Chess has much in common with video games — not least, the eager disdain of uninformed critics. An 1859 article in Scientific American noted the achievements of Paul Morphy ‘vanquishing the most distinguished chess players of Europe’ but concluded sniffily that ‘skill in this game is neither a useful nor graceful accomplishment’. You can’t please everyone. Gamers are used to suffering the same old brickbats — their pursuits are addictive, isolating, sedentary, a channel for violent impulses, or just a waste of time. This is mostly silly: games can offer a rich and fulfilling competitive environment. It is enough to consider that even after DeepMind’s AlphaZero attained superhuman levels of skill in go and chess, the popular eSport ‘StarCraft’ still offered a testbed for further AI research. (Last year their AlphaStar attained grandmaster status, ranked above 99.8 per cent of human players.)
Video-game streaming has exploded during lockdown. For a live online audience, players record themselves playing games like Fortnite or League of Legends, with some mix of intensity, commentary and banter. The website Twitch.tv is one of the most popular platforms for streamers, and the audience is big. On average, 2.5 million viewers consume tens of thousands of channels at any given moment. In May they racked up 1.8 billion viewing hours, according to TwitchTracker.com. It is no surprise that the most popular streamers can make an excellent living from subscriptions, donations and sponsorship deals.
On Twitch, chess has found a niche alongside the gamers. At the forefront is Hikaru Nakamura, one of the world’s best, whose exceptional skill in online blitz and bullet chess has won him many fans. As well as streaming many of the top online chess tournaments, he has boosted his profile by engaging with popular streamers of other games, like Felix Lengyel, or ‘xQc’, a former professional Overwatch player. Nakamura is a natural streamer; he looks at ease with the memes, slang and antics that are the web’s stock-in-trade.
Chess.com, which runs another popular channel, recently organised the PogChamps, a competition for 16 popular Twitch gamers willing to try their hand at chess. Many were beginners, so the games were primitive, and easily derided by those who prefer a more refined spectacle. At first I raised an eyebrow too, but I changed my mind. Why not seek out an untapped audience? Some measure of cultural gatekeeping had a place when you could count the TV channels on one hand. Those constraints are long gone, and in 2020 one can broadcast at the click of a button. Let a thousand flowers bloom.
Every little while, I try a game of shogi (Japanese chess). I am unschooled and unskilled, and make basic blunders. But I enjoy it, and return to chess with fresh eyes and a renewed awareness of how dauntingly steep is the road to improvement. I remembered that when I saw a clip posted by the streamer ‘Hutch’ on Twitter (@hutchinson), a few days after he played in the PogChamps finals.
See diagram: Envisaging a smothered mate, Hutch, playing Black, revs up the audience and bristles with innocent glee. I’ve quoted his words below. But the checkmate is a chimera, and his confidence unravels in the instant when he sees that White’s final capture on g1 is with a queen, not with a rook. We’ve all been there!
21…Rxf1+ 22 Rxf1