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Sunday, March 3, 2024

The Grandmaster Who Got Twitch Hooked on Chess

One day in May, chess grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura was watching the last two moves of Felix “xQc” Lengyel’s online chess game. Ever-patient, Nakamura had been mentoring Lengyel, a top Twitch streamer and former Overwatch pro, on his chess journey since April. Despite fan and viewer criticism that Lengyel wasn’t very good, Nakamura believed that his pupil had talent. Streaming himself watching Lengyel’s match, Nakamura analyzed the board for his viewers. “The guy has one move here.” Then, more doubtful: “He’s not gonna take with the rook and make a stalemate…?”

After a millisecond more mental math, Lengyel did just that. He hadn’t seen the winning move. Lengyel’s viewers completely lost it in his Twitch chat: “STALEMATE,” “SO BAD,” “you had checkmate,” and a barrage of Pepe the Frog and Omegalul emotes. Not yet realizing his mistake, Lengyel said, “GG?,” or “good game?”. His eyes shift back and forth, still unsure. Nakamura, silent, stared at the ceiling. The viral clip viewers created of that moment is titled “Talent.”

Nakamura is a five-time US chess champion. At age 15, he was the youngest-ever American prodigy to earn the “grandmaster” title. He helped the US win a gold medal at the 2016 chess Olympiad and, to this day, remains among the top 20 chess players in the world. But since the pandemic has paused over-board, or IRL, tournaments, Nakamura has magicked his life as a chess pro into a full-time gig streaming and commentating on chess on Twitch.

In March, when he first started streaming in earnest, an average of 2,000 people tuned in live to watch Nakamura. As quarantine intensified, that number jumped to 18,000. Now his fanbase has grown to 366,000 followers. And as his fivehead chess plays and genius-guy stunts have attracted the notice of the most popular streamers on Twitch, they’ve sought him out to learn the 1,500-year-old game—in turn bolstering its notoriety, and Nakamura’s, among gamers. Chess is having a watershed moment on Twitch, a platform known for clutch Counter-Strike plays and Call of Duty pop-offs. As a category, its popularity has grown six times over since March.

“It’s getting big exposure in a way that I don’t think has happened in a very long time,” says Nakamura in an interview with WIRED. It was the first day he hadn’t streamed in the last 60. Riding on this wave of interest is Twitch’s new PogChamps chess tournament, ongoing between June 5 and 19 in partnership with Chess.com, which features streamers who’d earned their laurels in Fortnite, League of Legends, or Starcraft II. Nakamura has been providing commentary along the way.

League of Legends streamer Albert “Boxbox” Zheng adored chess in elementary school, but stopped playing when he was around nine. One day, after hearing about some grandmaster chess guy’s stream popping off, he dropped into Nakamura’s channel to watch him play blindfolded. “I wrote in his chat afterwards, like, ‘That was amazing.’ Then he saw my name in the chat, and was like, ‘Is that the BoxBox?’” Nakamura fished Zheng out and asked him to come on stream and play against him.

“He blew my mind with how deep chess goes,” says Zheng.

Nakamura challenged Zheng to a game, but Nakamura would start without a queen. Zheng thought, There’s no way he can beat me without a queen. Of course, Nakamura crushed him. Nakamura began removing more pieces, starting the game with fewer and fewer, until, Zheng says, “I finally won when he basically had nothing. I was hooked.”

Nakamura’s impressive, lightly trollish chess gimmicks—blindfolded matches, matches without queens or rooks, solving as many puzzles as he can in five minutes—have spurred Twitch’s top personalities to try the game for themselves. Instead of looking down his nose at these pro gamers who come to him for guidance, he exudes respect for Lengyel (“legendary character”), who has three million followers, or Saqib “Lirik” Zahid, who has 2.6 million followers (“honored by his visit”). Now, top Hearthstone, Fortnite, and Valorant streamers are sliding into Nakamura’s DMs asking for coaching. Nakamura has in turn developed his own streaming persona, somewhere between a proud dad and a laughing supergenius.

On stream, Nakamura has described his new role as Twitch’s chess ambassador as his “calling.” In retrospect, he says, it makes sense; after winning his first championship in 2005, Nakamura says he went over to the hotel lobby to play blitz, or speed, games against random audience members until two or three in the morning. (Nakamura is now the top blitz player in the world.) “I’ve always wanted to bring it to the masses,” he says. In his chat, viewers tell Nakamura that they hadn’t played or watched chess since they were kids, but were intrigued by their favorite streamers’ newfound interest.

“When I work with streamers, I’m trying to get them to have fun, but also these ‘aha!’ moments,” says Nakamura. “Moments where they see little combinations or little tricks, that’s really the goal. They’re not going to be great, but if they can learn something from it and they’re having fun, for me, that means I’m doing a good job.”

Nakamura’s mission to bring a populist movement to chess runs up against the game’s marked culture of elitism. There’s a tendency among some chess devotees to look down on streamers learning, and sometimes making mistakes, so publicly. Zheng has been shocked at how antagonistic his Twitch chat gets when he streams chess; sometimes, he can’t even look at it. “League is known for toxicity. Chess, surprisingly, is even worse,” he says, describing the phenomenon as “backseat gaming.”

“There are a lot of people who are miles better than me—I don’t deny that—who get mad that me, a new player, can’t pick up the game and instantly be an expert at it,” says Zheng. “People will shove and yell moves down my throat. Not only is it annoying, oftentimes it’s wrong and very aggressive.”


Chess mastermind and Twitch streamer Alexandra Botez, a Woman FIDE Master, who has also seen huge growth in her channel, says that elitism extends to the broader chess community, too. “Your worth is really determined by your ranking, especially in the tight-knit circles of people who dedicated their lives to chess.” She’s watched on as a lot of other top chess players have tried streaming on Twitch without seeing anywhere near her or Nakamura’s success. She attributes it to Nakamura’s ability to engage with Twitch culture on its own terms, memeing with viewers and gamely replying to their questions. Other top players prefer to remain distant, viewing Twitch as a platform rather than a cultural organism.

“Some people are worried, like, ‘Why do we want the game to grow bigger?’ They’d rather gatekeep it and keep it a classy, protected game versus what they see as watering it down, dumbing it down or selling it out,” says Botez, whose channel has 180,000 followers.

Nakamura regularly addresses that elitist attitude on stream—one that he says people have toward him. “Everyone doesn’t have their whole life to spend playing the game,” Nakamura once said on Twitch. “Things happen in life and you have normal jobs and whatnot. So for me, it’s more important to bring the game to everyone than be like, ‘I’m better than these people.’” It’s a perspective he grew into. As a kid, he says, “I had a toxic period.” On closed online chess servers, Nakamura says he’d often get very, very angry when he lost games, sometimes accusing people of cheating or calling them names. His perspective on this is simple: “You have to learn what you can and cannot do.”

Plainly, Nakamura does not consider himself better than the pro gamers—just better at chess. He’s awed by Lengel’s Overwatch abilities and by Zheng’s League of Legends skills. Skill recognizes skill.

Puzzling over a game played by Sebastian Hans Eli Fors, known on Twitch as Forsen, Nakamura wondered whether Fors had played chess as a child. He had a “natural talent,” he says, after describing “bishop to B-8” as “pure class.” A viewer remarked that he played the real-time strategy game StarCraft 2. “You can do it. You can do it. He sees it. Take the pawn,” Nakamura commentated for viewers. “YES!,” he yelled, grinning. Fors couldn’t hear Nakamura; they were on separate streams. “I win,” said Fors as he looked at the board, before pausing to rethink. “Wait, it’s a draw.”

“It’s not a draw,” Hikaru said, still grinning. “He sees it. Very, very good,” with a thumbs-up.

“It’s a draw,” said Fors. “Oh. It’s not a draw. I win.” He grins, too. “GET FUCKED, MOTHERFUCKA!” Nakamura responded with a debonair golf clap toward the camera.

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