Chess is the sport which has, arguably, given India its greatest ever sportsperson. Since Viswanathan Anand became a Grandmaster 32 years ago, chess has been an integral part of the elite Indian sporting landscape. We now have a total of 65 grandmasters and as many as 5 of them are currently under the age of 16! But the nature of the game has meant that it has always been a bit inaccessible to the masses.
Things have, of course, greatly improved since 1995, when Vishy was locked in an epic World Championship match with Garry Kasparov but the only real way for a fan to follow the match would be to wait anxiously for the evening news to announce the result (something 11-year old me did with unflinching regularity).
Now, chess events are streamed live and commentated on by Grandmasters and International Masters who take you through the position and various scenarios about what could happen 8-10 moves down the line. And the biggest obvious change in chess has been the advent of chess engines, which have made your smartphone a better player than Magnus Carlsen, allowing a fan with next to no chess knowledge to simply look up on his phone who is winning and what move a player must play next in order to maintain his advantage.
However, following a chess engine is still akin to just following the score, as it can be very difficult for the layman to understand why a move is good or bad and why one of the players is winning. And while commentators make their best efforts to explain the same to the fans, sometimes it is difficult for Grandmasters to come down to a layman’s level, resulting in a commentary which can be understood by a decent level amateur chess player but a bit difficult to decipher for the layman fan. As a result, chess has still remained inaccessible compared to other sports.
But, during this unfortunate lockdown, chess has seen a major boom. While most other sports have stopped, chess tournaments involving elite players have still continued to some extent. And tremendous support for this chess boom has come from unexpected quarters, as a few Indian comedians have stepped into the scene from nowhere and have unwittingly made chess fun, humourous and accessible for the layman.
The cocktail of chess and comedy was all started by Samay Raina, season 2 winner of web-series Comicstaan. Samay is someone who used to enjoy chess as a kid, but eventually, like most of us, moved on to other things. In the lockdown though, with his stand-up comedy shows cancelled, he rediscovered chess.
Samay first started off by watching YouTube videos of Agadmator, who runs the most followed chess channel in the world and analyses legendary games from a novice perspective. Once re-acquainted with chess, Samay invited a number of stand-up comics and conducted an online tournament which he live-streamed on his YouTube channel. By his own admission, the aim was just to have something to do in the lockdown and basically have fun at the expense of how bad comedians are at chess. But the chess-comedy combination got some eyeballs and the channel was rolling.
Next, Samay invited Agadmator himself to his channel, and 4 comedians – Biswa Kalyan Rath, Vaibhav Sethia, Abhishek Upmanyu and Samay - teamed up to play against Agadmator. And to everyone’s shock including their own, the comedians actually managed to win, as Agadmator ended up underestimating them a little too much. But then came the breakthrough moment, as India’s No. 2 and World No. 23 Vidit Gujrathi, who is a big stand-up comedy fan himself and was watching, decided to come on to Samay’s channel.
Soon there was a Comedians vs Vidit match, with the comedians having as much time as they wanted, while Vidit had only 3 minutes and used only about 1 min of that to crush the comedians. The most interesting aspect of this match was watching the comedians discussing the moves with each other and trying to come up with the best move, sometimes with even some hints from Vidit himself. But the door was now open, and with Vidit involved, the Indian chess community took notice.
Since then, most of India’s top players have featured on Samay’s streams such as Pentala Harikrishna, Adhiban, Nihal Sarin, Sethuraman, Harika Dronavalli, Tania Sachdev, and even the king himself, Vishy Anand!!! Current World No. 10 Anish Giri has also appeared, as have cricketer and former chess player Yuzvendra Chahal, popular chess streamer Alexandra Botez, International Masters Sagar Shah and Rakesh Kulkarni, blind chess players Darpan Inani and Kishan Gangoli, and of course a host of Indian comedians.
The comedians also provided live commentary on the Online Nations Cup, an elite team tournament conducted during this lockdown with India represented by all of our top players. And between them and the official tournament commentary, I personally chose to watch the comedians simply because it was easier to follow and understand.
With this much support, Samay has also run a few great charity streams (like this and this). These streams feature great fun chess matches in different formats and have raised more than 25 lakhs for various charities. For example, one of the formats regularly featured is a hand-and-brain chess match, where a non-chess player is teamed up with a grandmaster and the grandmaster is only allowed to say which piece is to be moved, while the chess newbie needs to decide where to move it. Another less-tried format has been the tag-team match, where newbies and chess players play as a team while alternating moves.
Besides formats, experiments have also been done with different variants of chess. The most popular of these has been 4-player chess, which consists of a large 4-player board and is a unique and hilarious combination of chess, politics and betrayal. Probably one of Samay’s biggest “gets”, has been to get Anish Giri to play 4-player chess, not just once but twice!! Another format was when Harikrishna played the comedians with only the 8 pawns, the king and 7 knights!! Recently, the chess variant Bughouse was also featured.
Samay has also conducted a subscribers chess tournament which saw over 1500 chess fans contribute to cyclone-relief for West Bengal and play fun chess tournaments over 4 days, parts of which were streamed live and commentated on by comedians and chess players (yours truly participated as well on 2 days and finished a lowly #210 and #407).
And through all of this, Vidit Gujrathi has now become a regular streamer. Samay’s channel has now reached a point where there is at least 1 chess stream daily (sometimes more) and Vidit appears on almost all of these streams. He has also done streams explaining chess and his thinking process from an extremely lay perspective. In fact, Vidit also got inspired to start his own YouTube channel where he does everything from serious chess analysis, to playing casual matches against other grandmasters, to just chilling and having fun streams similar to Samay’s channel.
Another big part of Samay’s channel has been International Master and chess journalist Sagar Shah, who besides appearing on fun streams, also does a chess basics lesson with the comedians every morning.
It is pretty incredible to think that in just 2 months, someone with basically no connection to chess like Samay Raina, just sitting in front of a crappy laptop (and his laptop is crappy!), has not just popularised chess to the point where his live-streams regularly get 10-15k live viewers (often more than streams covering elite chess tournaments receive) but also used chess to raise over 25 lakhs for charity.
So if you thought that chess was inaccessible, think again and start by watching Samay’s channel. Once started, it can be difficult to stop. Besides showing how incredibly skilled these chess players are, these streams conclusively defy the notion that most chess players are “nerds” or “geeks” and show how funny and lively they can be, with the side-effect of teaching you a little bit of chess. Personally for me, it has incomparably been the best way to beat the lockdown blues.
A great starting point would be this, as Vidit will leave you gasping at his skills as he plays 3 games against women’s master Alexandra Botez simultaneously, while blindfolded!!