Articles
Life As The Internet's Chess Teacher: An Interview With IM Levy Rozman

Life As The Internet's Chess Teacher: An Interview With IM Levy Rozman

Mick
| 133 | Other

This month's featured chess content creator needs almost no introduction. He's the most-followed chess account on YouTube and is the recipient of multiple awards including Best Chess Streamer at the 2022 Streamer Awards and Best Content Creator for the 2022 Chess.com Awards.

Meet IM Levy Rozman, also known as GothamChess. Known for his educational videos which have inspired millions of chess players, as well as his creative content and sarcastic wit, Levy has in many ways set the gold standard for what chess content can be, and has been a key component in the ongoing popularity of the game. 

Levy took the time to answer a few questions from us about chess, his love of mixed martial arts, and some of his proudest (and weirdest) moments as the internet's chess teacher.


You're an MMA aficionado—martial artists often describe their fights as a ''chess match'' while chess itself often refers to fighting or combat-reminiscent imagery. What are some of the similarities between chess and a UFC match, or being a fighter vs. being a chess player?

I think a lot of people try to make comparisons to chess and I think a lot of them are pretty stupid, like in the business world. Even in team sports, they like to say it's like a chess match. But I think there is probably no greater sport to compare to chess than fighting because it has every element; to start with, it's actually a one-on-one activity.

You can have your team prepare you, but when you get there, it is completely yourself. It's a very individual activity. There are a lot of similarities; in chess, you can have a style, much like individuals have styles in fighting. You have a strength, they have a weakness. You study people's tendencies before the fight with video, just like in chess. You can prepare for certain things by studying openings. So there's an overlap basically at every stage, except one is physical and one is mental.

A lot of it is psychological. In fighting, they talk about the fact that if you suffer a knockout or a big setback, it really affects you moving forward, and they perform like once or twice a year. In chess, you can play a hundred games in a day, but the same thing applies.

There are a bunch of different layers and it's an extremely different activity, but there are a lot more similarities in my opinion—when you talk about a one-on-one physical fight—than there are with team sports.

I guess there are other individual sports like tennis, but I don't know... Something about fighting is just different. Like in tennis, it's hitting a ball really hard with a racket. There's, of course, much more to it than that, but with fighting you have multiple tools per player, tendencies, psychology, all this different stuff.

And yeah, I like to draw comparisons to it. But I prefer chess; I don't want to get punched or kicked or anything.

There are a select few people in the world who are capable of explaining complex chess concepts to audiences of all levels. What's the key to clearly communicating a chess game or chess position to someone who really only knows how to move the pieces?

There's a couple of things here. I never trained anything, like I never did any public speaking… I think my brain is just very good at it. I don’t know; maybe it's from interactions in my childhood or my teenage years, but if there are ten moving parts to a situation, my brain just organizes them and I have the ability to convey that to people without forgetting anything.

I think the most important thing here is understanding the way other people perceive things. So I'm constantly actively engaging with “How would they perceive this?” That's the best way I can describe it. Whether it's giving directions or if we're having a conversation about some subject and I have, you know, three points to make, I'm sort of able to immediately organize which one should go first, second, and third, and then communicate that. I don't know. God gave me that ability, and my brain just works that way. If I have five thoughts, it just stacks them like a filing cabinet, like your taxes or something. I can't do other things, but that I can do!

I also think about other things… Like, am I saying “um” too much? Or when should I make a joke? Am I moving my hands too much? These are all things that are important when you're presenting. It's different when you're streaming because it's just you in a room, but on stage or something like that... I think those are the two most important skills. You have to be able to take a bunch of details and then break them down.

Chess-specifically, it helps to be an International Master and have a high level of understanding of the game. But I think it's not even the fact that I'm able to explain it—I think I make people care, which is infinitely more important! You can watch a YouTube video of a car mechanic or whatever, and you might understand it, but you don't really care. And I think historically nobody has really cared about chess.

But now they see a familiar face, a fun voice, a series of jokes, a certain type of content, and they just enjoy that. Like it's something they want to watch for 20 minutes while they eat lunch or prepare for their day or wind down in the evening or relax during a work break. So, yeah, it's a little bit more, I think, than just deconstructing and demystifying. Although that's a huge part of it.

I would imagine that teaching in schools helped, teaching five and six-year-olds, but again, I don't know why I was good at that. I never really taught my little brother chess; I have a half-brother but he's 11.5 years younger than me. So, you know, I was already too old when I was teaching him anything about chess, as I was sort of slowly moving out of the house.

But that's really what it is. You have to be able to take a lot of moving parts, organize them, deconstruct them, and look at them from the other person's perspective. Why should they care? Why should they spend 20 minutes on this video?

I’ve sometimes heard that people watch me and their partners watch too just because it's engaging, even if they don't know anything about chess, which is amazing. So I don't know where that skill came from, but I'm very glad to have it.

You have a Cameo account where people can ask for personalized videos. What's the weirdest request someone has sent you? What's one of the ones that you liked the best? There are some heartwarming ones in there, like the below quote:

"My son absolutely lost his mind! He was incredibly grateful and actually teared up. Thank you, Levy, for helping to bring my son and I closer over a wonderfully complex game."

Yeah, I saw that! That was nice to read, and a bit surprising too.

I mean, a few requests are weird, like people pay money to have me insult their friend. And I try to do it in a funny way; you can give me a prompt to go off. A lot of those were like two to three-minute recordings, and I didn't have much information at all because you can submit who you are and who it's for and why, and what to say… Some people are not very good at that, so they give me very limited information! I do my best to find a way to make it funny.

I got one that I had to turn down, which was a guy who just wanted me to say some really, really bad stuff to his friend. I responded and said you have to edit this request, otherwise, I can't do it… and instead of editing the request, he just completely canceled it. So he really, really wanted me to say this super f***** up stuff to his friend, and I was like “What if this is not his friend? Like, what if I'm bullying somebody?!”

But yeah, most of them are good. Most of them are for birthdays or pep talks for kids, and I enjoy that stuff, because if you run into me in the street or something, it's mostly the same thing. I’m not some fake guy on camera while on the street I'm like “Don't touch me!” or something.

What is something that you wish (more) people knew about you?

Hmm… If I had to choose something, it would be that you shouldn't let your first impression of me set the tone forever. Like, you should give me a little bit of a chance, especially if you watch me on Twitch. And the reason for that is I give different elements of my personality to different platforms.

On YouTube, I provide the highest quality I can: 30 minutes, high energy, making some content. Twitch is a long one. It's three or four hours and you're just constantly being berated by some of the most exceptionally idiotic comments known to mankind. A lot of people are doing it for attention.

So if you tune into Twitch, you might catch me ranting or complaining about something, but you don't actually see the other two hours where I might talk about something serious or be more introspective, or something along those lines.

For me individually—and frankly I would give this advice to anybody, especially a younger audience—it would be not to let a 30-second or five-minute consumption of my content (or anybody's content) shape your perception entirely. And it also works in reverse; just because you watch some YouTuber doesn't mean that you know them or that they're a nice person. Like, don't idolize anybody.

This is of course not about myself because I'm not a secretly s****y individual. But I always tell this to young people: you don't know who you're watching! Don't form some perception in your head that this person is excellent or this person is horrible. It’s just a person who you watch on the screen, and if they've had a profound and good impact on your life that’s wonderful, but still like, try not to idolize them. But it's hard, I understand.

But about me, specifically, I would say just give it a chance and see the full thing. YouTube, Twitch, whatever. But I'm only saying this because you ask… I don't actually actively think about this. I'm pretty happy, I think, in general!


What has been your proudest moment in terms of being a chess streamer or content creator?

There are a lot of things here. Every single fan interaction is a nice positive reinforcement of sort of everything I'm doing. When people message me and say they reconnected with a relative or I helped them through depression or a mental health crisis while sitting down for 12 hours a day preparing for their medical school exams… I get a lot of these, and I try to respond every now and then, but I can't always respond to each one.

There's that whole human side of it, like the one-on-one human side, and then if one of my Instagram reels gets reposted by someone like the number one footballer in the U.S., Christian Pulisic, I sit there going, like ‘“S***, I'm doing some cool stuff”, you know?

And the charity thing, like, giving away money to chess programs… I'll scale that and hopefully do something education or charity-related, whether it's starting chess programs in schools, or whatever the case might be.

I just sort of have moments, whether it's a fan interaction on the street or some cool email, or somebody reaches out who I respect and admire who has a really big influence, and they say “Yeah, I love your videos” or “My kids love your videos”... That’s when I kind of sit back and think wow, I'm really doing some great stuff.

Probably a moment where I experienced this was when I went to YouTube Headquarters. I was in touch with them and I spoke to a few YouTube executives, and they told me they were going to do a social event. I was going to play three people blindfolded, at the same time. They were going to draw three random Google or YouTube employees. And the whole time we were there, they were saying things like “Oh, it's gonna be a pretty big social event, you know, it's gonna be a lot of people.” It's like okay, cool, great. I showed up and it was like 300 people!

And there was no way I was gonna be able to play blindfolded. It was just too loud. The whole second deck was full, like 50 people brought their kids… It was nuts. And these are adults in full-on professions, and this was just a small sample. I kind of walked in like "holy s***, this is crazy."

Moments like that let me kind of appreciate the whole thing, and that was 300 people… I have 1.2 billion views. What the f*** even is that number? That's a disgustingly large number. It's so big. It's a little terrifying I have to say, but the content’s good and I'm not a particularly controversial individual.

You’ve collaborated with some very big names, from other chess players to UFC champions. If you could have anyone in the world join you for a stream or video, who would it be and why?

Hmm… Whatever I answer, I'll regret anyway. I'll think of a better answer at some point. One that would be funny would be Daniel Radcliffe because everybody tells me I look like Harry Potter anyway, so I think it would be pretty hilarious.

I don't idolize any celebrity that much, but of course I like to watch athletes. I don't know, maybe Nadal or something, but they're all cool. Like, I would not want to ever do to them what I know sometimes has happened to me, hands shaking while talking and trying to take a selfie. I don't know, maybe LeBron or something. Just some big athlete, a big name… but nobody immediately pops out!

Lastly, we've heard there's a great new Chessable course out. Is there anything you could tell the world about that?

I guess I would say, similar to my YouTube content and my teaching background, I'm able to angle, form, and create content for an audience. And I think I did a really good job. Like, I worked hard. I mean, I just worked my *ss off essentially for two months to produce this thing.

I did it in such a way that I thought the target audience on Chessable would really, really enjoy. And I also did it in a way where I avoided overlap with a lot of other Chessable courses, where I could, and I tried to respond to other Chessable courses where I could because Chessable is so big that there's a lot of repertoires you can cross-reference against one another.

So I think I presented very practical material, but also very dense and thorough material, which I myself use. And I've been very honest with my community about it. Of course, I obviously have my own courses too. So sometimes I joke on-stream, like if you're gonna buy one, buy mine because I get the full amount of money; I don't have to give anything away to Chessable!

But I also am very open and I say that Chessable has 1100 variations and 18 hours of video and it's just for a different group of people, a different kind of audience, and a different way to learn chess. I think the course is fresh, I think it's unique, I think there are a lot of very cool ideas in it. And I think it's extremely thorough, and gives the Chessable target audience a really, really nice repertoire with white, with 1.e4.

I don't think my lack of a grandmaster title or my recent over-the-board struggles should deter people from checking it out. I mean, in the worst-case scenario, there's a refund policy, right? I think I have a lot of cool takes on certain openings, age-old openings like the Sicilian, French, and so on. My motto for the course would be just give it a damn shot, you know. I think you'll really like some of the lines recommended.


If you're a regular reader, you might have noticed that 'Streamer of the Month' is now 'Creator of the Month'. We made this small change to reflect the work that chess content creators do on all platforms, not just Twitch and YouTube. Is there anyone you'd love to see? Let us know in the comments!


Previous Streamer/Creator of the Month articles:

Mick
Mick Murray

Mick is a writer and editor for Chess.com and ChessKid. He enjoys playing the Caro-Kann and Italian Game to varying degrees of success. Before joining Chess.com, Mick worked as a writer, editor, and content manager in Japan, New Zealand, and the Netherlands.

More from Mick
Meet The Reason People Keep Beating You With The London System

Meet The Reason People Keep Beating You With The London System

Why You Shouldn't Rely On Chess Engine Analysis (And Other Tips From An International Master)

Why You Shouldn't Rely On Chess Engine Analysis (And Other Tips From An International Master)