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The Rise of Chess in a Year of Stress

Here at Stropse we’ve written about the surprising rise of chess in the world of esports previously, and with pieces like Clutch Point’s recent article The Surprise Meteoric Rise of Chess in the Esports Scene, we’re not alone. However, if you stop to think about it, is the resurgence of chess via esports really all that surprising? In Netflix’s original series The Queen’s Gambit, troubled and brilliant aspiring chess grandmaster Beth Harmon says, “Chess can also be beautiful. It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it; I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.” In a year like 2020, one full of uncertainty, tragedy, danger, loneliness, political upheaval, and more, the idea of a “safe,” “predictable,” “world of just 64 squares” sounds extremely appealing.

Chess
Image courtesy of Chess.com

Maybe that’s why, not too long ago, I found myself awake at seven in the morning playing chess online, without having gone to bed since I started playing the night before. I am only one of many people who have found themselves drawn to online chess over the course of the past year, yet by looking at my own personal experience rediscovering chess through esports, I’ve come to better understand the importance of this game and of gaming as a whole in the context of a year like 2020. 

As with most folks, I have found 2020 to be a fairly trying year. In October of 2019, I moved across the country from Chicago to Los Angeles, leaving my family and the majority of my friends in the Midwest. Aside from the typical struggles that come with entirely uprooting one’s life, things were good and I found myself enjoying all that California had to offer. Then, about six months into establishing myself on the West Coast, the Covid-19 pandemic shut everything down. The months following March’s stay-at-home orders and shut-downs are familiar to all of us, so there’s no need to rehash the details; though, it must be said, being half-a-country away from my family hasn’t made the isolation so many of us are facing any easier to deal with. Perhaps that is why, while writing a script for an upcoming video entitled “Top 10 Female Streamers You Should Know About,” my discovery of the Botez Sisters reignited my love of chess.

Image courtesy of BotezLive/Twitter

The Botez Sisters, aka BotezLive, have long established themselves as some of the most popular streamers on Twitch. They primarily play chess, and as I was looking into the content they create, I noticed that they use Chess.com. I made an account and started playing. I’m not exaggerating when I say the hours flew by as I played chess with people in different continents and time zones. In fact, in no time at all, I was surprised to find that the sun was rising and I had rediscovered a game I’d been playing for most of my life. 

As a young child, I remember my father teaching me how to play chess with a delicately-carved wooden chess set. I still remember how we kept the set stored in an intricately-patterned green pillowcase, so as to protect the wood of the board and pieces from damage. My dad bought me a children’s chess book and I remember being entranced by the patterns and pieces and different moves each was capable of. My father, a Marine, was often deployed, and while I’m sure my sisters and mother knew how to play chess, my youthful memories of playing all seem to feature him, even though he wasn’t around as often as other kids’ dads were. As a military family, we moved often and were generally far from our extended family. Then, in 2000, my dad retired from the Marine Corps and we moved back to Chicago. At eleven years old, I suddenly found myself reconnected with a large network of cousins, aunts and uncles, and grandparents on both my mom and dad’s sides. 

It turns out, my Grandpa Jose, whom both my father and I share a name with, was a bit of a chess player. He spoke English, but Spanish was his first language, and my Spanish has never been particularly good. Yet, that didn’t matter when we were playing chess. Although as a family we’d often play card games, it was during our chess matches that I really got to share one-on-one time with my grandfather. I can only recall one time when I beat him, playing outside under a patio umbrella, during one of our family’s regular backyard barbecues. 

Almost as soon as my immediate family had returned to Chicago, I found myself becoming extremely close friends with two of my cousins in particular: Michael and Mark. Mike and Mark were twins, and we were all the same age. In no time we became inseparable. We made our own X-men comic books, played video games, ran around with our other cousins, and spent weekends and summers together. At any given family gathering, the three of us would always be together. Among the things we shared was playing chess. I think they may have known the fundamentals on their own, but either way, I taught them all I knew, and the three of us would take turns facing off against one another, making use of whichever chess set was handy across the various households of our sprawling family.

The Author Playing Chess with his cousins, Mike and Mark. 

Over the years, both Mike and Mark have sadly passed away. My grandfather died in 2015. Now, with the world experiencing a staggering loss of life and me being half a continent away from my family, stumbling upon a game I hadn’t thought much about in ages, it’s no wonder I stayed up through the night playing chess for hours. After a day or two of that though, I found myself concerned about how compelled I was to play games online, so I quit. Cold turkey. I told myself ‘No more online chess.’ Then, of course, about a week after that, Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit.

If you haven’t seen it, The Queen’s Gambit is a Netflix original series adapted from a 1983 novel of the same name. Starring Anya Taylor Joy, The Queen’s Gambit follows Beth Harmon as she struggles for greatness in the male-dominated world of chess. An orphan, prodigy, alcoholic-drug addict, Beth Harmon is a fascinating character, and the show combines all of the ‘50s-60s era style and fashion you could hope for, all while making chess as compelling and dramatic as any fight scene or dance number from the finest examples tv and film have to offer. Needless to say, I went from spending hours playing chess on my computer to downloading the Chess.com app and spending more hours playing on my phone.

The Queen’s Gambit, Image courtesy Netflix

Don’t worry, I have been able to get my habit under control. I no longer play for hours, though I still find myself playing a couple games every day. Chess.com also has lessons, puzzles, and computerized opponents, in case you don’t feel like playing Rapid Chess against real people from across the world. I’ve even been able to play chess with one of my oldest friends, who’s currently living all the way in Scotland. Ultimately, that’s one of the special things about my re-discovery of chess through esports: the sense of connection. Not only do I get to connect with a dear friend who’s literally an ocean away, but in a different way, I get to reconnect with my dad, with my Grandpa Jose, with Michael and Mark, with the highschool buddies from chess club, and with the exes I inexplicably played chess with in the early days of relationships that are now long over. I can’t say the same is true for when I play Smash Bros. on the Switch I spent hundreds and hundreds of dollars getting a few months after the pandemic first hit. 

There’s something amazingly satisfying about winning a game of chess. There’s something even more infuriating about losing. But, as with everything, the more time spent, the more I feel myself learning and growing. I am no Beth Harmon, but I’m a much better chess player now than I was. Now more than ever, I can understand why BotezLive draws in the amount of viewers they do. It’s no wonder to me that American grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura went from being one of the most famous streamers of chess (his current peak record is 45,000 concurrent active viewers) to signing with Team SoloMid back in August of this year.

Image Courtesy Best of Chess.com

In 2020, Chess has apparently taken many by surprise with its popularity as an esport. Viewers and gamers have no doubt been drawn in by such charismatic streamers as Nakamura and the Botez Sisters. Plenty, I’m sure, have been inspired by the endlessly cool/brilliant/troubled Beth Harmon of The Queen’s Gambit. Yet for me, in the trying year that 2020 has proven to be, chess has given me an intellectually stimulating distraction from the troubles of the world that also manages to connect me to some of the people I love—and miss—most. I can’t say I’m particularly surprised by chess’ popularity in 2020, but I am thankful for it.

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