Digital checkmate: A brief timeline of chess as an ESport

One of the world's oldest games has a bright future.

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It might not garner quite as many headlines—or lucrative corporate partnerships—as, say, Fortnite or Valorant, but the ancient game of chess is indeed an ESport. Some have argued, in fact, that it’s “the original ESport”. That’s a debate no one is ever going to win. Chess masters and computer programmers did, however, join forces to turn the world’s most popular board game into an electronic spectator sport long before Overwatch was so much as a gleam in Jeff Kaplan’s eye.

July 20 is World Chess Day. That’s as good an excuse as any to look at the milestones in the development of chess as an ESport.

Pre-1950s

1770: Hungarian inventor Wolfgang von Kempelen constructs a device called “the Turk”, billed as an automaton chess player. Exhibited throughout Europe and the Americas for close to 84 years, the Turk racks up an astonishing number of wins, defeating notable people of the day, including Napoleon Bonaparte and Benjamin Franklin.

An advertisement for an appearance of the Turk, as exhibited by Johann Nepomuk Maelzel.

It’s all too good to be true, of course. The machine is not an automaton at all; there is actually a human operator inside. Not just any old carny would be capable of beating so many opponents, mind you. When Johann Nepomuk Maelzel buys the Turk in 1804, he employs some of the top chess masters of the day, including Hyacinthe Henri Boncourt, Johann Allgaier, and William Lewis.

The Turk is destroyed in a fire in 1854.

1883: A sport is born when Wilhelm Steinitz defeats Johannes Zukertort in what is regarded as the first official World Chess Championship.

1914: El Ajedrecista, a chess-playing automaton built by Spanish civil engineer Leonardo Torres y Quevedo, makes its debut at the University of Paris. The machine can’t play a full match, but it is programmed to play a three-piece end game of King and Rook against King. It puts its human opponent in checkmate each time.

1948: Alan Turing and David Champernowne begin work on a computer chess program called Turochamp as part of their research into computer science and machine learning. Turochamp simulates a game of chess against a human opponent by accepting the player’s moves as input and then outputting its own move in response. The program’s algorithm, however, proves too complex to be run on the computers of the day.

Early digital era: 1950s–’60s

1950: Claude E. Shannon of Bell Telephone Laboratories publishes a paper in Philosophical Magazine titled “Programming a Computer to Play Chess”. An American mathematician, electrical engineer, and cryptographer known as “the father of information theory”, Shannon sees a chess-playing computer not as an end in itself, but as a stepping stone on a path that might lead to “machines capable of logical deduction”. In other words, what we now call artificial intelligence. Shannon writes:

The chess machine is an ideal one to start with, since: (1) the problem is sharply defined both in allowed operations (the moves) and in the ultimate goal (checkmate); (2) it is neither so simple as to be trivial nor too difficult for satisfactory solution; (3) chess is generally considered to require “thinking” for skilful play; a solution of this problem will force us either to admit the possibility of a mechanized thinking or to further restrict our concept of “thinking”; (4) the discrete structure of chess fits well into the digital nature of modern computers.

1956: A computer plays a chess-like game (dubbed “Los Alamos chess”) for the first time. Paul Stein and Mark Wells at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory program the game, a variant played on a six-by-six board without bishops, for the MANIAC I computer. In a three-game trial, the program plays against itself, loses to a skilled human player, and wins against a neophyte lab assistant.

1966: Kotok-McCarthy, considered the first computer program to play chess convincingly, plays a correspondence match against a computer at the Moscow Institute for Theoretical and Experimental Physics. Playing via telegraph over a period of nine months, Kotok-McCarthy loses the match.

The 1970s

1974: Stockholm hosts the first World Computer Chess Championship, an event at which computer chess engines compete against each other. The winner is Kaissa, a chess program developed in the Soviet Union in the 1960s. The WCCC has been held 24 times since then, with Komodo dominating in recent years.

1976: Microchess is the first game sold commercially for microcomputers. Originally designed for the MOS Technology KIM-1, Microchess later expands into a program with graphics for the TRS-80, Apple II, Commodore PET, and Atari 8-bit family computers.

The 1980s

1983: Belle becomes the first chess computer to achieve master-level play, with a U.S. Chess Fedration rating of 2250.

1985: Taiwanese-born grad student Feng-hsiung Hsu begins work on a computer chess-playing system. Initially called ChipTest, it is subsequently renamed Deep Thought. IBM hires the development team and changes the project’s name again, to Deep Blue. Grandmaster Joel Benjamin helps develop Deep Blue’s opening book.

The 1990s

1992: The launch of the Internet Chess Server allows players to come together online for the first time. The text-based service displays games as notation or as an ASCII drawing of a board.

1997: Deep Blue defeats Garry Kasparov. This makes him the first world chess champion to lose a match to a computer under standard time controls. Kasparov, who had bested Deep Blue in a six-game match the previous year, accuses IBM of cheating.

The 2000s-’10s

2005: Erik Allebest and Jay Severson purchase the domain name Chess.com. They begin building an online chess portal, which they launch in 2007. Today, Chess.com hosts over a million games every day between players all over the world—from beginners to Grandmasters like Magnus Carlsen and Hikaru Nakamura.

Making its inroads into the world of ESports unmistakable, Chess.com also operates the chess channel on Twitch, the streaming platform of choice for Overwatch and CS:GO players.

2016: Norway’s Magnus Carlsen defends his title against Russian challenger Sergey Karjakin at the World Chess Championship. Fans watch the match in 360-degree virtual reality on Worldchess.com.

2017: The Professional Rapid Online (PRO) Chess League plays its inaugural season. Operated by Chess.com, the PRO Chess League brings the game fully into the ESports world. It bills its 2018 final as “the first-ever live ESports chess event”. The league has 24 active teams, with the St. Louis Arch Bishops currently the reigning champs.

…and beyond

Chess as a 21st-century ESport already has its own burgeoning millennial superstars. Alexandra and Andrea Botez are among that number; the Vancouver-raised sisters have 281,000 Twitch followers. Alexandra holds the International Chess Federation title of Woman FIDE Master. NBC News profiled her in February.

According to data from Twitch itself, time spent watching chess on the platform has risen by more than 500 percent since 2016. “Across all the different various competitive games on Twitch, chess has seen some of the most substantial growth in the same period of time than any other esport in the world,” Justin Dellario, Twitch’s vice president of global ESports, told NBC.

Nakamura—who has 468,000 Twitch followers—sometimes hosts matches between players better known for their skills in Overwatch or World of Warcraft. This speaks volumes about the growth of interest in chess as an ESport among gamers themselves. Witness this pairing of Félix “xQc” Lengyel and the late Byron “Reckful” Bernstein:

Chess might be one of the oldest games in the world, but it shows no signs of losing popularity. With its cachet among the Twitch crowd growing exponentially, its future seems very bright indeed.

“It’s crazy to me to have this kind of support and this kind of viewership online for chess,” Alexandra Botez told NBC. “Chess has always been a passion of mine, but it was never something that was popular. It was never something I would have imagined would have grown to what it is today.”

I have done a lot of different things over the course of my life and professional career. I have interviewed Oscar and Grammy winners and written cover stories for glossy newsstand magazines. I have played guitar in a rock band on national TV and run an independent music label for which I wrote all of the PR and marketing materials. In my spare time, I sweated out a novel about a world where raccoons are kings and dragons are real.

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