Embracing the Passion and Perfection of Chess – Quillette

While claims of skill transfer may be overblown, there is still benefit to be had in the tiny, claustrophobic world of the game.
On April 30th, 2023, as half a million people watched online, Russian grandmaster Ian Nepomniachtchi accidentally knocked over the captured black pieces lined up along his side of the board with a trembling hand, before reaching out to play the final move of his losing game. Three years ago, the complex interplay of the board would have meant nothing to me. Now, when Ding Liren’s black bishop took Ian’s pawn on f4, it looked to me like a rapier thrust deep into his opponent’s heart and as the Chinese player covered his eyes to conceal his tears of relief, my own eyes were brimming.  
I would never have thought that I would enjoy chess. I assumed it was a slow-paced game for autistic savants with stratospheric IQs and people who excel at cryptic crosswords, sudoku, and logic problems and possess the cool-headed ability to plan campaigns of Byzantine complexity by visualizing the positions on the board 12 moves ahead. I studied English Literature. I dance and write poetry. I’ve never had the patience for abstract puzzles of any kind and maths makes me weep with frustration. Yet now, I’m hooked.
I’m not alone in this. Over the past three years, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of people playing chess regularly, especially online. The boom began with Netflix’s serialization of Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel, The Queen’s Gambit, in October 2020 (a show that was watched by 62 million households during its first 28 days, according to Netflix) and shows no signs of slowing down. It is unclear how many people in the world play chess (estimates range from 600 to 800 million), but we do have some proxy indicators. Subscriptions to the most popular chess YouTube chess channel, Gotham Chess, run by international master Levy Rozman, doubled over the course of 18 months in 2020–22 and then went from 2 to 3 million in only 90 days. Rozman’s subscribers totaled 3.63 million as of April 2023. The channel, which is almost exclusively dedicated to the detailed analysis of chess games, hit one billion views in March 2023. Rozman’s TikTok channel gained over a million subscribers from scratch within 30 days. Rozman is not the only popular chess creator: grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura has 1.94 million subscribers; sisters Alexandra and Andrea Botez have 1.29 million. YouTuber Lex Fridman’s August 2022 interview with the world’s highest ranked player, Magnus Carlsen, got 1.5 million views and his interview with Nakamura, Carlsen’s long-time rival, has been viewed 1.2 million times.

Unlike most other popular sports, even more people are playing chess than watching it. Active users on the most popular online chess platform, chess.com, more than doubled in just over a year: from eight million in October 2020 to nearly 17 million in April 2022. On December 31st, 2022, there were seven million active members in a single day — a number that crashed the servers. The record was broken less than three weeks later: on January 20th, 2023, 10 million people were playing chess on the site. Chess.com is currently hosting more than a million games per hour and gaining new daily members at a rate three times that of the initial fervor during The Queen’s Gambit’s Netflix run.
The luscious and largely faithful serialization of Tevis’s novel, with the mesmerizing Anya Taylor-Joy in the role of fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon, undoubtedly helped to glamourize chess. The enforced leisure and isolation many experienced during the pandemic also increased the game’s appeal. The influx of novice players quickly produced a virtuous circle: the game suddenly seemed more accessible. The activities of adult beginners and improvers are highlighted by Levy Rozman’s “Guess the Elo [official chess rating]” and “How to Lose at Chess” series, which poke good-natured fun at chess games sent in by low-rated subscribers in the spirit of recognizing that we’ve all been there. We can also follow the fortunes of recent adult beginners through streamers like Tallulah Roberts (“Lula Robs”), competitions like Pogchamps (inaugurated in 2020) and groups like Chess Punks. Those who, like me, were initially intimidated by chess’s cerebral reputation quickly learn that you don’t have to be a genius to play mediocre chess.  
The 2022 chess cheating scandal also helped to keep chess in the public consciousness. Magnus Carlsen’s accusation that Hans Niemann cheated in a chess match has led to a $100 million lawsuit (the suit is still ongoing; you can find a detailed legal analysis here). Elon Musk spiced up the gossip by speculating to his then 100 million Twitter followers that Hans Niemann had cheated using vibrating anal beads (a rumor that originated in a deliberately absurd erotic short story posted on the Reddit site r/chess).
Many people have welcomed the growth of interest in chess because of the intellectual skills and personality traits that they believe chess fosters. There have been many claims that studying and playing chess will increase a person’s general intelligence, improve executive functioning, concentration, and planning skills, and foster creativity.

Many eminent people have claimed that playing chess helped them solve problems in other areas of life. This seems intuitive at first blush, especially, perhaps, in the realm of military strategy, since chess is itself a form of symbolic warfare. A plethora of famous military commanders from Norman the Conqueror, Tamerlane, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon to George Patton and Norman Schwarzkopf have also been avid chess players. Scientists from the Australian Defence Science and Technology Agency and the Swedish National Defence College have examined chess for the insights it might provide into military strategy by changing some of the rules to see which factors are most important to victory: e.g., what would happen if one player were given more pieces, while the other was compensated with the ability to move twice in a row?
Clearly, there is considerable overlap between the skills needed to play chess well and those required for other intellectual pursuits that involve strategic thinking and the ability to predict an opponent’s likely actions. As a well-defined, concrete activity, with clear rules, in which improvements can be assigned an objective numerical value, chess provides a useful model for those who study cognition. Studying chess grandmasters helped Adriaan de Groot make early breakthroughs in cognitive science. Chess has frequently been described as the “drosophila” of artificial intelligence: a model organism on which to experiment. Chess is an exceptionally rich source of analogies in general. “The chessboard is the world,” commented Aldous Huxley. This makes it an extremely helpful explanatory tool. Those who have used chess as a metaphor to elucidate a more abstract, complex, rule-based system have included philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, physicist Richard Feynman and novelist Italo Calvino. But this does not prove that playing chess fosters transferable skills that will make it easier to master other domains.
Let’s consider chunking: a concept pioneered by William Chase and Herbert Simon in 1973 that describes the way in which we group things into patterns to aid memorization (the exact nature of this concept is debated). Chess grandmasters are undoubtedly better able to recognize complex patterns on the board than novices. For example, where a beginner might simply see a number of individual pieces, including a white pawn threatening his black bishop on c5, a more experienced player will instantly recognize the board structure characteristic of the Evans gambit and will already know what Black’s options are and how White is likely to respond to each of them. When we recognize the pattern, it is easier to memorise the position and respond appropriately: just as it’s easier to remember a phrase in your native tongue than to memorise a string of individual phonemes in an unfamiliar language. Chess certainly utilizes this skill.
Learning a choreographed dance form, such as jazz dance, also requires sophisticated pattern recognition of this kind, together with close attention, visualization skills, spatial awareness, and good short- and medium-term memory. When beginner dancers watch a sequence, they try to remember individual elements: running down a checklist of what the instructor is doing with her head, hands, feet, legs, hips, etc. Experienced dancers see an integrated whole, a movement pattern that they can often remember and copy after a single viewing. So, if you took a skilled jazz dancer and taught them the basic rules of chess, would they learn faster than anyone else (or vice versa)? As a professional dance teacher turned mediocre amateur chess player, color me skeptical.
We humans like to find quick fixes. Gaining domain-specific expertise is generally a time-consuming and cumbersome process. It would be convenient if there were some shortcut: if skills were fungible, so that those learned in one area could be easily applied to another: a phenomenon known as far transfer. Chess is often considered a good candidate for such an activity. Unfortunately, the evidence that chess—or any other such activity—could provide a master key of this kind is weak and anecdotal at best. There is a strong inverse correlation between good study design and meaningful positive results in this area, especially in education research (for evidence of this see here, here, and here). As an anonymous commentator on chess.com’s bulletin board aptly puts it, “chess teaches you to deep-think … during chess games! Real life is totally another ‘game.’” The evidence strongly suggests that researchers Giovanni Sala and Fernand Gobet are correct: “far transfer remains a chimera” and, in particular, “The ‘Chess Effect’ hypothesis is yet to be convincingly demonstrated.”
Many of the personal testimonies to the transferable benefits of chess come from people who, I suspect, are trying to justify their own compulsion. In his otherwise excellent history, The Immortal Game (2006), David Shenk twists himself in knots providing anecdotal evidence of far transfer. Benjamin Franklin, as Shenk relates, was an avid player and a voracious reader of instructional chess manuals and always carried a miniature chess set with him in the hopes of picking up an impromptu game. “Life is a kind of Chess,” Benjamin Franklin writes in his 1772 book, The Morals of Chess, which details what Franklin saw as the ethical and intellectual benefits of studying the game. Shenk accepts at face value Franklin’s claim that he “relied on it to continually sharpen his thinking and clarify his values,” but it seems far more likely to me that this was a post hoc justification since, as Shenk also relates, chess “scratched some kind of personal itch” for the Founding Father. He simply “seemed to need to play it.”    
Not all chess players have felt as positive about the time they have spent on chess as Benjamin Franklin did. Without the comforting illusion that chess is indirectly benefiting other areas of one’s life, the urge to play can feel like a destructive addiction. Michel de Montaigne wrote, “I am ashamed to lay out as much thought and study upon that as would serve to much better uses.” Far from viewing chess as an aid to intellectual creativity, for Albert Einstein, allegedly, “Chess holds its master in its own bonds, shackling the mind and brain so that the inner freedom of the very strongest must suffer.” Marcel Duchamp, who abandoned a successful career as an artist and destroyed his marriage to Lydie Sarazin-Levassor to dedicate himself to the game full time, called himself “a victim of chess.” H. G. Wells described it as “A nameless excrescence upon life,” that “annihilates a man.”
And this addiction is not based on pure hedonistic pleasure. Unlike dancers, chess players rarely report experiencing a blissful state of Csikszentmihalyian flow: chess is simply too difficult for that. It demands a more painful kind of absorption that Garry Kasparov has described as “mental torture.” In addition, chess is, of course, a zero-sum game: “I like the moment when I break a man’s ego,” grandmaster Bobby Fischer once commented in a post-match TV interview. Our human tendency towards loss aversion often makes such blows more painful than chess victories are joyful. For men, perhaps especially, the loss of status that losing a game implies—a loss directly reflected in rating points—is often agonizing, perhaps especially since chess is a perfect information game, a game involving very few elements of luck: when you lose, you have only your own incompetence to blame.
Computers have outplayed humans since at least Deep Blue’s narrow victory over Garry Kasparov in 1997. Deep Blue relied on brute force calculations (assessing over six million positions per second). The most powerful current chess AI, Stockfish, uses reinforcement learning (a trial-and-error system in which, like a human being, the system learns from its own mistakes). Stockfish has an ELO (official chess rating) of at least 3620; Magnus Carlsen’s peak rating is 2882. Chess commentators use engines like Stockfish to analyze games in real time. As Sasha Chapin points out in his 2019 chess memoir All The Wrong Moves: “during a world championship match, the only people who don’t know the best possible moves are the players themselves.” Yet, despite this, we continue to value the human contest: Stockfish’s superiority to us is as irrelevant as the fact that a car can drive faster than any professional athlete can run.
Despite the negligible role played by fortune in their game, chess players resemble gamblers in that there is always the strong temptation to keep playing through a losing streak, to try to reverse one’s luck in a state of frustration and recklessness that chess players call being “tilted.” Like an alcoholic drinking himself into stupor on whisky miniatures or a binge eater dipping back into the family-sized bag of Cheetos for just one more handful, to a player in this state each single game feels inconsequential. This is an especially easy trance to fall into, now that we can play five-minute blitz games against an opponent from anywhere in the world, at any time, for free, by simply clicking on a chess app on our phones. Unlike gamblers or alcoholics, we don’t end up damaging our health or bank balances. We only lose the one thing that can never be recouped: our time. “The ability to play chess is the sign of a gentleman,” states a famous adage often misattributed to legendary chess player Paul Morphy, “The ability to play chess well is the sign of a wasted life.”
Despite all this, I believe that there can be real benefits to playing chess, on both an individual and societal level. This partly depends on what activities chess is displacing. Schemes that offer chess lessons and online tournaments for the incarcerated seem likely to be beneficial, both to alleviate the boredom of prison and because the intensely competitive nature of chess provides a non-violent way of gaining status and respect. Some pilot programs introducing chess lessons and clubs into schools have had good results: most pupils involved report enjoying chess and that can in turn make them feel more enthusiastic about attending school in general (though any other pleasurable activity would probably have the same effect).
But are there benefits for the individual, too? Is it better to have spent two hours playing online chess than to have passed that time, equally unproductively, on social media? Perhaps I am just an addict trying to justify my behavior—but I think there is a benefit to be had in time spent in thrall to the tiny, claustrophobic, artificial, black-and-white world of chess. I would rather be playing than scrolling my Twitter timeline glassy-eyed, not so much wanting to be online as wanting to want it: hunting for something to distract or entertain me. For many people, it is all too easy to browse social media at the same time as attempting to work or socialize. Doomscrolling produces a zombie-like state of sterile purposelessness: it’s not compelling enough to fix your attention; it’s just engaging enough to deflect it from other objects. Chess invites greater concentration. It is more akin to reading than to scrolling in that it invites you to focus exclusively on the game at hand.
Chess also provides a good way to stress-test your ideas—even if these are only ideas about the game itself. In the world of discussion and debate, I find it surprisingly difficult to genuinely remain open to correcting my own erroneous views and changing my mind. My mind is a stubborn advocate for whichever side of the case I have chosen: dismantling opposing arguments and rejecting the other side’s sources with ease. My own reasoning always sound persuasive to my ears. But I can’t rationalize away the fact that my king is in check, that an enemy knight has forked my pieces, that the pawn I was relying on for defense is now pinned. In chess, if your opponent is competent, your moves are rewarded or punished depending on how good they are in themselves—not how good you are at explaining them. It feels good to be measured up against something real.
And, while I am skeptical that playing chess will improve your powers of concentration in general, chess is a game that rewards focus. Being good at chess is largely about noticing things. Even in the heightened arousal state of competition, you need to be able to survey the board, spot geometric relationships between pieces and tally up the threats and opportunities for both you and your opponent. This doesn’t usually require specialist knowledge (beyond the basic rules) or expertise. It doesn’t require genius. It simply calls for careful observation. That ability to see what is right in front of you, without allowing yourself to be biased by your own hopes, fears, or anxieties, is crucial in life, of course. But if I cannot do that in life, it feels satisfying to at least manage it in chess.
In the summer of 1972, just as the Cold War was gradually thawing, Russian Boris Spassky and American Bobby Fischer competed in the world chess championship. The excitement surrounding the match significantly boosted the popularity of chess, especially after Fischer won, breaking a 24-year streak of Russian victories. “Like the game [of chess] itself, the Spassky-Fischer chess championship had no direct relevance to any real-world matter. And yet it seemed to stand for almost everything,” writes Sasha Chapin. The current chess boom was not fueled by a conflict between superpowers, nor are any of the players involved as striking characters as Fischer, whose erratic behavior and volatile temper captured the public imagination. Yet the game remains a kind of universal allegory: meaning nothing, yet seeming to symbolize almost everything. And that, I believe, is the secret of its appeal.  

Iona Italia is the editor of Areo Magazine and host of the Two for Tea podcast. She also writes for Substack at The Second Swim.
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