High-stakes online chess can be your next quarantine sports obsession

In Game 11 of the inaugural Clutch Chess Champions Showdown, with more than 10,000 people watching online, World No. 2 Fabiano Caruana scratched his three-month-long quarantine hair, palm on his forehead. Commentator and Clutch Chess founder Maurice Ashley yelled, “The tournament is over! Fabi has lost this!”

After two days, six hours and 11 games in the final, Caruana had blundered in the most important game of the tournament, handing Wesley So the championship and $40,000 in prize money. This final came after Caruana and So held off two top grandmasters — Leinier Dominguez (a force in classic chess) and Hikaru Nakamura (a genius at fast-paced chess who often streams his games), respectively — in a two-day, 12-game first round.

The coronavirus pandemic might have brought the rest of the sporting world to a stop, but chess is thriving. And because elite chess players are home and committed to one tournament for only a few hours a day, they can play against other elite players in multiple online tournaments simultaneously, overlapping dates be damned — something that was unheard of in over-the-board tournaments.

Clutch Chess is just one example of the sport thriving during a time when fans are starved for competition.

To keep fans from getting bored during the drawn-out ties common to chess games, Ashley decided to increase the number of points each game was worth as the tournament progressed, and threw in some additional prize money for Games 5 and 6 ($2,000 per game) and 11 and 12 ($3,000 per game) — calling them clutch games — and giving the players added incentive to win those games. If at the end of the event players are tied, the one with more “clutch game wins” wins the entire tournament.

And that’s exactly what happened. Caruana and So were tied at 9 points each, but because So had won more clutch games, he won the tournament. “There’s something about money that makes fans go, ‘Let’s see who wins this one and stay on for a little longer,'” Ashley said.

Ashley thought of this “Jeopardy!”-style tournament of chess greats five weeks ago when he wondered how he could make the best use of quarantine.

And it worked. The inaugural tournament drew a little more than 17,000 viewers every day, a jump in viewership by 23%, according to the Saint Louis Chess Club, the event organizer. That would be an impossible stat to achieve if this tournament were held at its brick-and-mortar Missouri home.

A second Clutch Chess tournament begins Saturday and runs through June 14. World No. 1 Magnus Carlsen — the “golden boy of chess,” who draws millions of eyeballs with his fame and aggressive gameplay — is scheduled to participate, along with five other top grandmasters: Nakamura, Dominguez, Levon Aronian, Alexander Grischuk, and Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. The prize money for the event: $265,000.

Like with all online tournaments, a camera has to be positioned on players’ faces, so opponents and fans can see, and nobody else is allowed to enter a player’s room while the tournament is in play. Cameras behind players’ heads will monitor for cheating, and all chess federation rules on cheating will apply to online tournaments.

There is, however, one big downside to this: Players can’t use the restroom or grab a quick snack as they can during in-person matches.

“I can’t believe I get to stay home, do the thing I love the most and make money” Caruana said.

When the coronavirus spread in March, Caruana nearly got stuck in Yekaterinburg, Russia, while traveling for the 2020 Candidates Tournament. He turned around immediately after arriving and flew on a charter plane to Amsterdam before hitching a commercial flight to Detroit and eventually returning home to St. Louis.

He made it back into the United States mere hours before the borders were closed. Since then he said he hasn’t left his apartment in any meaningful way, ducking out only to make quick grocery runs or to take walks in his neighborhood park.

But he’s still been playing chess — he’s just moved to online tournaments at home, like the other top grandmasters. Caruana has typically competed in 12-14 events a year since he became a top grandmaster; since just March, he’s already halfway to his usual yearly tournament number.

So the world’s No. 8-ranked player bought a new computer and increased his internet speed to 90 megabits per second to make sure internet lag didn’t cost him a game.

Accustomed to traveling for competitions eight months a year, So said he has spent the quarantine at his home in Minnesota, living with his parents. The usually easygoing So has, like so many others, learned to make the best of the situation.

“Hanging in my room playing chess helps, but there are good days and bad,” he said, fast-clicking his new mouse to show how good he’s gotten at making fast moves. “I do love cooking with them and eating healthy meals.”

Nakamura is a sight to see when he plays the rapid form of regular chess. Called blitz chess, the game usually has time control — 5-10 total minutes per player — and gets grandmasters to aggressively attack the king early in the game.

Nakamura is a natural at it, his hands flying around the board making moves at speeds that if you’re not quick enough, you’ll completely miss. Now he has also become the king of online chess, streaming everything from his practice games to tournaments for his 257,900 Twitch followers.

Dominguez, the world No. 6 in rapid chess, should ideally eat up this format, but the Cuban American grandmaster would take over-the-board chess any day, especially the routines of competitions.

“You wire your brain to look at things a certain way — when I check into a hotel, I immediately know it’s a tournament and I have to take it seriously,” Dominguez said. “[But now], I am at home, it feels like a regular day where I am training and spending time with my family. And all of a sudden, you’re in your room and you’re playing in a serious tournament. It has some impact on the way you concentrate, and it’s harder to fully focus.”

The most in-person chess he gets to play between online tournaments, he said, is when his 5-year-old son drags him out of his room so he can play chess with his dad.

Caruana, who said he hasn’t seen his parents in months — they were in Spain when the pandemic broke and decided to stay there under strict lockdown — empathizes with Dominguez. Although in-person chess matches are often quiet, there are social elements to the sport — watching an opponent’s body movements, grabbing dinner with an opponent after a day’s play, working out in the gym together — that are long gone, Caruana says. Now it’s all about making sure he’s moving his fingers swiftly over the mouse.

While the rest of the sports world is at a standstill, chess been incredibly successful the past few months.

Online Nations Cup, the equivalent of a multicountry world championship event, recently concluded with China winning the tournament and the U.S. finishing second. In April, Carlsen launched the Magnus Carlsen Invitational with a total prize of $250,000 — the biggest cash prize in online tournament history. Now Carlsen is one-upping himself, organizing the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour in August with prize money of $1 million.

And Twitch’s 16 most-followed streamers on Friday began a two-week tournament for $50,000. Grandmasters Alexandra Botez and Nakamura were to provide chess lessons for the competitors along with live commentary.

As of now, Caruana and So are scheduled to play their first in-person event since the lockdown in mid-October in Norway, but they realize that might be too soon to start traveling between continents, with the pandemic hitting peaks at different times.

Until then, or when over-the-board action is safe to return, Ashley and the grandmasters think chess will find a happy medium between online tournaments and in-person events. Especially considering the eyeballs streaming is bringing to the chess world.

“I can’t imagine the world championship happening over the internet, you know? The whole pressure of it and the majesty that makes it a great success to beat someone at a world championship match, that would feel less important if it was all virtual,” Caruana said. “But, the online tournaments are very entertaining for people to watch these rapid chess tournaments online, and it’s also a place in the chess world.”