When in the beginning of the pandemic, official and private tournaments started to fall like pieces of a domino, we remembered that we still had online chess. The whole chess world went crazy with it. The platforms experienced never-before-seen peaks. Not only federations, but also clubs or any group of friends could create online tournaments. Hikaru Nakamura became famous on Twitch, and other streamers follow in his footsteps.
Suddenly the two worlds, over-the-board and online chess, have coincided, instead of going in parallel. This unexpected, although logical union, may seem to be fortunate, but in order to take advantage of it, there are a few points that we must consider:
Online platforms are not like federations. The federations have as their main objective the promotion of chess, and are not for profit. Online platforms are private companies (with the exception of Lichess) whose main objective is to increase their profits. Understanding and applying this difference well is crucial in order to make these two worlds work together. Carlo Stellati’s article is a good starting point.
Another point to consider is the size of the two worlds. Can online platforms compete, overshadow or be a threat to the chess federations in the world? I recently counted the Catalan players on various platforms and discovered that there are nearly three times as many Catalan online players than licensed over-the-board players, and those numbers are from before the pandemic. During the webinar “Hybrid Chess”, run by ChessTech, I learned that in Norway there are even hundred times as many online chess accounts as there are players organised in the federation. This may suggest that online chess is taking players away from the federations.
Over-the-board tournaments will return. If federations then forget about the online world, that would be a serious mistake! Synergies are already being created.”
How can we find a win-win situation? If the federations understand how to turn the threat of online chess into opportunities, and the platforms know how to generate more activity that generates resources for all, success will be assured.
Another point that cannot be ignored is when the world finally returns to the new normal. Over-the-board tournaments will return – with limitations, but they will return. If federations then forget about the online world, that would be a serious mistake! Synergies are already being created, and both worlds will no longer be as before.
One of the fruits of this new relationship will be the birth of a new tournament concept: A hybrid tournament is one that is played in one or more over-the-board venues, with organizers and referees in each, but through one online platform with electronic devices, be it portables, tablets or even mobile phones. Such a tournament can have hundreds or even thousands of participants altogether and still follow the limitations and physical distancing rules of each location. This new format has some obvious advantages:
The player will have nearly the same experience as in an over-the-board tournament. Apart from playing the game online, he or she will continue to be in direct contact with other players and will not lose the atmosphere of a chess tournament.
The presence of arbiters and Wi-Fi connections with access only to very specific addresses will solve the main problem of online chess: cheating. Each platform has its anti-cheating measures, but their effectiveness is relative and far from perfect. Furthermore, the legal consequences of banning a cheating player are zero. As long as players use nicknames and do not identify with their true names, Fide cannot do anything about it.
The costs for players and for organizers are significantly reduced. Since there are no travel or hotel expenses and lower venue costs, players have to invest less and organizers can increase prizes.
If the players compete from cities around the world, a tournament becomes truly international. These venues offer a bonus to their local players. At the same time, the local organisers can make a profit, since they manage the income from the registrations and the expenses (for arbiters, sanitary protocol and little else) by themselves.
Online platforms also benefit from being a part of this formula. Co-organizing a tournament with venues in several countries increases their visibility and creates chances to sell premium memberships and sponsorships. It also gets them a little closer to one of their objectives: to make online chess an e-sport. Although e-sports are played online, the best performing players always end up meeting for their finals in person in front of thousands of spectators. Achieving that goal would be good for the chess world in general.
We could continue looking for advantages of this hybrid tournament concept, but I am closing with a point that seems important to me: This tournament format may be here to stay, not only temporarily, but it can last and be integrated in traditional tournaments.
It also gets online platforms a little closer to one of their objectives: to make online chess an e-sport.“
The Catalan Federation is in the final stages of planning such a tournament. We have secured sponsorship and are finalizing the negotiations with a platform. We are probably just a few days away from announcing the date and regulations of the first hybrid edition of our classic “Ciutat de Barcelona”, which may become, as far as I know, the first ever hybrid open tournament.