Classical Chess is still King… Here’s Why

In post-quarantine times, chess has returned to its classical roots, but quick chess has surged and even surpassed all forms of chess in terms of sheer popularity. Popular streamers like Hikaru Nakamura and Levy Rozman have amassed huge followings and the online platform has made chess accessible to a wider audience. Most have resorted to the adrenaline-pumping bullet games and all of the blitz arenas on chess servers are on fire. Despite the rise of online tournaments, classical chess has emerged from COVID with new tournaments and remains the standard of chess excellence.

2013 Sinquefield Cup. St. Louis Chess Club is the home of elite classical chess in the U.S.

Admittedly, classical chess has struggled to find the best format to present the drama over a period of several hours. Prior to COVID-19 the Grand Chess Tour was the biggest attraction in chess as the world’s top players would battle in a series of classical events. While these marquee events were widely followed starting ten years ago, the events featured the same collection of players year after year. A change was needed. Tournaments like the FIDE Grand Swiss inject new life into the professional circuit with a more diverse field. So far, the tournament has had an exciting collection of gladiator battles.

The COVID Effect

Chess received a surge in popularity due to various streaming platforms and was bolstered even further due to the “Queen’s Gambit” miniseries. The record-setting production enthralled the COVID-19 audience during quarantine. On the C-Squared podcast, Fabiano Caruana, Daniel Naroditsky, and Christian Chirila discussed the rise in popularity of chess during this period and its relationship to the interest in classical chess. Naroditsky had some interesting insight on the quickplay vs. classical.

I don’t think that classical chess, or over-the-board chess is going to get phased out, or completely overtaken. And I think the proof is in the pudding. Some types of over-the-board tournaments I think will die out. I think the ultra-traditional Game/100 hours (sic) type tournament will eventually be phased out. Even though, when I was covering Tata Steel… which is like an eight-hour round… it had a lot of viewers. There was actually a lot of interest. I think that there is a group of people who really feel like the contemplative kind of meditative experience of watching ultra-high-level chess being played over the course of many hours. I think one great by-product of chess getting so popular is that there are groups of people who are interested in different things and so it’s given more of the ability of different forms of chess to coexist. I think a lot of people view this as a zero-sum game. That if online chess is growing that it has to replace something. I don’t think that this is entirely true.

~GM Daniel Naroditsky

Video by C-Squared podcast

The important point Naroditsky makes is when he mentions that chess enthusiasts of diverse interests have more options so that it doesn’t have to be an “either/or” decision. There are those who seek an adrenaline rush from bullet chess and there are those who want the unfolding of drama over the course of hours. There are choices.

Classical Roots

Just about every single chess player who learned the moves, undoubtedly gained enough intrigue to appreciate the slow pace of the game. You don’t play chess for a quick physical workout. In fact, most of us played our first games without a clock. Nevertheless, chess wasn’t considered boring to those of us who continued playing. So when a chess player (regardless of who it is) says classical chess is boring, they have clearly forgotten what attracted them to chess.

These days, people are trying to make chess into an “action sport.” Faster time controls certainly have their place in chess. Who can forget Fischer’s demolition of the field at Nerceg Novi Sad in 1970 (games)? Today’s quickplay battles on and lichess are too many to count and both companies boast huge memberships. However, most of the famous tournaments we can recall in history have been high-level classical events. There is a certain prestige and quality associated with classical play and it was reinforced by various chess movies including the “Queen’s Gambit.”

The Queen's Gambit

Of course, the miniseries was about Beth Harmon taking on the world elite after being touted as a child prodigy with special gifts. It captured the beautiful cinematography of the elegant playing halls and enthralled the worldwide viewing audience. After each episode, the intense buildup left us on an emotional roller coaster wondering how Beth would manage the next challenge in life.

It is amazing how this series captivated audiences (chess and non-chess) around the world as the story slowly unfolded. The prestigious classical tournaments were on full display and many chess players felt a sense of pride in how chess was presented. The tournaments dramatized in the series featured memorable games in classical chess history. The only blitz battles were played in a bar over drinks, and in a basement apartment.

There are a number of differences in how chess is perceived by the public. One difference is blitz is still perceived as a casual form of chess. It is not taken as seriously as classical and is billed more for its entertainment value. In the online space, cheating is a major issue as players are tempted to minimize mistakes that are more frequent at faster time controls. This has become a major concern in chess circles and the Carlsen-Niemann controversy at last year’s Sinquefield classical event shed a brighter light on this issue.

Classical chess embroiled in scandal

Classical chess made world headlines and created an online firestorm.
Photo by Lennart Ootes

Today, some are saying marketing classical chess for a viewing audience is difficult because it is slow-paced, but this is a simplistic view. In chess tournaments where there are multiple games going, it is very easy to switch and cover a large number of games, providing a variety of plots and exciting twists and turns. If we are talking about a world championship match, there is only one game, but organizers and commentators simply have to be more creative in filling the time between moves.

Chess has not found the winning formula for mainstream media, but certain formats with complementary commentators have produced entertaining content. The Fischer-Spassky match had a watchable format with Shelby Lyman giving nightly recaps instead of live move-by-move commentary. This helped to create the now-famous “Fischer Boom” and captivated the non-chess-playing people as well. To say that it is better to have quicker games at the expense of quality play is a desperate call.

“The rise in popularity comes at what cost? Turning chess into a meaningless gimmick like everything else.”

~A post from DirtyEnergy on on the rising popularity of chess in the streaming space

Is Quick Chess Taking Over?

Only in the most recent decade has classical chess lost some of its intrigue due to the prevalent role powerful chess engines have played in aiding our play. Bobby Fischer feared that chess would be “played out” and suggested Fischer Random as a variant. While Fischer’s idea has come of age, it has not been embraced in the chess mainstream. Former World Champion Magnus Carlsen, who despite saying classical chess is “boring,” has gone on record to say that Fischer Random has “massive potential” but time controls need to be longer.

Some believe that speeding up play, thereby increasing the pace and producing more decisive games, is the answer to “draw death.” Unfortunately, there is a drawback. “Quick Play” (rapid, blitz, and bullet) also increases the amount of errors as the time control decreases. Despite this, quick play remains increasingly popular due to the accessibility of competition and the amount of games that can be played in a short time. It has always been an important training tool.

However, blitz is as different from classical chess as the 100-meter sprint is from the 1600-meter race. There is often a fallacy that blitz is simply a quicker form of chess. That is true to a degree, but they are very different games. How many times have we heard of players thinking their blitz prowess transfers to classical play? There are even cases where a blitz specialist would enter classical tournaments with a low classical rating thinking they would easily “sandbag” their way to a prize. Usually, those blitz demons go away humbled wondering why their tactical blitz tricks didn’t work. Simply put, blitz is not classical.

Over centuries every serious metric for the highest level of play has used classical chess as the standard. Chess has generally been about playing the best moves to outwit the opposition. Online blitz chess has changed the narrative somewhat. With premoves and other tricks to win games, there is more emphasis on managing time and expert handling of the mouse. We have even entered the realm of “ultrabullet” or 30-second chess. However, if it is better to play faster with lesser quality than to play slower with greater quality, then we have to admit that we are playing a totally different game. If that is true, then the formats are not comparable and we must figure out how to treat them as separate “products.”

Expert Vester Wilson taking time odds from FM William 'The Exterminator' Morrison in a gladiator chess battle (2003 World Open). Morrison is one of the few U.S. players to reach a high level in tournament play in addition to his phenomenal blitz prowess. It also helped that Morrison had a strong
Vester Wilson taking time odds from FM William “The Exterminator” Morrison in a gladiator chess battle (2003 World Open). Photo by Daaim Shabazz

In all fairness, some players just want to play quick games due to time constraints. That is not a chess issue, but a personal issue. While both formats have their appeal, one can make arguments for both sides. One can also argue that faster play is better to watch because there is less idle time and constant action. However, action in chess is not based on the physical movement of the players, but story unfolding on the board. In blitz, the story unfolds quickly with unpredictability. Not everyone is a fan.

Classical or Blitz?

There was a recent article about TwitchCon and chess streamers making a popular presence, but there was an ambivalent comment stating, “The rise in popularity comes at what cost? Turning chess into a meaningless gimmick like everything else.” There have been debates about innovations like PogChamps, a series of amateur tournaments catering to internet influencers and streamers. As one who is a classical chess traditionalist and former blitz addict, I can agree that there is room to market both. Chess has always been a game respected for its erudition, but of course, it carries tremendous entertainment value in the online space.

Some believe classical is better to watch for the general audience because it gives them time to understand how chess works. Able commentators can lay out the scenario in creative ways over a period of time. In classical, there is typically a higher standard of play and the ability to see the game take shape over time. The nuances are fascinating and it allows us to peer into the minds of the best in the game. The point is to market chess so that the public can follow what is happening. Yes… there is more time between moves, but filling up that time is an opportunity for other activities.

Sure, a blitz game has players moving quickly, but if we are talking about making chess marketable, are we trying to make chess more like boxing, football, or basketball where there is constant physical movement? One chess teacher said when he gave public chess demonstrations, he showed “bullet chess.” Does he think that will make chess look more exciting? That’s probably what he thinks, but frenetic action is not what has attracted millions of people to chess and that is not what chess is. Chess is not an arcade game.

Which will bring chess glory?

One of the problems with the current approach to popularizing chess is trying to make it into something it is not. Bobby Fischer was a trailblazer in his efforts to professionalize chess and fought for top conditions. He even ridiculed players for representing the game in poor attire and unkempt appearance. Kirsan Ilyumzhinov once lobbied to make chess into an Olympic sport by “professionalizing” its appearance. Despite these efforts, the International Olympic Committee was convinced chess should be classified as a sport, but not as part of the Games. Perhaps there was a concern about it not being “viewer-friendly.”

If one describes chess, it does not usually include playing at blinding speed, with pieces flying, being knocked over, and colorful trash-talking. However, this is the type of chess that is gaining viewers because of the spectacle. Perhaps we desire more than one vision of how chess is presented. Here is a different take on chess in a Hennessey commercial honoring Maurice Ashley. It presents chess in an exciting way and relates it to ambition, determination, and brash play.

In the past, all of the chess analogies used by corporations were related to strategic insight, deep thinking, discipline, and higher analytics. Lately, there has been a recent shift. Today, chess is becoming more associated with the gaming community and a much younger demographic. Younger players are “digital natives” and typically gravitate toward faster forms of online chess. As such, chess is gaining a higher profile thanks to popular streamers and YouTube channels. It has certainly added to the “coolness” of chess.

Why Classical Will Remain the Standard… for now

The problem with quickplay is that both bullet and blitz allow little time for contemplation and it is difficult to digest the action. An audience needs time to figure out the possibilities or get quality commentary from master-level players. What becomes problematic is that professional commentators often struggle to describe the action in quickplay games which have a frenetic pace. Then there are the errors, in both the play and in the commentary. Of course, it is very entertaining to see top-level players in the heat of a time scramble and for the result to be unknown until the last second.

In classical, we all respect and understand the importance of contemplative moments in chess. One of the enduring qualities of classical chess is that it requires a serious mindset. You prepare your repertoire diligently for classical tournaments. You also have to justify the sacrifices you are making in time, travel, hotel, and food expenses. When you step into a tournament venue, the new environment (as opposed to being in your bedroom or office) takes on a more serious tone.

Here are some of the reasons classical will remain the gold standard of chess:

  • 1500-year history of classical chess gives it more prestige
  • there is a formality and respect for classical play
  • chess players typically develop an initial appreciation through “slow chess”
  • classical chess is easier to digest when watching (unlike “fast food chess”)
  • more time to watch ideas unfold in classical
  • higher quality analysis among fans and commentators
  • players have a chance to show their maximum ability
  • classical chess is associated with deep thinking and intellectual traits
  • quality of play in classical is given the heaviest weight
  • chess skill is usually rewarded and “luck” is minimized
  • player face-to-face and social interaction
  • at this time, the measure of highest skill is based on performance in classical chess
  • much lower probability of cheating in classical chess
  • classical games are viewed to be more serious examples
  • classical games are the predominant source in chess databases
  • classical chess is the fascination of renowned chess authors

There are arguments for the advancement of quickplay, but the question is, what are we trying to do with chess? Are we going to make chess more exciting by accentuating the physical movement of the players? What exactly does speeding up play do to the image of chess? Does it improve or erode the branding? Could there be a formula that will draw more to understand classical chess? There are so many questions.

Chess itself is exciting regardless of the format. Even Fischer Random is a wonderful variant that unveils exciting new patterns and ideas when given time to digest the starting position. Chess is a battle. It is war. What good is chess if you can’t follow the action or don’t have time to examine the possibilities? However, that is exactly the attraction some players enjoy… the adrenaline rush, the unpredictability, the adventure.

Perhaps the way classical chess is presented to mainstream media needs to be modernized. One thing is for certain, the classical form of chess has endured for 1500 years and it stands as the most popular board game in the world. It wasn’t because of speed. Classical chess is a game of kings and queens and will remain so for another 1500 years. It is not dead. Let’s hope we can find a formula so all forms can co-exist. However, for now, and the foreseeable future, the mastery of classical chess will still hold intrigue for us all.


  1. Long live classical chess

    One commenter stated…

    So who would we serve if the pace is quickened? Do we remove the effort of the players, so they have to invest less energy? But then we will have difficulty to explain why chess is a sport. Or do we intend to please the spectators? But I as a spectator dislike the idea of watching a short game full of blunders without being allowed to ponder on the plans of the players. What is the prototype of the spectator here? I cannot help but think that we intend to please spectators who are not interested in the chess, but in the drama.

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