How online chess became a pandemic coping mechanism, as it happened centuries ago offline

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An online chess player in Italy asked for prayers when his nation increased its response to the coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) which at the time of our March 22 conversation had killed nearly 5,000 of his compatriots.

That night, The virus-ravaged Lombardy region where he resides banned outdoor exercise beyond personal property and set a maximum radius for walking dogs 200 meters.

"We all need (your support)," wrote the amateur competitor. "It is very difficult here."

An Australian chess player living in Perth prepared for winter and wrote that "things are going to get worse,quot; with an understanding of how COVID-19 had already decimated economies in Europe. A Brazilian player shared a similar concern in a separate game chat, writing that while the infection count in his country was only in the hundreds, it was a matter of time until his life was overturned.

As COVID-19 spreads across the globe, confining millions of people indoors, online chess has increased in popularity and provided much-needed social connections for both older players and newcomers.

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Chess.com, the most visited global website for the online chess game, expects 10-year growth on the site within the next few months. It has gained more than 700,000 members in the past three weeks, according to figures provided to Sporting News, and last weekend it increased to 9.1 million games per day. The company is asking its engineering team to work overtime to keep its servers stable.

Meanwhile, on the Twitch video platform, individual chess players streaming their games have reported that their daily audience has doubled, and even tripled in some cases, due to pre-coronavirus conditions, while channels Sponsors of a rotating cast of talent have experienced exponential growth. Viewers participate in these live streams of games through energetic comment sections.

"It may sound a little strange that, you know, chess streaming has a community, but it really does," said Daniel Naroditsky, a grandmaster who streams games on Twitch several times a week. “People who visit my broadcast often have a very important place. And for them, those two, three hours of interaction and jokes and, you know, friendly roasting, that's friendship for them and social interaction that really fills the monotony (during the quarantines). "

Chess is no stranger to being a hobby in bleak circumstances.

The traditional version of the game on the board has been around for more than 1,000 years and has accompanied countless cases of human struggle. It existed during the Black Death epidemic of the 1300s, and historical literature suggests that it was ubiquitous in the lives of those who were quarantined during that time.

The classic collection of novels "The Decameron,quot;, written around 1350 by Giovanni Boccaccio, offers a fictional account of 10 young Italians who escape the bubonic plague in Florence fleeing to the countryside. Much of the work focuses on the stories told while waiting for the butcher shop in isolation, but before their narrative exchange begins, the group plays rounds of chess as a distraction from their state of affairs.

Boccaccio writes: "If you follow my advice, you will find a hobby for the hot hours before us, not at stake, in which the loser must be upset and neither the winner nor the spectator will be much happier, but by telling stories, in which the One's invention can bring comfort to the entire company of your listeners. "

Digitized chess, then, has simply advanced a centuries-old culture, as several contemporary players told Sporting News. The game has provided a sense of comfort and community, while people around the world practice social distancing and heed government shutdown orders. In-game chats now link people from opposite ends of the world and invite interaction on topics as basic as the different interests of life to intense conversations about the personal effects of the coronavirus.

The broadcast has added another facet to the experience. The creators say that the inherent bi-directional dynamics of platforms like Twitch has made the game more accessible to beginners by providing a window into the lives of the best.

Nick Barton, director of business development for Chess.com, sees increased streaming of top players as a cornerstone of future growth.

"You can ask someone like Hikaru Nakamura (the 18th grandmaster) a question that has to do with chess or has nothing to do with chess," Barton said. "It could be, you know, asking him how he liked skydiving or something like that and he'll reply to you in the chat. And that's kind of a fun little interaction you have with people where you can connect on a more personal level with the players in chess when in the past I think there has been an air of mystery around chess personalities. "

Last week Naroditsky spent over three hours playing three-minute blitz games on Twitch, the board taking up most of the screen with a live camera in the left column. The Charlotte-based grandmaster interacted with chat conversations about the shelter order at the recently implemented location in North Carolina, contributed to the communication from his friend and fellow grandmaster, Hikaru Nakamura, and welcomed an audience. of chess lovers in their focus on the game.

"I don't know anything about anything," Naroditsky expressed to amused viewers after a rare failed move mid-stream.

As she put her head in her hands for dramatic effect, her audience pranked.

"This is like me playing," one joked.

Alexandra Botez, another popular Twitch broadcaster, has been an advocate for women in chess, and has been surprised by the number of new viewers and content producers she has connected with in recent weeks.

She said the recent influx of women to chess is a promising development within the broader scope of the game's role in helping people manage the coronavirus-related quarantine.

"You have the same number of girls who play chess in elementary school, in high school, and suddenly start dropping out of high school because (they feel discouraged)," Botez said. "If we can tackle some of those things by creating a more positive environment where she has more confirmation that she can also be one of the best players because she sees other players doing really well, that could really change and improve the community."

"Honestly, I'm so excited to see it happen (right now)."

Last weekend, Chess.com's Twitch channel hosted a special broadcast event to raise funds for the World Health Organization's COVID-19 response fund and National Institute of Mental Health. FIDE Master from Europe Anna Cramling and International Master Anna Rudolf faced FIDE Master from North America Alexandra Botez and Grand Master Jennifer Shahade in a series of matches. One player from each continent served as the "brain,quot; and called one piece to move and the other served as the "hand,quot; and attempted to execute his partner's game plan.

The live display consistently held more than 5,000 concurrent viewers during its three-hour run time and raised more than $ 2,000 in donations.

"I know this is a really difficult time for people," Shahade told the audience near the end of the broadcast. "A lot of people have additional financial difficulties now that they didn't have before. So that makes it really meaningful to (see) all the donations that you made."

Despite progress in creating interest in chess and fundraising for coronavirus-related causes, it's worth noting that not everything has been rosy for the community.

COVID-19 has caused the cancellation of traditional in-person tournaments, which provide income for many players. A handful of events focused on online gaming, but Naroditsky said he spoke to grandmasters accustomed to competition in person who are concerned about being thrown into the computer. The slightest change in routine, of course, greatly affects top-level competitors.

Private chess lessons, meanwhile, have been limited to video calls and, in some cases, are closed entirely. That has also affected chess professionals, holding back another source of profit.

However, like the largest chess collective, relationships built between elite players have helped alleviate the difficulties associated with the coronavirus pandemic while pushing them to do what they can to help others.

"They can really sympathize and they can really console themselves and each other's stories," said Naroditsky. "You know, heartbreaking stories of pain and how they're getting over it."