I am very critical about how chess has generally been promoted. We have been doing it all wrong, all the time, with very few exceptions. The inaugural Chess.com Pogchamps is one of these exceptions. I hope it is here to stay.
Chess is popular, but the overall popularity of the game doesn‘t pay justice to the fantastic qualities that chess possesses as a product. I firmly believe there is a huge untapped potential. I would go as far as to state that we could double the size of the currently existing chess community in the medium term, just with some hard work in the right direction – and with a little bit of creativity.
Our main sin is that chess people tend not to think “outside the chess board”. They don’t pay enough attention to the world around them. This little flaw is inherent to our nature: the game rewards those who manage to isolate themselves! But this (bad) trait is reflected in how the chess world is structured, and how it functions.
“In the chess world we live in perpetual endogamy, repeating ourselves. Almost no one is investing in reaching out to new audiences.”
Purely promotional activities are marginalized. You give 10k to the average chess organizer to improve his tournament, and he will spend it on hiring two more 2600 players – like if this is going to make a difference. You give him a million, and he will organize ten tournaments in exactly the same way, with 100k in prizes each. We live in perpetual endogamy, repeating ourselves. Almost no one is investing in reaching out to new audiences, there are very few strategic plans in place to expand and bring new players into the game.
This is where Pogchamps fit. The initiative just ticks all the boxes. You take a bunch of popular variety streamers, with a combined audience of 15 million subscribers, and you throw a chess challenge at them. I believe some of these guys actually learned to play during the early weeks of the lockdown. Is it silly? Yes! Are we making a show out of absolute beginners blundering pieces? Yes! So what?
Another common sin in our chess community is that we take ourselves too seriously. Pogchamps is not disrespecting chess, but quite the opposite: the whole thing sends a message to a huge audience, showing how easy it is to learn the game, but how difficult it is to master it. And it demonstrates that chess can be fun from minute one.
I am just eyeballing from the perspective of a (former) business person, but this initiative probably awakes a curiosity about chess in two or three million people, one million of them may become occasional players, and maybe around 250,000 will turn into hardcore fans – new chess consumers who will contribute towards the chess economy, by taking chess lessons, participating in open tournaments, and buying chess books.
I remember when my friend Antonio Radic, “Agadmator”, started his Youtube channel. His rating is around 1950–2000 and he commentates chess games for an audience up to that level. I recall hearing some demeaning comments from grandmasters at the time. But the skepticism vanished when the number of his subscribers surpassed anything seen before (he has now 671,000 followers, and growing). Antonio has probably brought more new people to the game than many super GMs together, and we all benefit from his work, in direct and indirect ways.
We need more Pogchamps, and more Agadmators. We need celebrity tournaments, Hand-and-brain events, Pro-Biz exhibitions. We need more Banter Blitz and more commentators like Pepe Cuenca. We need corporate championships, singers like Juga, photographers like Lennart Ootes, artists like Maria Yugina, and global chess festivals like Judit Polgar’s Chess Connects Us. We probably can live without one more 2700 round-robin tournament.
The only thing that bugs me about Pogchamps is that the idea didn‘t occur to me before.
Bob and Danny, commentators of many world class events, cannot help laughing. A simple knight check picks up the queen. Will Fuslie see it? Her hand moves towards the knight, but she picks up a pawn next to it. Eyes are rolling. Her opponent doesn’t use the chance to save his queen and instead continues with an attack on the knight. Prompted this way Fuslie moves the knight and gives the check. She still hasn’t seen that it nets her the queen, until she bursts out what a fucking genius she is.
Fuslie is one of sixteen beginners at chess who happen to be famous enough on Twitch to warrant an invitation to Pogchamps. Chess.com spends 50,000 dollars in prize money and probably a similar amount on commentators and transmissions. The viewer numbers may be worth the investment. The real prize the world’s biggest chess platform is paying is its reputation. Regular users are dismayed that the patzer bonanza has taken centre stage. As if their favourite platform told them, who cares for a match between Carlsen and Aronian when you can see Fuslie – eh, right?
“Instead of presenting gamers and streamers as fools Chess.com should have respected them as the learners they are at chess. They could have competed at mini games, solved Puzzle Rush exercises, and showed their team skills at Hand-and-brain.”
Pogchamps reminds me of “I am a Celebrity… Get me out of here!”, which was not the lowest point but the emblematic format of trash TV: C-list celebrities embarrassed themselves for attention, publicity and a handful of cash. The trouble with chess is that it takes years of play and study until you occasionally produce a game that is worth seeing. Letting beginners play for an audience is something one should never do.
If Chess.com wanted to do a show with gamers and streamers, instead of presenting them as fools they should have been respected as the learners they are at chess. They could have competed at mini games, solved Puzzle Rush exercises of the simpler variety, and showed their team skills at Hand-and-brain. And only in the end of the show they would play a normal chess game one against one – not on the practical but boring user surface of the chess platform but in a cool, gamified display as gamers and their fan audience are used to.