May 8, 2020
Ever since he started sheltering in place, The Wall Street Journal reports, Arnold Schwarzenegger has received several threatening phone calls each day. The most menacing come from a burly man who rings late at night from Budapest. “You want a quick beating?” the voice asks.
Schwarzenegger is unfazed. He says he’ll be back—to beat his distant opponent, an old friend, at online chess.
“I, of course, do that religiously now,” Schwarzenegger, wearing a Terminator T-shirt during a video call with the news outlet, said of his online chess habit.
This is how the former governor of California is spending quarantine. And he isn’t alone. His pandemic chess habit is shared by a growing crowd, including reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, presidential candidate Joe Biden, and the manager of the Spanish professional football club FC Barcelona.
When the world told them to stay home, they became part of the global pandemic’s most surprising counterattack: a modern chess boom. Everyone’s newest form of entertainment is one of the world’s oldest games.
“We’ve just been exploding,” s Daniel Rensch, the chief chess officer of Chess.com, told the Journal. “It’s been crazy.”
With sports off the air since March, the world’s best grandmasters have broken centuries of convention by cooking up high-stakes tournaments over the internet. The world’s worst pawn pushers have nothing better to do than hone their middle games—or just learn the basics.
“If you put someone’s king in stalemate in chess…it’s a draw?!?!” tweeted New York Giants Running Back Saquon Barkley last month. “I’m heated.”
Right now, the Journal reports, the world’s top chess players are competing virtually in the FIDE Chess.com Online Nations Cup, with the U.S. competing against India, Europe, China, Russia and the “Rest of the World.” Last week, the world’s No. 1 player, Magnus Carlsen, hosted the Magnus Carlsen Invitational online—and won the tournament himself, handily. I
During this brief period of time, organizers have developed complex systems to host lucrative events—while accounting for potential cheaters—and feed the content-starved masses flocking to the game in unprecedented numbers.
Chess.com hosted almost 204 million games in February alone. By April, that number had surged to more than 279 million for an average of 9.3 million games a day.
Even wilder was the spike in other activity on the site. The number of messages between users shot up by 136% over those two months. Aficionados tuned in just to watch—and not even play—more than 10 million games in April, a jump of 97% from February
The Chess.com spike happened, quite literally, overnight. The sharpest increases began right after March 11, the same day the NBA announced the suspension of its season. As more populous countries like India issued shelter-in-place orders, demand only grew. The eggheads who run the world’s most popular chess website were frantically making sure their servers could handle this army of wannabe Kasparovs.
“All of us were holding on like the Millennium Falcon before it crashes,” said Rensch.
Chess has been available to play online for practically as long as the internet has existed, but the game’s governing bodies had always insisted on conducting tournaments in person for one specific reason: cheating. Organizers of the Carlsen Invitational positioned cameras behind every player to monitor their screens and make sure they weren’t consulting chess engines.
Schwarzenegger relies on his half-century of chess experience for his victories, including games on Venice’s Muscle Beach, on movie sets; and in his after-school programs where kids as young as 6 years old have beaten him. (“The kids love that they terminated The Terminator,” Schwarzenegger says.)
But not all of his opponents seem to be taking it very seriously. Schwarzenegger recently shared a picture of himself chewing a cigar and matching wits with a friend named Lulu, who was resting her head on the board. Lulu is his pet donkey.
“She’s not the best chess partner but she’s getting there,” Schwarzenegger wrote.
And she’s not the only one: Even political chess has evolved into discussions of actual chess. When Bernie Sanders endorsed Biden in a live stream last month, they chopped it up over the Democratic nomination and vital policy questions. Then they really got down to business.
“I thought we’d play some chess, what do you think?” Sanders offered with a board in the background.
“I’d like to play chess,” Biden replied. “I’ve been playing on my cellphone—that’s about it.”
Research contact: @WSJ