A chess board on a black background.

Chess is Getting Me Through the Pandemic

We all saw those memes. They told us we should pick up a new skill during the pandemic, as if we were at summer camp wondering if we should take the option for orienteering or keep our evenings free. What a time to survive, and have all this trauma-infused free time to be guilted over inefficiency.

Yeah, I already picked up a hobby – it’s called wondering when the pandemic will be over and I’m really good at it. Oh, conservatives don’t want to wear a mask, it’s gonna be another winter of COVID! I guess my new skill is being the Pennsylvania Dutch to these groundhog motherfuckers.

Yet a lot of time being stuck in one place wears on you. Avoiding travel and socializing because I don’t think a weekend of glamping is worth someone’s grandma’s life means you’ve got to find something new to dodge the cabin fever.

Lo and behold: chess. I only arrived at one of the earliest hobbies known to humankind.

I’d tried to get into chess before. The problem is that as a beginner, it means losing a lot before I was any good. It’s discouraging to struggle with level 5 of “Chessmaster” and realize there are 20 more levels beyond it that I may never beat. It doesn’t help that I feel a pressure to be perfectionist and I’m really self-critical when I fail at something. It doesn’t help that games are my outlet for my competitiveness in the first place. That doesn’t plug in well when I’m sitting three levels above the picture of the A.I. Chimpanzee. If you start playing chess, it means losing a lot if you want to get any better. That’s just the reality.

As a beginner, it’s also hard to view chess as anything other than win-loss. Without knowing the game well, it’s hard to recognize that mitigating a disadvantage or drawing out a loss with smart plays is a kind of victory when it comes to getting better at the game. Getting a draw or quality loss where you couldn’t before is a huge mark of improvement.

There are two big things that finally got me over the intimidating learning curve of chess. Let’s start with the trendier one:

Chess on Twitch

I like Twitch, or rather I like that the platform exists. The company itself is a mess, but that’s another conversation. Streaming as a whole is the single biggest and most accessible medium for performance art the human race has ever had. Just like video games, movies, TV, theatre, and literature, it means a lot of good, a lot of bad, and a lot of mediocre mixed in.

The way streamers create narratives and content is often very connective. It means a lot of leaping from one channel to another. I can’t quite remember how I got to BotezLive, but I’m guessing it’s through JustaMinx, a foul-mouthed Irish streamer who often embraces the performance art aspect of streaming and who’s one of the platform’s most talented comedians. I started watching her because she was the funniest person on AustinShow’s “Love or Host”, a weird satire of dating shows where 80% of the cast is the same every episode, which I watched (and was surprisingly entertained by) because a friend was on an episode.

That four-layered path brought me to BotezLive, a chess channel where two sisters break down games. I started watching it at length when Woman’s Master Alexandra Botez and (combined) Grandmaster Robert Hess were covering the Chess9LX tournament in September 2020. That tournament featured some of the best players in the world, including the legendary Garry Kasparov. He retired from competitive chess in 2005, in large part to involve himself in activism opposing Russian President Vladimir Putin. This saw him jailed and beaten after attending a verdict reading in support of activist punk band Pussy Riot. After increasingly fearing for his life, Kasparov would become naturalized in Croatia and essentially live in exile.

Since retiring, he’s also coached some of the biggest names in chess, including Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura – who were also playing in the online Chess9LX tournament. Why Chess9LX?

The tournament refers to a version of chess usually called Chess 9LX, Chess 960, or Fischer Random Chess. In this variation, the home rank pieces for both players are randomized. In other words, rooks, bishops, knights, queen, and king are shuffled within their row. You still need bishops on opposite colored squares, you still have to have a rook on either side of the king to allow castling, and the players’ positions have to mirror the other. The variation leads to 960 unique starting positions, hence the nickname.

Chess 960 random start example
One example of a randomized starting position in Chess 960.

The randomization of starting positions undermines the effectiveness of traditional chess openings, and is often viewed as forcing riskier, more creative games.

Alexandra Botez and Hess were an exceptionally good casting team, helping to break down the game in ways that are easy for a beginning player such as myself to understand.

The really useful thing about chess on Twitch is that there are streamers who cater to every level of the game. As I’ve found since, Alexandra Botez and her younger sister Andrea do a superb job of describing opening theory and basic strategic guidelines that can help a beginning or intermediate player improve. As sisters, they play off each other well, with one slowing the other down when they start getting ahead of the audience on analyzing games.

This helps especially when it comes to popular blitz, bullet, or lightning styles – those chess games that typically only allow five minutes or fewer for each player to make all their moves. Often, these lead to a losing opponent with more time on the clock simply running their opponent’s clock down – which results in a win. This adds another layer of strategy, and helps educate beginning and intermediate players in how to mitigate a disadvantage. Drawing out a game you’re losing might seem rude, but prolonging a loss can help create opportunities to even things out.

The speed of these chess types makes them a popular spectator sport online, but both Botez sisters think about the game much faster than I can follow. It’s their skill as analysts, at breaking a game down more deliberately, showing where someone created an opening or how a mistake was telegraphed – that all helps me start to apply my fledgling pattern recognition to their games.

Chess casting isn’t just educational about the game, but has gotten genuinely good. Because it’s so focused on in-game strategy, I’d say it’s much better than the commentating for major league sports. When a sport isn’t at the viewership level of one of the major leagues and is still building its audience, there’s a vested interest in commentators teaching the game – how to play it, how to view it, where and when to pay attention. Even moves that seem inconsequential can help set up later strategies. In teaching an audience to recognize this, you teach them how to knowledgeably watch your sport – how to become as excited about a pawn moving a space as you are about a sacrificed queen.

BotezLive got me into chess because they helped make understanding the game the exciting part of playing – not whether I won or lost. I started getting better at the game only once I found it more interesting and full of possibility. It made chess more of a process and less of a competition – a game I can pick up and play during a quiet moment, set aside a few days without playing, and then watch and play for hours on a weekend. Both sisters are very good at describing strategy for beginners, and Alexandra Botez is often recognized as a popular, up-and-coming commentator.

There’s a wealth of good chess streamers today. As I said, they cater to many different levels. As I’ve shifted more squarely into an intermediate level (an ongoing process), I still mainly watch the Botezes, but I’ve been able to start following streamers like International Masters Anna Rudolf, Levy Rozman, and Grandmaster Robert Hess without becoming befuddled. This is by no means a complete rundown of chess streamers, just the few I’ve found most interesting and accessible as a beginner into intermediate player.

It’s not a coincidence that they all commentate as well. As chess grows in popularity, there are opportunities in casting live events beyond the sphere of diehard players and to a wider, more general audience of spectators. You can see a notable difference in younger commentators explaining the game in a way new players understand vs. older commentators going denser with the assumption their audience is more knowledgeable. Neither’s a better approach, they just serve different audiences. As a newer player, I’m obviously going to gravitate to the former.

Chess Games are Everywhere

The other element is the preponderance of chess games that are available. I’d join a local chess club, except: pandemic. I also like a good mix of A.I. opponents and the option to play others online. I can train specific aspects of my game and learn to avoid my most common blunders against an A.I., and then take what I’ve learned into live games against other players. You can’t go back three moves to see how you set up your own blunder while a real opponent is waiting for your move; an A.I. opponent is as patient as you need it to be. That breadth of ways to play is a lot to ask, but luckily we’re not wanting for options:

Chess.com may be the most complete answer. Its free version allows play against online opponents, offers a lot of historical and more recent game variants, as well as a limited number of A.I. opponents and daily puzzles. It has various paid tiers, but the basic one ($29 a year) eliminates ads and opens up 67 A.I. opponents with different habits, as well as various analytical tools for their system to describe to me exactly why I suck and where I started sucking most. It’s a good investment if you’re going to use it a lot. If you’re dabbling, the free version already outpaces most paid chess games if you just want to play chess against other people and a few A.I.s.

“Chessmaster” is a game I bought on Steam ages ago – in 2011 or something, which was approximately 30 years ago. They don’t even sell it any more. It displays in a little 800×600 window and just stretches everything miserably when you ask it to go full-screen. Yet it is beautiful, with one of the best training modes I’ve seen, endlessly generated puzzles, and a roster of absolutely vicious A.I. opponents who each have preferred styles:

Beginner opponent Sonja overvalues queens, whereas the next rung up features Jonesie, who likes queen trades. Some opponents will have good opening knowledge, whereas others are strong in the middle and endgame. You have to adjust your game as you get good enough to face each new opponent. Chess.com is clearly better on most fronts, but “Chessmaster” is like a warm blanket I never want to give up. I’ve also never felt the keenly burning hatred toward Chess.com’s overly friendly A.I.s that I have toward the silent, smugly smirking faces on Chessmaster.

"Chess Ultra" Santa Monica DLC image
“Chess Ultra”: For when your GPU wants to play chess, too.

“Chess Ultra” is at the other end of the spectrum, favoring visuals over everything. The game can be played the way I do on a traditional monitor, but it’s designed for VR. Its strength is its various settings: it’s great to play in a luxury cabin as the wintry winds howl outside, in an apartment overlooking Mulholland, or on the Santa Monica beach, especially in a year where we’ve had to stick in place and avoid traveling. It features beautifully detailed chess sets and locations, many as overpriced DLC. No, I’m not paying $5 for a set where you can’t tell the pieces apart; I’m playing chess, not wearing it to the Met.

“Chess Ultra” is easily the most graphically-demanding chess game I own and will not work on a tablet or laptop with an integrated GPU. Its limited range of tutorials and puzzles feel like an afterthought, its ratings system is nonsensical, and the game’s frozen on me once or twice…but the base game regularly sells for $5 and includes a few settings and piece sets. In terms of playing chess in a satisfying, responsive way, it’s OK. In terms of pretending I’m chessing it up on a buggy Holodeck, it’s the best.

Chess is also playful. “The Chess Variants Club” is a $5 game on Steam that collects a huge range of chess variants from across history. It’s early access, which means it’s available to play now but still in active development. I love it. It has Microchess and Demi Chess, variants that take place on small boards using a fraction of the pieces. It has the aforementioned Chess 960.

That’s all before the really weird shit: Atomic Chess involves destroying both the capturing and captured piece, as well as certain pieces on any bordering space. Circe chess involves captured pieces getting reborn in their starting positions. Dunsany’s Chess is an asymmetric variety featuring a traditional set of Black pieces, but the White pieces just being 32 pawns. Want six knights a player? Play Knight Supreme Chess.

My favorite might be Aleut Chess, wherein the Aleut people were found to have adapted Russian chess into a whole new game where two asymmetric forces are staggered across the entire board.

Aleut Chess starting positions from "The Chess Variants Club".
The asymmetric starting positions of Aleut Chess in “The Chess Variants Club”.

The list goes on, and while Chess.com has a slightly more gimmicky selection of variants, “The Chess Variants Club” dives into historical variety. Some of the more limited variants are more curiosities than anything else. There are only so many possible sequences in the 4×4 Silverman chess, for instance. It’s interesting to sample, but once you know the trick, it’s solved. Most of the variants are deeply involving and challenging in new ways, though. They’ve also helped my midgame a lot by forcing me to get more creative and recognize less predictable development. Its selection of puzzles isn’t bad either.

“The Chess Variants Club” is under construction, adding in new variants while quashing bugs. It lacks a 2D option, has only one set design so far, plays the same (super-awesome) song over and over, and only has three levels of difficulty. I’ve also encountered rare bugs with the A.I. not allowing a move that should be available. A lot of the A.I. is being designed for new variants that haven’t been programmed before, so this is to be expected. All in all, though, it’s an expanding collection that develops my game in this amazing, exciting notional museum of playable chess variants.

That’s not even getting into “5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel”. This hurts my brain. An average game involves pieces traveling back in time to create new universes where they existed earlier on the same board. Eventually, you’re playing forward in multiple universes. It may be advantageous to create a universe where you have two queens on the board, but that means the one who escaped this universe is no longer there to help it.

Pieces can move through multiverses in ways that reflect how they move in chess. A bishop can move up or down a universe, but only once for every square they move into the past. In other words, their travel through universes and time is always diagonal. A knight can travel two universes away, but only one board into the past; or two into the past, but only one universe away. It reflects the knight’s classic L-movement. Needless to say, things get complicated and mind-bendingly hard to track quickly.

"5D Chess With Multiverse Time Travel"
Welcome to Hell.

I haven’t even tried with the set of new pieces with new rules designed specifically for multiverse time travel because every time I try to wrap my head around the normal variety, it goes all the way around, meets itself, and thinks, “Oh, you’re here, too?” Writing about it sends a chill of awe down my spine at how much there is to learn that I haven’t yet.

Hell, I haven’t even tried “Four Kings One War”, a free game where two players each control two sets of pieces that descend on a central board from all four sides, setting up a modern “guerilla chess”.

I’ve also got a traditional game on my phone that’s limited in scope but has a good range of A.I. levels. Take your pick, there are a thousand free, mobile chess games, and each of them has ads more annoying than the last.

As good as chess is, I don’t think I would have gotten into it if I hadn’t found chess streamers who are good at breaking the game down and teaching what about it keeps them interested and excited. As good as chess streamers are, I wouldn’t have kept playing without a bunch of different options to do so. Chess.com is great, but sometimes I want to take my new skills back to “Chessmaster” and show 1229-rated A.I. Miranda what’s up. Yeah, I got better while you’re stuck in 10th Edition “Chessmaster” forever neglecting the center. Who’s up next? Oh no, not 1365-rated “Josh – Age 7”, that dude has no heart.

And sometimes I want to play shitty chess while the wind buffets my luxury library-cabin. And then rove around a museum playing five different variants. And then name my bishop Kyle Reese and send him back through time to protect my queen in an alternate dimension long enough for her to travel back to this one and open up a can. If I get frustrated or hit a wall where I don’t feel I’m learning well in one mode, I can just watch an entertaining streamer teach, or hit another chess game with a different presentation or variant, and it feels fresh again.

You can’t get cabin fever when you keep moving around. Even if you’re stuck in the same place, oh what ways we have to move around. This last year has sucked, and chess for me isn’t a new hobby or skill. It’s a vast range of landscapes, perspectives, connections, experiments, histories. It’s a whole field of art and sport and invention to appreciate that I know how to look at in a way I didn’t before.

If you enjoy what you read on this site, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write articles like this one.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s