity—it’s really the only way we can play chess. At some point, things will normalize, and we’ll go back to a balance of over-the-board events and online events.
“It’s nice to see chess websites and clubs are taking the initiative creating events for players when we’d normally have nothing to do in a time like this. It’s nice to see new types of events, so we’re seeing some creative ways in making new tournaments.”
One of those creative tournaments is Clutch Chess, created by grandmaster and chess commentator Maurice Ashley and hosted by St. Louis Chess Club. The $100,000 event, which features the top four American players, including Caruana, takes place May 26-29.
In traditional chess tournaments, games are played in a best-of-12 format, with one point awarded per win and a half-point per draw. In order to build suspense, Ashley devised a format where Games 1-4 are scored traditionally, Games 5 and 6 are worth two points per win (one point per draw) and Games 7-10 go back to traditional scoring, with the match culminating with three-point contests in Games 11 and 12.
Not only are the “Clutch Games” worth more points, but they have accompanying monetary values attached to them as well—Games 5 and 6 are worth an extra $2,000 while Games 11 and 12 are $3,000 each. If any of those games end in a draw, the money carries over to the next game, so the winner can potentially take home even more money.
The four Americans competing are: Caruana (world No. 2), Wesley So (world No. 8), Leinier Dominguez (world No. 14) and Hikaru Nakamura (world No. 18).
“To me, it’s similar to the addition of the 3-point shot in basketball,” says Ashley, who became the first African-American chess grandmaster in 1999. “That changed the whole game. This is what I hope this scoring will do.”
Caruana, who was intrigued by the modified scoring system, says he isn’t going into the event with a different game plan or mind-set than for a traditional tournament, but that may change as the tournament progresses.
“It really puts a lot of pressure on particular games which makes it similar to high-stakes events,” he says, adding “It does give a chance for a player trailing to make a comeback but puts pressure on you if you have a lead because it might evaporate in one game, for example.”
Ashley saw an opportunity to launch this innovative event with the world and live sports on pause as a result of the coronavirus. He said he sees this time as a massive opportunity for chess to not only keep its players and die-hard audience entertained but also to capture the attention of casual viewers who might normally be in an office during the day or preoccupied with other sporting events.
“The good news for chess is at least chess can actually do it,” he says. “Major sports can’t. LeBron (James) can’t play against Steph Curry or the Lakers can’t play against the Bucks with everybody in their living room. In chess, the best of the best can play each other without missing a beat.
“I think chess right now realizes this moment is huge. The top players see this as an opportunity. Even if we go back to live chess tournaments, now is an opportunity to grab an audience you could never even dream of having before. That’s an opportunity for chess, and they’re taking advantage of it.”
While Carlsen is the face of his new online chess tour, the Norwegian has ventured into the online realm in the past, albeit under an alias.
DrDrunkenstein has wreaked havoc across the online chess community for years—popping into tournaments and soaring to the top of the scoreboard. Carlsen has also used DannytheDonkey to win tournaments; in December 2017, he won Lichess.org’s Titled Bullet Arena, an exclusive tournament for master-level players featuring one-minute games, and donated the prize money back to the website. DrDrunkensteinlived up to his name in a Lichess.org tournament the following month, with Carlsen streaming his matches on Twitch while drinking Coronas and bantering in Norweigian with friends.
Nakamura has also embraced the online movement. The five-time United States Chess Champion is the top-rated blitz chess player and is the most-followed chess channel on Twitch, boasting more than 235,000 followers. He was named the top-ranked English language streamer on Twitch on May 17.
Caruana had a momentary foray into Twitch and online streaming at the behest of Chess.com in May 2018; his “Chess.com Evening Blitz Session!” garnered 21,892 views.
“I did a few hours of streaming, but it wasn’t entirely my thing, and it quickly got dropped because I was preparing for the World Chess Championship that year,” he says. “I never really got back into it. I do enjoy watching these events when I’m not playing them. It’s nice to be able to watch chess from the comfort of your own home; especially if it’s rapid or blitz chess, it’s very entertaining.
“I appreciate the community and events, but personally I don’t really take much to streaming. I can’t say for sure I won’t pick it up at some point, but I don’t have much of an inclination at the moment.”
Ashley, on the other hand, is slowly succumbing to streaming after being encouraged to join for years. He remains steadfast with the type of content he wants to publish while seeing the benefit of providing fans and chess aficionados with access to the content and accessibility of a grandmaster.
“Chess had this tradition of players being boring introverts with no personalities—typical stereotypes—but now with things like Twitch streams, you see someone like Hikaru trash-talking while he’s playing, and Magnus as the No. 1 egghead in the world is actually good-looking, funny, witty,” Ashley says. “It’s personal access (fans have) never had before. The mere fact you feel like you’re in his living room, hearing him talk and watching him play, that’s never happened before. It really is a golden age of access for fans, who can really participate in that whole process and have fun with a game they love.
“But I’m not sure all of this is a good thing. That’s why I’ve shied away from it for so long. How much access am I going to give people in my private space? I’m going to control it. I want to show people real chess and give lessons, not so much play and banter but more educational entertainment. We’ll see if it works.”
While the future of the sport will undoubtedly revert back to over-the-board in-person tournaments played around the world from St. Louis to Moscow, online chess may serve as a nice complement, not only for world-class players but especially for amateurs and rising stars who can make a name for themselves no matter where in the world they are, all while being in the comfort of their own home.
Until then, grandmasters and novices alike have an endless list of online tournaments, Twitch channels, apps and streaming services to get their fix of the never-ending battle between black and white.
“This is going to continue to some degree,” Ashley says. “How much is the question. The players themselves are going to want a part of that lifestyle—to travel and go to all these great places. I think the landscape has definitely changed, but if Magnus can be sitting somewhere in Oslo and we can have him do a Clutch Chess match against Nakamura for $250,000, no one is going to say ‘no’ to that. It’s going to be where the money is.
“I think the landscape has definitely changed much like the world has changed. The future will tell us exactly what that blend will be of online versus live.”