Tourists play a game of giant chess on the pier in Southend-on-sea, U.K. (Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg) 

Chess Is the Killer App

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- In the age of the internet, why has interest in chess remained so robust, and even risen sharply? Two years ago, the world chess championship match drew about 10 million online viewers, while this year’s competition between Magnus Carlsen and Fabio Caruana, currently underway in London, is expected to draw more attention yet. Worldwide, chess claims about 600 million fans, which makes it one of the most popular games or sports.

It is noteworthy that China, one of the two most important countries in the world, has decided to invest heavily in chess. This year Chinese teams won both the men’s and women’s divisions at the Chess Olympiad, a first. That would not have happened without the active support of the Chinese Communist Party. The U.S. is stepping up too, with the aid of chess patron Rex Sinquefield. In recent times America has placed three players in the world’s top 10, including Caruana, currently No. 2.

It turns out that chess is oddly well-suited for a high-tech world. Chess does not make for gripping television, but the option of live viewing online, supplemented by computer analysis or personal commentary, has driven a renaissance of the game.

For one thing, computer evaluations have made watching more intelligible. Even if you barely understand chess, you can quickly get a sense of the state of play with the frequently changing numerical evaluations (“+ 2.00,” for instance, means white has a decisive advantage, whereas “0.00” signals an even position). You also can see, with each move, whether the player will choose what the computer finds best.

In essence, some of the suspenseful stupidities of low-level video games have been infused into eggheady chess. You can indulge your inner Pac Man without feeling guilty about it.

At first it was thought that online viewers would favor rapid and blitz chess, which are (as you might expect) more fast-paced. In fact, the slower games, including contests of five hours or more, have not put viewers off. If you are sitting at your office desk, you might wish to glance at the position every few minutes or so. A slower game means you can do that without missing much of the action, and yet still most of your work will get done. If the game is heading to a climax, you can pay full attention for that short period.

Fortunately, the software programs that evaluate the games and players are not yet infallible. So if Stockfish (one such program) indicates that your favorite player is far behind, you can hold out a slim hope that the software is wrong. “Creating artificial suspense” is one of the killer apps of the internet.

The broader and quite significant lesson is that we are not very skilled at predicting how the internet will change the world. Basketball, too, has boomed with the internet and social media. The showcasing of stars, and the brilliance of individual dunks and three-point shots, mesh with Twitter and GIFs in a way that the slower pace of baseball does not. Seeing a right fielder “trash talk” on social media just doesn’t have the resonance of a flamboyant basketball star who has the ball in his hands a lot more often and stares down his opponents and then blows by them.

As for chess, it is no accident that the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, is a master of media and social media, and he sometimes trash talks too. The latest internet chess sensation is Carlsen playing “bullet chess” — one minute per game for each player. His moniker is DrDrunkenstein, there is rap and techno music in the background, and he swigs his beer and mocks his opponents while crushing them (and sometimes dropping a game).

Chess has been one of the truly global games for well over a century, putting it far ahead of more recent trends. Even in soccer, which is very broadly played, there is a World Cup only every four years. By contrast every top chess tournament, except of course for national championships, is a global competition.

There is a media tendency to view Caruana’s challenge to Carlsen as primarily a question of whether an American can take back the chess crown, just as Bobby Fischer defeated the Soviet Union’s Boris Spassky in 1972. Yet the American chess players I know seem at least as besotted with Carlsen, because of his unique intuitive style and revolutionary endgame technique. People identify with the power of the game and its ideas, rather than with provincial national loyalties.

It should not be surprising that 64 squares and 32 pieces of wood could produce one of the world’s great avocations and internet pastimes. If you do find that kind of alchemy surprising, maybe it’s a sign that you don’t yet see just how much the internet will, in due time, change everything.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”

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