Chess, Twitch And The Truth Of The Board

Chess, Twitch And The Truth Of The Board

Mar 04, 2021

We tend to think of chess as a metaphor for intelligence. But is this instinctive view blinding us to a gaming phenomenon?

While we no longer believe chess skills make an excellent military commander (or human being), the game’s imagery is still western society’s primary metaphor for intellectual effort. However, changes are afoot. And in fact if you’re in marketing it would be to your advantage to start remembering how the horse jumps.

Chess coaches often talk about the truth of the board, which refers to the fact that to progress as a player you have to learn to see the objective reality of the configuration in front of you rather than the scenario you would like to be taking shape.

The game allows you to walk around the board and look at it from your opponent’s or any other perspective, but – weirdly – this makes little difference to the human compulsion to see things as you would like them to be. It’s a hard truth that many chess players examine the board for days and weeks trying to identify the objective reality, and yet still blunder into a position they hadn’t even considered.

This metaphor can be applied to many aspects of life. Wonderfully, however, the idea of truth of the board is also relevant to the evolution of the game itself.

Chess is booming

You didn’t hear many marketing or trend people talking about chess before The Queen’s Gambit came along. The Netflix series’ exotically retro sensibility gave the game a big boost in 2020, but even so, offer a youth marketing strategist – for example – a choice between chess, Playstation and Fortnight, and it’s still an odds-on bet chess will bring up the rear.

And yet, in February 2021 chess surpassed League of Legends, Fortnite and Valorant as the most-watched gaming category in the world.

While COVID-19 hampered classic over-the-board activity, it supercharged online chess. The game’s primary online portal,, now has over 57 million subscribers, a stunning jump from 2017’s figure of 20 million. As I type there are over three hundred and sixty thousand blitz games taking place on the platform, with over 11 million short format games already having been completed halfway through a single day.

So, where’s the growth coming from?

One of the answers lies in the realm of rank amateur play and online gaming streaming and commentary. Twitch, in other words.

The boom isn’t being driven by pros

Chess has stormed Twitch via the PogChamps tournament, an online event that involves truly great chess players and coaches teaching celebrities from different gaming genres and sports (including pro wrestling) how to play the game, from scratch, and then guiding them as they battle it out in tournaments.

World number one bullet player Hikaru Nakamura has been an important PogChamps figurehead. Nakamura and a range of high profile friends have charmed the world with their unusually non-hierarchical concept, and he in particular has started to build a crossover (real world and chess world) celebrity profile to match world champion Magnus Carlson, a compelling personality who famously dabbles in a bit of modelling on the side. Nakamura is now in fact one of the gaming world’s most followed streamers, and the PogChamps audience just keeps on growing.

Chess has also started to take on new age and gender profiles, while its aesthetic is evolving fast – and not in the Queen’s Gambit World War II direction.

The game has always notoriously skewed hard male, but now new, young, female streamers are coming online at pace. Among the more notable are the Botez Sisters, who run the BotezLive Twitch channel, which now has over 680 000 subscribers, and counting. Where three years ago the chess aesthetic was primarily one of grimly serious facial hair, today it’s more and more colourful, young, digital, and female.

An ideal community for brands to get involved with – but will they?

Nonetheless, the dominant view of chess in the media business still seems to be that it’s the stock footage you reach for when you’re in a real rush. When we start to see brands operating in the middle of global chess culture - as Red Bull does with extreme sports - we’ll know some marketer out there has finally got to grips with the truth of this particular board.

In a country like South Africa, which is still beset by stereotypes as to which of its peoples do or don’t do certain things, chess culture might seem to be a non-starter for brand sponsorships and campaigns. But doubters would do well to note that Hikaru Nakamura was already playing speed chess in Joubert Park as far back as 2018, and it was standing room only.



How built a streaming empire

BotezLive Twitch Channel

Nakamura Visits South African Chess Events

How It Feels To Beat GM Nakamura

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