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How technology reinvented chess as a global social network

The writer is founder of Sifted, an FT-backed site about European start-ups

When IBM’s Deep Blue computer defeated the world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997, some reckoned it was checkmate for humanity, as well as for the ancient sport itself. Newsweek magazine had billed the contest between the calculating machine and the then strongest player in human history as “The Brain’s Last Stand”. “Every human being who has worried about losing a job to a computer . . . is rooting for this compact, darkly handsome 34-year-old Russian to prevail,” wrote journalist Steven Levy.

In spite of his formidable talents, Kasparov suffered a narrow, crushing and heavily symbolic defeat. Later, he expressed dismay at losing to a programmable “$10mn alarm clock”. But he also admired the human ingenuity behind a computer that could systematically evaluate 200mn moves a second and win with “brute number-crunching force”. Such have been the advances in computing power since then that Deep Blue seems quaintly archaic. It could be beaten by most of the chess apps we carry on our smartphones today. In 2017, Google DeepMind announced that its AlphaZero machine learning system had taught itself to become the world’s strongest player in just nine hours.

Yet a funny thing has happened to chess in the quarter century since Deep Blue’s victory. Rather than killing off the sport, technology has helped it flourish, stimulating creativity and broadening accessibility. “Chess has never been more alive than now,” the Chess.com website concluded, following the latest gripping world championship match in which the Chinese grandmaster Ding Liren beat his Russian opponent Ian Nepomniachtchi on Sunday. The site, which streamed superb live commentary of the 18-game match, has grown to more than 100mn registered users over the past 15 years. Such has been Chess.com’s popularity that its database crashed this year when 10mn members logged on to play in a single day.

There are several reasons for the surge in the sport’s popularity. Undoubtedly, the Covid-19 lockdown boosted its appeal as millions of bored players, trapped at home, sought alternative online entertainment. The smash 2020 television hit The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s most-watched mini-series in 63 countries, also won over new fans, especially among girls wanting to emulate the triumphs of chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon. The real-life success of the Chinese grandmaster Ju Wenjun, the reigning women’s world chess champion since 2018, has helped popularise the sport in China, where it was once banned during the cultural revolution.

For non-enthusiasts, watching hours-long chess matches, which often end in dull draws, ranks up there with snail racing as a parody of fast-paced entertainment. But chatty and creative influencers on TikTok, Twitch and YouTube have pulled in a younger generation of fans. With his lightning-fast play, sparky commentary and Hawaiian shirts, the five-time US chess champion Hikaru Nakamura has attracted 1.8mn followers on Twitch, the streaming channel. Chess has evolved from a static board game into a dynamic social network and a global community.

The personalities of some leading players have also generated huge interest. The magnetic Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, five times world champion, sat out the latest tournament, thereby relinquishing his title. He seems bored by his feebler challengers, who he claims just try to “park the bus” — in football speak — when playing against him to avoid defeat. That left Nepomniachtchi, ranked number two, to square off against Ding, ranked three. But the 32-year-old Carlsen will doubtless be back, promising dramatic new plot lines.

The fidgety and aggressive Nepo, as Nepomniachtchi is known, has demonstrated courage both on and off the board: he was one of 44 Russian chess players to sign a letter last year opposing the invasion of Ukraine. Although lower ranked, Ding showed extraordinary resilience after a shaky start and conjured up a stunning move in game 18 to clinch victory. A fresh generation of exciting teenage challengers is also emerging fast.

Broader lessons can be drawn from the successful reinvention of chess at a time when many are fretting about the impact of generative artificial intelligence. Deep Blue’s triumph, which seemingly symbolised the eclipse of human intelligence in the most cerebral of sports, helped open up a new era of technology-assisted connection and creativity. As Kasparov knows to his cost, technology can destroy old certainties and raise fears of human obsolescence. But it can also generate unimagined new opportunities.

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