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The master plan to turn hordes of kids into chess fanatics

Sixteen-year-old Stella Schwartz joined the chess game earlier this year after hearing about the game from her brother Hugh, who was in high school in San Francisco. Alex Post, a freshman at the University of Colorado, started playing chess in February after a few chess-related videos popped up in his Tik Tok feed; then he got the whole fraternity playing.

Many other teens and young adults say they too have recently picked up the habit of playing chess regularly, though they don’t remember how that started. But judging by players, parents, teachers, site metrics, and more, the game’s popularity has exploded.

Since early November, daily active users of Chess.com, a site and app where visitors can get chess news, learn how to play and play against other people and computer opponents, has jumped from 5.4 million to more than 11 million dropped sharply after the beginning of the year. (In December, Chess.com also acquired Play Magnus Group, a company started by world chess champion Magnus Carlsen that includes a mobile chess app.)

According to company estimates of traffic, the biggest growth came from players aged 13 to 17 — 549,000 people visited Chess.com in January and February, more than double the previous two months. The second fastest age group over the same period was 18 to 24 years old. “Everyone, every day,” Ms. Schwartz said. “I’ve seen people having fun at parties.”

Casual observers, as well as newly avid chess players, might attribute this trend to the lockdowns and boredom of the pandemic, or perhaps to the popularity of the 2020 Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gamble.” But there’s also a master plan, crafted by Chess.com, to broaden the game’s appeal and turn millennials and Gen Z into chess pieces. Are they playing chess, or is chess playing them?

“It’s all about high school, college and middle school,” says Chess.com CEO Erik Allebest.

The strategy, he said, was “very deliberate”: dispelling the perception of chess as a hard, geeky battle of wits and instead packaging it on social media as less scary, fun, even fun image of. The games offered on Chess.com can also be tiresome. Timed games can be played for different lengths of time: 10 minutes, 3 minutes, or, if this seems endless, 1 minute. Or is it too long? Enjoy a 30-second race! Sometimes, says Mr Alabest, it’s just exercise for exercise’s sake, “not about getting better.”

Soon, before anyone knew what happened, the game was over and chess was won. “It happened in a very short period of time,” Mr. Alabest said of the game’s online growth, “thanks to some crazy seeds.”

Accidental events — the coronavirus, word of mouth, Mr. Carlson’s good looks — played a role. From February 2020 to February 2021, usage of the Chess.com app jumped from approximately 1.5 million daily active users to approximately 4.5 million.

Behind the scenes, Chess.com is working hard to change the game’s image and attract new players. It’s good for business. While the app allows users to play games for free, its financial model relies on charging for tiers of service, ranging from $6.99 to $16.99 per month, for additional features such as instructional videos and computer analysis of players’ games and movements. The strategy is simple, to reinvent chess as good old fashioned entertainment.

“When I was a kid, chess was for nerds,” Mr Alabest said. “We started selling the fun of chess and the community, not just the top players and news of the top players.” In 2020, the site started hosting tournaments, inviting people who weren’t particularly good at chess but had a large following among young people. of online influencers. These include xQc, a professional video game player and streamer; Ludwig, an esports streamer; MoistCr1TiKal, another streamer and commentator; and Mr. Beast, a 24-year-old YouTube sensation with 147 million subscribers.

Chess.com employs college students to manage its social media presence. Mr Allebest said students were encouraged to be wild and playful and create memes. A recent blog post on the site was titled “Why Chess Sucks” and offered the main reason, “I always lose!”

The site’s Instagram account features offbeat short videos, including a recurring one of a bearded man in a fluffy green pawn outfit once tripping over a wire. The clown takes the pawn.

Before long, a string of online chess personalities emerged.

27-year-old Levy Rozman is an international master and lively, charismatic commentator best known for GothamChess; Chess Prophet Spokesperson”. Grandmaster GMHikaru has 1.91 million followers on YouTube. Alexandra Botez, 28, is another chess personality on Twitch and YouTube that has made her claim to fame: Once, while live-streaming a match, she miscued and lost her Queen, and responds with an adorable, confused shock that makes her gaffe look cool. Accidentally Losing Your Queen is now called Botez Gambit.

Mr. Post, a freshman at the University of Colorado, said he was drawn to “a bunch of clips” — TikTok videos of GothmanChess — when he “felt kind of bored.”

That was in early February; now, he plays every day and sometimes in class. He himself became a chess influencer. At a fraternity event, he said, he asked a fraternity brother, “‘Yo, how are you at chess?'”

“He said, ‘Let’s play,’ and then another guy said, ‘I’m decent,’ and it was like a domino effect,” Mr Post said.

Chess.com allows users to play against other people of their own skill level or against computer programs of varying levels, including outspoken AI opponents with names and personalities.

Fabigi is described by Chess.com as a “hardworking Italian-American plumber” who is an advanced beginner. Depicted as a long-haired human with a reptilian body, Boshi is “everyone’s favorite dinosaur sidekick” at the junior level, according to Chess.com.

But the mother of all Chess.com bots, which only launched in January, is Mittens, an anime-style tabby cat with big green eyes that looks kind of sad. Chess.com advertises that the mittens have a chess rating of 1 – the worst. In reality, Mittens is a ruthless killer with sadistic tendencies.

Mittens are crafted with world-class craftsmanship and cannot be lost to the world’s top grandmasters. Mitten played slowly, as if to give his opponent a chance, while muttering strange and obnoxious taunts. (“Meow, I’ve become Mitten, Kingbreaker.”)

“We made it strong enough to beat almost any human chess player in the world, but not fast enough,” said Mike Klein, chief chess officer at ChessKid.com, which is part of Chess.com Inc.

In January, there were 40 million matches against Mittens, which Slate described in headlines at the time as “an evil cat robot that destroys players’ souls.”

Mr Klein has been lobbying across the country trying to persuade schools to include chess in their curriculum. He argues that chess is good for the brain, but concedes that the scientific studies he cites linking chess to better performance on standardized tests “are very old, or don’t have a good control group, or the sample size isn’t large enough.” “

Does chess offer something more valuable than other online games, said Dr. Michael Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Digital Health Lab, which studies the health aspects of technology use. It all depends on whether someone is playing patiently, learning, or just for a quick digital thrill, he said.

Some teachers have complained that chess is less a learning tool than a distraction. “They’re playing chess non-stop schoolwide to the point where they don’t hand in anything, they just play chess,” an anonymous high school teacher said of students in a post on Reddit, where the Several post topics. Mastery seemed like an afterthought, with the teacher writing: “The only problem is…are they really, really bad? They’re absolutely horrible.”

Ms. Schwartz, a San Francisco high school sophomore, said she typically avoids playing in class, and it really does benefit her brain. “Chess is an intelligent game,” she said.

Her mother, Emily Stegner-Schwartz, agreed. “I’d rather she play chess than what game she plays, Jewel Crusher or Candy Land,” she said, referring to the Candy Crush game. Online chess is “to chess what pickleball is to tennis,” she said.

Her son, Hugh, a senior, can’t remember what made him play chess on Chess.com for the first time earlier this year—a friend, maybe? “I don’t know, it’s weird,” he said. Now he plays twice a day. Does it really matter if there is a corporate strategy to catch him?

“Everyone is manipulating other people on social media now,” he said. “Chess isn’t the worst thing to be manipulated.”

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