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How Olympiad win and 'Queen's Gambit' exploded chess culture in pandemic

How Olympiad win and Queens Gambit exploded chess culture in pandemic

The Bridge Desk

Published: 28 May 2020 8:28 AM GMT

At a time sporting activity was hit hard across the globe due to COVID-19 pandemic, chess is one sport which seemed to keep ticking, thanks to technology as online tournaments kept players busy. There has been a spurt in the number of online chess events during this coronavirus-forced lockdown. After the recent Online Nations Cup, FIDE (world chess federation) president Arkady Dvorkovich said the chess world was moving online which would help the sport reach its full potential.

Prominent players took part in the events on a regular basis while it was exposure for the up-and-coming ones. Some players raised funds to fight against COVID-19 pandemic. Tournaments/events were conducted through online platforms - chess.com and lichess.org. Five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand in an earlier interaction with PTI said that chess had adapted quite well during this global crisis by going online. Several Indian Grandmasters said the online tournaments kept them occupied. Grandmaster B Adhiban and Woman Grandmaster D Harika said online chess was helpful during times like the lockdown as it helps one stay in touch with the game.

GM R R Laxman GM R R Laxman (Source: Chess.com-India/Facebook)

"I like playing online chess, as I feel quite relaxed and you can be very fast." Adhiban said. On her part, Harika said, "It is very good in these times when you are in a lockdown." GM R R Laxman, who also took part in online events regularly, said: "It is a wonderful initiative. It provides players practice and opportunity to stay in touch with the game. "Online tournaments provide up-and-coming a players chance to compete with GMs and higher-rated players. At such times, the online events are a boon," Laxman added. He said there was the added incentive of prize money also. Rakesh Kulkarni, an International Master and Director at chess.com-India, which has been conducting events regularly during the lockdown, said organising (online events) was a different kind of challenge as it required to ensure fair games.

Online platforms like Chess.com and Chess24 report surging activity. Chess-themed streamers, who play live on the video-sharing website Twitch, have tripled and quadrupled their followers. With the world’s best players just a click away, grandmasters are more accessible than ever – hosting events that have broken viewership records.

As play and instruction go virtual, the game itself is changing. Gone are perceptions of stodgy intellectualism that once surrounded the sport. Chess in 2020 is younger, faster, more adventurous, and more diverse. The last time chess experienced a renewal like this year’s came in the 1990s, when computers began to challenge the game’s doctrines. This growth also involves enormous demographic change. Chess has long been heavily male, but Chess.com’s users include a disproportionately high number of women and girls.

Further, the chess culture exploded recently, a month after Netflix began streaming the original series “The Queen’s Gambit.” Set in the 1950s and ’60s, the show features as its main character an orphaned young woman named Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy who climbs the American and international circuits while battling personal trauma, self-doubt and addiction. Netflix said this past week that 62 million households have watched the series since its Oct. 23 premiere; the service said it is the most-watched show in dozens of countries.

Its depictions of concepts such as fighting-against-all-odds, women empowerment, and talent-triumphs-privilege have resonated globally. Since the release of the series on October 23, Google reported that searches for ‘chess’ are at their highest level in 14 years. Search volumes for 'How to play chess', according to Netflix, has hit a nine-year peak. The Queen’s Gambit has become Netflix’s most-watched scripted show ever, with a record 62 million households having watched it in the first 28 days, making it one of the top 10 in 92 countries and No 1 in 63 countries.

India's Chess Olympiad win, The Queen's Gambit, and the massive amount of media coverage have become catalysts in creating immense interest for chess in the country over the last few months

"The technical aspects are taken care by the website/platform. So, there is no human error for pairings, results and standings. Arbiters/Umpires are also not needed," he told PTI. "...But, the challenge is to ensure fair games and see that there is no cheating. We have to ensure thorough checking to avoid computer cheating (especially in cash events). Another aspect is to allow players to reconnect and rejoin if their internet gets disconnected (especially in India)," he added. He said it was difficult to compare across the board events and online tournaments. "The players enjoy online games as they can play from the comfort of their homes. It is also faster than normal chess. But, there is very less reward/recognition to win online than over the board events. People love both for their own unique ways," he said.

Kulkarni also said conducting online events helped organisers save cost. "Many organisers are saving on costs like booking a venue, setting up chess boards, paying personnel, chairs/tables and many more expenses. Organising an online event only requires marketing," he added. Veteran Chennai-based arbiter V Kameswaran said online tournaments had become a 'craze' not only in India but all over the world. "Once over the board chess tournaments begin, this craze may be reduced. Maybe chess has stolen a march over other sports/games because it can be played online," said. Another arbiter V L Anandh Babu of Lesunathan Chess Academy in Tiruchirapally, which has conducted over 60 online tournaments, said these events help keep players busy.

Read Also: Introduction of computers has changed the approach to chess: Viswanathan Anand

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