Learning And The Art Of Chess Tennis

Learning And The Art Of Chess Tennis

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KDlearns' first introduction to chess was the same as it was for many other people: he was mercilessly destroyed by his older family members and didn't play for years after that. His reintroduction to chess follows another familiar pattern: he started playing daily games with a friend after being inspired by The Queen’s Gambit

What follows is a little less conventional. KD started streaming two months into learning chess, in order to keep himself accountable and play on a regular schedule. People started watching, he began collaborating with other chess content creators, and now he finds himself in the middle of the online chess world, with an audience of thousands looking to him for chess advice and entertainment.

Read on to get KD's top tips for chess improvement, ringside stories from the world's biggest chessboxing event, and an insight into the world of chess tennis.

Your YouTube description contains the phrase “To learn is to live.” What’s the importance of learning for you?

So I equate learning with growth, and I know that if I'm growing, then I'm living; doing the opposite of dying—that's probably a little bit overdramatic! But in any endeavor—chess, tennis, academics, or anything else—if I am learning, it means that I'm making progress and I'm moving forward.

Moving forward in general is kind of what drives me. It's part of the whole ‘the journey is greater than the destination’ cliche, but for me, making that progress is what makes life exciting. Anything I can do to help others also adopt a similar mentality, that’s what I’m here for!

Who are some of your favorite chess content creators? Is there anyone in particular who inspires you?

Honestly, over the last two and a half years, I think I've watched at least a little bit of just about everyone. Sometimes it's for research purposes, sometimes it's for pure entertainment, but usually it's for both reasons at the same time!

Obviously, anyone who is a chess content creator has to give a big shout-out to IM Levy Rozman (GothamChess) for being one of the people who's really exploded this whole scene. 

But I've also followed a lot of the CSquared podcast, IM Eric Rosen, GM Ben Finegold, and other people like WGM Dina Belenkaya, ToshQueen, Witty_Alien, Gauri Chess… The list can go on and on forever. But everyone has their own special voice or their way of presenting or creating or mashing together entertainment and education into a video. Just because I didn't list someone's name specifically doesn't mean I don't watch them and really value their participation in the chess world!

I try to take inspiration from everyone a little bit; I think if I try to take too much inspiration from one single person then it feels too much like I'm being a copycat. What I want to do is be involved in the chess community but also have my own voice.

You've had some interesting chess collaborations, including cardio chess and chess trivia. What’s been your favorite one so far?

You did name two very good ones! Cardio chess is essentially a little play on chessboxing where you combine the mental and physical aspects, but instead of punching each other it's a lot of physical exercises; the more reps you do, the better time odds you get against your opponent in the next round of chess.

I was lucky enough to compete against both chessboxing champion Dina Belenkaya and also against the world chessboxing champion from 2018, Mat Thomas, in that event… Both of those are on YouTube. I won't give any spoilers but I'm pretty proud of how some of those went!

On collaborations within the chess world, between creators and even just between members of the chess community, this is one thing that I've been insanely impressed by. When I had a 600 blitz rating, I had people in my community who were 2000+ who were doing study group sessions with me and were just willing to share any and all chess knowledge.

There’s a similar vibe when I reach out to other content creators; everyone's been so receptive to collaborations or sharing information. To me that makes the online chess community such a unique and positive experience for so many people, myself included.

I think Checkmate Trivia Showdown is probably one of my favorite ones. It’s a bit more recent but I've been trying to learn more about the chess world, and I feel like learning completely random trivia about chess has been a great way to do that. It’s been a fun way to share things like “Here's some famous games you might not have known” or “Here's some completely random grab-bag openings.”

I'm researching a lot of stuff so I can put it into the show and then I'm testing all the contestants. That's been one of my favorite collaborations because I want to uncover as much as possible about the chess world and that's helped me do it. And not only do it for myself, but for other people as well!

Imagine you could do a chess-based collab on your stream with anyone in the world. Who would it be, and why?

So recently I've discovered that certain professional tennis players are also big fans of chess. The easy answer here would be Roger Federer, Carlos Alcaraz, and Andrey Rublev. I think Rublev made the opening move for one of the biggest women's chess tournaments a while back [the 2022 Astana Women’s Grand Prix], Federer played with Tani, and Alcaraz has mentioned chess is an important part of his mental game…

I played tennis for a couple of decades of my life, including college tennis. When Federer retired, I cried! I'm such a tennis fan, and it was a big part of my identity growing up. So to be able to do something chess-related or even chess-tennis-related with those three would be just absolutely incredible.

I might be crying as I shake hands with Roger; he may not be the official GOAT by the stats and numbers, but he'll always be my favorite. And that's never gonna change.

Speaking of Chess Tennis… You recently took part in the Chess Tennis World Championship! How did it go?

It was intimidating, I will say, because I think the format in general favors chess players. So I knew I needed to really perform well in tennis, and then just scrape out a few wins in chess and hope for the best. Unfortunately, I scored four out of seven rounds in tennis and scored two out of seven in chess.

Honestly, two out of seven in chess was my goal, but for tennis I was hoping to get six or even possibly seven out of seven, having previous collegiate tennis experience. The only issue is that I've been playing too much pickleball! 

If you're not in the U.S., that might make no sense to you, but it's a newer racket sport predominantly popular in the U.S. and I did not realize how much that was not going to translate back into my tennis game.

I do have to give all my opponents credit; I think this is where the mental toughness required to play chess really does translate to other games. I wasn't playing my best tennis, but these competitors were so mentally tough. They were willing to be gritty and compete as hard as possible, both over the chessboard and on the tennis court. So even though personally I think I should have won a couple more tennis matches, credit to my opponents for sticking it out and getting those wins over me.

But yeah, it was such an interesting combination. I went there alongside IM Eric Rosen, and Eric got to the semifinals, so it was a lot of fun to go through the experience with him throughout the tournament and then also cheer him on in the semis.

What do you think the overlaps are between the two sports (if any)?

I really do think that mental toughness is a huge benefit of chess, and I definitely saw that come through in this tournament.

Another huge aspect is ownership and accountability. Chess and tennis are both very individualistic sports, which means that if you win that is to your credit, but if you lose, that is also your fault. There's no hiding, you are the one responsible for both your success and your failure. I think that puts a lot more pressure on you, but learning to deal with that pressure and learning to be functional in the moment is so important for an athlete or competitor. 

I feel like chess and tennis can both teach you super valuable life lessons in that sense.

I found a list of chess books you recommend for improving players. Can you describe the following books in five words each?

I’ll do my best! 

Silman’s Complete Endgame Course.
Best overall endgame book ever.

Dvoretsky’s Endgame Manual.
I tried, until I couldn’t.

My System by Aron Nimzowitsch.
Friend recommended, never read—exposed.

Artur Yusupov: Build Up Your Chess (2 & 3).
These are great, my five words would be: “I want all the stars.”

At the end of every chapter, he gives puzzle exercises and their difficulties are 1, 2, and 3 stars—you have to get every variation correct to earn extra stars. But it’s an amazing series. My Discord community has gone through a lot of the Yusupov books in study group sessions, and it’s been immensely helpful for me and others in developing our chess.

You create some of the best chess merch out there; fans include’s very own IM Danny Rensch. What’s your favorite piece of merchandise that you’ve designed?

I know Danny was sporting the “Excuse My French” T-shirt while he was commentating on the Chess Clash event! I do like that shirt but I don’t think it’s my favorite, mostly because I don’t actually play the French Defense! I have two favorites, they’re kind of close: one is the "Sac! Sac!! Mate." shirt, which has a great move, a brilliant move, and then a period to symbolize that it’s over.

My other favorite is the one I’m wearing right now; on the front there’s a little KDlearns logo with a pawn wearing a graduation cap signifying the whole learning process, and on the back there’s a pawn looking into a mirror... In the mirror there’s a queen, and it says "Trust The Process." It goes with the theme of learning through failure and keeping the end goal in mind.

You were in Dina Belenkaya’s corner for her chessboxing match. What was that experience like?

Everything about that weekend was quite crazy! Dina is such a badass that I feel like I was more nervous than her. There were multiple times when I was getting starstruck because I was meeting Ludwig and GM Fabiano Caruana and Danny Rensch for the first time, and she’s just coaching me through how to act normal around these people! It was like “I’m supposed to be helping you, not the other way around!”

But honestly, I loved every bit of it, getting to meet all sorts of different chess personalities, as well as getting to know Dina better. She has her content personality which is very brash and trash-talking-centric, but she’s insanely kind and just amazing to work with. So I was happy to be able to be her videographer and personal hype man in the corner!

I’m glad I wasn’t the one getting punched because Andrea looked quite scary. It was just an awesome culmination of the competition as well as meeting so many people in person for the first time, like WFM Anna Cramling and all the other people I mentioned earlier.

Overall it was a 10/10 experience… except my rental car got stolen, so I’m now forever banned from renting from Hertz.

Two images of KDlearns and Dina Belenkaya: one where the pair is ready for the fight, one afterwards with KD holding Dina's trophy belt.

Lastly, you've been quite serious (and successful) about chess improvement over the last couple of years. What advice do you have for people who want to improve their game?

I think I can break this down into three main tips: the first one is my favorite and hopefully everyone else’s favorite when they embark on their chess improvement journey: puzzles. You’ve gotta do your puzzles, ideally every day. You have to train your board vision, and eventually your puzzles can get more targeted. Recently I’ve been doing more endgame puzzles because that’s what I’ve identified as one of my weaknesses.

Number two would be analyzing your games. I’m guilty of this, but I don't mean just clicking the Game Review, smiling at the brilliant move or high accuracy, and moving on. Take the time to actually sit down, review it without the engine first, annotate it, and then double-check your analysis with the engine on. That’s what I’ve found really, really helped. I can’t do that with every single game that I play, but I try to tell myself I will play 2-5 rapid games throughout the week, and those games I will do a full analysis on. I can still just play random games for fun without any pressure, but 2-5 times a week I’ll do my homework and try to push myself forward.

Number three is just consistency. Even if it’s a little bit every day, working on your chess a little bit is better than working on your chess whenever you feel like it. Building that foundation day by day goes a long way. I try to do five puzzles every day at minimum when pushing for chess improvement, and many days it’ll turn into a lengthier puzzle session, but getting into the habit of doing it every day really helps.

Consistency is one of the essential parts of delayed gratification. In the modern world of social media and constant dopamine hits, appreciating delayed gratification is something that’s a good life skill to have. 

You can find KDlearns on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter/X, and Twitch.

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