The Man On A Mission To Make Chess Cool Again

The Man On A Mission To Make Chess Cool Again

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If you use a social media platform to follow chess content, there’s a chance you’ve seen a name come up on your screen: thechessnerd. With deep dives into chess history, instructive short clips, and action-packed games, this 21-year-old streamer and chess content creator is making waves on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok, and—as of just over a year ago—Twitch.

Find out how a 16-year-old’s new years resolution led to him becoming one of the internet’s top chess content creators, and which two historical chess legends would make the best online content today. 

You started streaming on Twitch around March 2022. What made you decide to start?

So I wanted to start streaming about two years before that, believe it or not! I had been trying for two years to stream properly without it lagging or dropping frames, or just crashing entirely. I had moderators ready, and I had a Discord ready for 8 months to a year before my first stream... so you can imagine how frustrating that was! While that was happening, I was still posting on Instagram and making some YouTube videos here and there. 

On my earliest Twitch highlights, you can see that I’m playing a really nice combination, a queen sac, a double-check, and then a mate, but I’m in the dark, my old webcam was flickering… It was impossible to really stream until I invested a large sum of money into the current computer that I have, a MacBook Pro. I’d saved up from working at a restaurant for 20 months before I went to college, and a little bit from chess coaching too.

 It was a huge investment for me, but I think it paid off because we’re still going today!

What has your relationship with chess been like over the years?

So I started to play chess at five years old, at seven I had my first rated chess tournament, then in 2011 I was in 4th grade and won the provincials. In 2017 I officially got my Expert title, in 2018 I started Instagram content creation, in 2019 I started my YouTube channel, in 2022 I started Twitch… and here we are! 

Is there a story behind your username, thechessnerd?

My username at the very beginning was chess_nerd8. The reason is that once upon a time, I was at the table and my siblings said that I was the nerd of the family because I played chess. And I had a quarrel with that!

My two parents are doctors and talk about nerdy things in their field every day at dinner. My brother is a total technology nerd. And so I took offense to that, as anyone would! When I created my Instagram account I still had that little thing in my mind, and that memory made me create chess_nerd8. The 8 was because it was my mom’s favorite number.

How have you seen chess change since 2018, specifically the perception of chess by the general public?

When I was a kid, chess was incredibly nerdy. I was never a popular kid and I never had the chance to be a popular kid; I would get rejected even at lunch when my friends—who are still my friends to this day, I love them to death—would play chess and purposely exclude me from the games because I was too good. It was a source of rejection for me, so my chess ability was suppressed at school, whereas on weekends at chess clubs, I could use it as a creative outlet and really shine.

Over the years in high school, I was kind of known as ‘the chess guy’ in my year, not really popular at all; chess didn’t really do much for you in terms of your reputation! Not even during The Queen’s Gambit but just after it, around a year or so ago, I saw it change. Now chess is not only popular, but you’re actually not cool if you don’t play it!

That change is fascinating to me. It’s a big change for society to embrace chess, and to see and value it. If you had told me I’d see an American Football-playing jock playing chess in front of me before my Marketing class, I would have told you to get out!

I was at a party six months ago, and I didn’t know this one guy, but my friend told him I did chess content. The guy thought nothing of it, he met me, and about 1.5-2 hours into the party, he jumped up from his chair and said “Oh my god, you’re thechessnerd!” Not only did he think that making chess content and sharing it was cool, but he was actually a subscriber to my YouTube channel, which is just absolutely incredible. 

Just yesterday, my 3rd-grade student told me that in his grade in New York, everybody’s playing chess! From the higher ages to lower ages, everybody’s playing. Even the 5th and 6th graders at his school are into it. I saw a video on TikTok the other day of a class in California where everyone was playing chess on before the lecture started. It’s a complete change. 

In 2018 you made an interesting new year's resolution, something not many 16-year-olds would decide to pursue. Can you tell us more about that?

So on January 2, 2018, I made an ambitious resolution: I wanted to complete a chess book for the first time in my life. At the time I owned a bunch of chess books but hadn’t completed one of them; I’d looked into some chapters for specific things, but never fully completed one. I remember I had this book on my shelf. It was a book I’d won five months earlier in a tournament: Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953.

It’s probably the most ambitious and daring chess book one could go through; I was dumb at the time, let’s be honest! It’s historical, so for many people it’s boring, but I love history and I love chess, so that combination made it extra motivating for me.

It’s one of the strongest chess tournaments ever; there were 15 players and it featured the 2nd best in the world to the 16th best in the world. It was a Candidates tournament, so the only person who didn’t play was the then-current world champion, GM Mikhail Botvinnik. At the time, a pool like that was revolutionary. I can only think of New York in 1924 that was probably similar, but this is a large pool of players and it’s double round robin, so everybody plays each other twice.

You have legends at the time: future world champions, past world champions... GM Max Euwe, who was world champion from 1935 to 1937, future world champions like GM Tigran Petrosian who would become champion eight years later. So there are 225 games in the tournament over 30 rounds... what tournament has 30 rounds nowadays?!

The cover of Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953
David Bronstein's Zurich International Chess Tournament, 1953.

I promised myself I was going to read and do every single variation of every game, starting with game one. And for proof I’m going to post a picture on Instagram of what game I’m at, to hold myself accountable. So I open up this Instagram account, chess_nerd8, and I post my first picture, which is of the book itself. That was my first ever picture on Instagram; now the account has over 1,800 posts and 60,000+ followers.

What was the learning curve like?

Let me tell you, at the beginning my pictures were… the opposite of flawless. I had no experience with photography, the lighting was off, only a quarter of the board was showing, the first 50 pictures were all dimly lit—and they’re still there to this day! I haven’t deleted one of them, because it’s important to me that whenever I start something new in life, like Twitch a year ago, I start out with the knowledge that I’m terrible at it, be grateful that I can do it, and from there try to improve something every day. If you devote yourself to something and really put 100% of your energy into it, you will succeed at it.

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

Okay, maybe I have two guests… I’m big on chess history. I think this is a differentiation for me from most streamers and creators, and also kind of my downfall: I don’t really follow recent chess. People will be talking about Tata Steel, and I don’t know what happened. I’m really interested in historical chess. History for me is fascinating; you have these different eras and different players, and players who confronted other players to prove that their way of playing chess was better than another way of playing chess. 

In the 1950s, which is the era I’m kind of specialized in due to Zurich, there are two chess players that come to mind who really changed the game: GM Tigran Petrosian, who was world champion for six years… he had unbelievable mastery of chess. That’s six times more than GM Mikhail Tal, and we often idolize Tal but we don’t talk about Petrosian. He had a style that was crazy. He would let his opponent gain space and virtually attack him, and on his own create less space for himself; then counter-attack on one side of the board and win the game. Complete anarchy, unheard of today!

Mikhail Tal and Tigran Petrosian.
GMs Mikhail Tal and Tigran Petrosian.

I would choose Petrosian because in his pictures he always has the biggest smile on Earth. And I like to do my stream with a big smile and happiness; I have a surplus of happiness that I try to give out. I’m also Armenian like him, so we have that connection. Petrosian just seemed like such a happy human being. And this guy came from nothing! He was an orphan I believe, sweeping the streets of Tbilisi in Georgia at 7 years old for money because he was dirt poor. Because of chess, he survived his entire life and thrived. I would definitely call Petrosian and get him on my stream.

And I would get Mikhail Tal in there just because the guy was a very funny human being. I mean, he might smoke on my stream—and I don’t promote smoking on my stream—but if that’s what it takes to get Mikhail Tal… He and Petrosian, that duo would go very far.

You're very active and visible across many different platforms. How do you create content for all of these different spaces? 

The strength I have is that I edit my own stuff. That’s huge because I can do it whenever and however I like, down to the minute detail. I think that some people who find external help for their editing have two problems: firstly consistency, because you’re relying on somebody else to work at the pace that you need, and two is that it doesn’t turn out exactly how you want it. I can edit everything down to the captions, my face going on the screen, and I love that about editing my own clips and videos. 

What I do is a content batch, and I’m sure this was already invented before me. Basically, I do maybe 18 clips in a night, and I’ll edit them that night... Those nights I usually go to sleep very, very late! Or I’ll just leave it there and edit them all the next day, so I have 18 clips in two days. 

Do you feel like the audiences are different across platforms?

On YouTube, people are much nicer! I know YouTube can have some really mean comments because on YouTube you’re pretty much anonymous, but TikTok is more anonymous, and people on there can be ruthless. Also because they’re kids. Kids don’t care about your feelings! I’ve also had a lot of great comments, but TikTok is notorious for being wild in that way. I think my biggest fans are on YouTube Shorts, and the ratio is the best for me there. On Instagram, you’re kind of responsible for what you put on there because it’s attached to your full name and profile. But it still seems like public accounts go ruthless on me sometimes! 

On Twitter, people can @ you with their brilliant move and you'll rate it out of 10. Has anyone reached a perfect 10? If not, what's the closest one been?

Yeah! I drew my inspiration from that Dave Portnoy from Barstool who rates pizza, and he’s known to be stingy with the ratings. I like that. If I see that you did a royal fork and that knight move was a brilliant move, that’s gonna get a 1.5, because it’s on a brilliant scale. I still say it with a lot of positivity, because for that person a brilliant move could be their first brilliant move, maybe their best ever, but I just want to give it levels. I think I’ve given maybe a 9.9, but don’t think I’ve given a 10.

There’s also the ‘’everything move’’ that I share on Twitter - those are usually a type of 10. The everything move—I've invented the term, it’s not a popular one—is a move that is a perfect attacking move that also perfectly defends your position. I think I’ve featured three on Twitter: one by me, one by IM Emory Tate, and a follower sent me one. They’re very, very pretty moves and usually get a 10 in my mind.

Do you have any advice for people who are thinking of starting to stream or create chess content?

Content is very attractive when you see all these content creators being so passionate. The reality is that it’s not easy. When I go off-stream after five hours, I’m still gonna be editing for 6 hours for clips and a YouTube video. It’s more than a full-time thing, so you need to be 100% passionate. Overall, if you wanna try to make a career out of it, you have to expect nothing for the first few years. Don’t do it for the money, do it for the passion first, and just work hard and try to improve.

When I started my Instagram account, I was 0% in it for the money, but I did it out of the passion of my heart and to share a forgotten tournament and bring it back to life—and people in the comments appreciated it and said they learned a lot from certain posts! That’s why I love sharing, because at the end of the day I can help increase somebody’s skill, and if they come back to my stream and tell me that I helped them improve in some way.

I did a video on chess fortresses on YouTube. My subscriber had seen that video, and in an over-the-board tournament game blundered everything… but because of my video, they found a fortress, got a draw, and won the tournament because of it! That made me really happy.

Catch thechessnerd live on his Twitch channel, or follow his content on YouTube, Discord, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter. Want to see your favorite streamer here? Let us know in the comments!

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