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Is Classical Chess Being 'Phased Out'?
GM Hikaru Nakamura at the 2022 Chess.com Global Championship. Photo: Eric Rosen/Chess.com.

Is Classical Chess Being 'Phased Out'?

AnthonyLevin
| 49 | Chess.com News

Classical chess, sometimes called "slow chess," for a long time has been the standard form of tournament play. When one thinks of historic, monumental chess matches, one thinks especially of titanic world championships and Candidates tournaments—players toiling over the board for hours on end in a deep, intellectual struggle.

During the global lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, online chess began to boom, and with it so did faster time controls, rapid and blitz. For the first time, strong players could make a considerable income—comparable to a living wage—from the comfort of their homes with close to zero human interaction.

The chess world, mostly for its elite players and world-class events, has been changing, and the recent transformations have led to existential questions for tournament organizers and players.

Is classical chess declining after all? Not everyone agrees, and it depends on what data you consult.


The Promise of Rapid & Blitz, Online And Over The Board

In December 2022, the world champion of classical chess Magnus Carlsen (also of rapid and blitz) said: "I feel that classical [chess] probably will be phased out a little bit, at least at the top level. At least that’s what I think should happen."

After finishing in tied-second in Tata Steel Chess 2023, he also said he will "get some rest, not play classical chess for a little bit because I'm kind of a little sick of it after these few weeks."

In a podcast released last week, U.S. Champion Fabiano Caruana reiterated this prediction and spoke about how content creators and chess teachers have the potential to make more money than those who play chess professionally, even the world's best. He also added: "If the trend continues, classical chess is getting phased out within a few years."The benefits of online rapid and blitz to professional chess players are clear: convenience (playing from home!), more money, less time, and less preparation.

But even over the board, there has been a proliferation of rapid and blitz events—in classical chess, the most prestigious events have remained intact (world championships, Candidates, Tata Steel Chess, Norway Chess, Sinquefield Cup, and others), but not all.

Tournaments such as the Grenke Chess Classic (2013-2019) and Gibraltar Masters (2003-2020), annual tournaments promising high-level clashes, have been discontinued due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Gashimov Memorial (previously named Shamkir Chess) was once a classical super-tournament—as of 2021, it has been a world-class rapid and blitz event. The Grand Chess Tour offers three super-GM rapid and blitz events annually and two classical events.

With more online events introduced in addition to many opportunities in person, there is a plethora of speed chess events on the calendar for players and spectators.

Online Chess: More Convenience, More Money, Less Time, Less Stress

Prize money, in particular, is a major driving factor—for many grandmasters, chess is a job, or at least a side job. Playing in tournaments is often a financial decision, and online chess has become an attractive alternative to over-the-board chess. 

In terms of prize money cumulatively per year, there is more offered in speed chess than in major classical tournaments unless it is a world championship year. Nathaniel Green, who did extensive research into prize money won in major tournaments (and wrote a piece here), shared some statistics.

In 2022 rapid and blitz events awarded approximately $4 million ($1.2 million offered over the board, in the World Rapid and Blitz and Grand Chess Tour events) compared to approximately $2 million from classical chess. 

Wesley So, the first-ever Chess.com global champion. Photo: Eric Rosen/Chess.com.

In 2021, a world championship year, classical chess offered more money: more than $4.5 million, of which $2.3 million came from the world championship match. That same year, more than $2.4 million were distributed in prize money for speed chess (a majority, $1.4 million, was in online events).

The year 2020, understandably, was dominated by online chess with the world under lockdown. So let's skip to 2019, a year without a world championship and in the pre-pandemic world. About $3.05 million were offered in classical. $1.3 million were offered in the rapid and blitz world championships plus GCT events. In the last four years, from this perspective, we can see a "changing of the guard" in terms of prize money offered.

Large, growing sums of money continue to be invested in online chess. In the last year alone, the prize funds have increased to levels simply not offered in over-the-board classical tournaments except for the world championship: Chess.com Rapid Chess Championship ($650,000 prize fund), Chess.com Global Championship ($1 million prize fund), Meltwater Champions Chess Tour 2022 ($1.6 million prize fund), and now this year's Champions Chess Tour ($2 million prize fund).

The CGC Finals production. Photo: Eric Rosen/Chess.com.

In years when there is a world championship, classical chess blows speed chess out of the water. However, just two players split this prize fund, and the world championship occurs every two years. In comparison, the Candidates Tournament 2022, the most important classical tournament of the year, offered a €500,000 prize pool.

Flexibility For Grandmasters With Other Jobs

GM Aleksandr Lenderman is a strong grandmaster (peak FIDE rating: 2654) who teaches chess in addition to playing. Like most other grandmasters and titled players, he has to balance a separate job to make a living. He told me: "I personally don't play classical chess as much because I don't like playing super long games in a mask [masks are optional at most tournaments in the U.S., but he chooses to wear it for his safety.]. And also it's time-consuming and takes away lesson time."

Lenderman earned all three GM norms in little more than one month. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

He talked about the choice between playing a weekend-long tournament, three days of five-six grueling rounds, or playing in Titled Tuesday for a few hours—with the online event offering more prize money in many cases. He has to reschedule or cancel his private lessons to play in long classical tournaments—a financial loss that may not seem necessary when alternatives are available. He also spoke about how his rating dropped in open tournaments due to many players being underrated in FIDE after the pandemic.

Why online chess pulls in strong players who are not super-GMs is quite clear from this perspective. 

Classical Chess: Legacy, Prestige, History, & the Social Element

Classical chess still holds the same prestige and historic value it's had for the last century. Despite large prize funds for online or over-the-board rapid and blitz events, there is no higher title, no title more revered in chess, than that of the world champion of classical chess.

Interviewed after winning Tata Steel Chess 2023, GM Anish Giri doubled down on the importance of classical chess: "It appears to me that it's smarter to concentrate on classical chess this year... I hope by the end I'll have a good rating and have qualified to the Candidates. That's what matters."

Prestige, legacy, history: that is what matters here. At the moment, rapid and blitz do not compete with classical chess in that regard.

GM Emil Sutovsky, CEO of the International Chess Federation, sent me the following in an email:

“I don't really think classical chess is phasing out. Not only FIDE events attract record figures, but also Wijk, Stavanger and few others. If it was specifically about the formats, you would have seen a lot of OTB [over-the-board] events with a faster time control. But that's not the case. There are very few competitions of the kind, apart of FIDE World Rapid and Blitz Championships. And their number does not increase with the years. The secret is simple: it is more difficult to get sponsorship for faster chess. Chess is still largely associated with strategy rather than speed. And let's not forget about the social impact of chess - which is felt particularly in the longer OTB competitions.

“Of course, organizing it online is easier and much less expensive. But let's not forget about the elephant in the room. Online cheating is a real major issue whether it is on the front pages or not. Hybrid could be an ideal solution - but it is logistically much more complicated and costly - no wonder that there were just a handful of top hybrid events. Obviously online chess is not only about playing - it is an ecosystem with 100M+ users, that reproduces itself via streaming, social media etc. - and that's why it is very important. ... But the self professing prophecy online world creates should be taken with a grain of salt. 

“Do I believe that in the near future top players en masse will stop playing classical focusing on faster time formats? No. Does FIDE look into the formats, feeling that some changes are needed? Yes, and we keep trying new time controls for classical chess, striving to find a balance between traditional values and modern trends.”

Growth In Viewership, Community Interest

What do viewers think?

The 2022 Speed Chess Championship final match has been the most-viewed Chess.com exclusive event to date. The epic showdown between Nakamura and Carlsen, played online, brought in 131,738 average viewers with a peak of 201,613 viewers at one time across all languages broadcasted on Chess.com. 

The FIDE World Chess Championship 2021, the premier over-the-board classical event, did better. It had 239,781 average viewers (across all broadcasts, not just Chess.com) and 613,439 peak viewers on December 3 during the longest world chess championship game of all time. (These statistics are publicly available on echarts.com.) 

Carlsen in thought during the famous game six. Photo: Eric Rosen/FIDE.

The world championship before that, in 2018, brought in 102,460 viewers (260,115 peak viewers during the tiebreaks). We can see that the world championship had grown significantly in appeal.  

The FIDE Candidates 2022 (over-the-board classical) brought in an average of 97,700 viewers (204,135 peak viewers), more than doubling the records from the previous one in 2020-'21. Viewers' interest in the two most important classical events has reached new levels.

The World Rapid and Blitz Championships 2022 (over-the-board speed chess) saw a lower 66,517 average viewers (134,456 peak viewers)—which was, by the way, a huge decrease from the year before that (108,702 average views, 220,835 peak viewers). This may have less to do with the appeal of the event than the fact that it was held in Almaty, Kazakhstan, and lost U.S. viewers due to the time difference. In 2021, it was held in Warsaw, Poland.

Taking a look at the recently concluded Tata Steel Chess 2023, this year's first super-tournament, we see 53,520 average viewers (peak: 119,975 viewers). 

People are interested in seeing high-stakes classical events like the world championship matches and the Candidates. These events are full of history and precedent. However, these events also occur once every two years, while online events with increasing numbers are only becoming more common and popular.

Nepomniachtchi resigns the last game of the match. Photo: Maria Emelianova/Chess.com.

Let's also address the elephant in the room: This year's world championship will not feature the best player in the world. The Champions Chess Tour will. Will this change be reflected in the numbers? The jury is out.

Michael Brancato, Chess.com's Vice President of Esports, acknowledged that classical chess may not be doing so badly after all: "The audiences for classical chess are bigger than they've ever been. If anything, classical is growing slightly."

He later said: "There's that romantic image of two players hovering over a board for six hours. ... In that sense, there's always going to be a place for classical, and I don't see it ever getting replaced."

However, he also added: "As a piece of the overall chess pie, the classical slice is getting smaller."

The reasons?

Adjustability: "There are a lot of people who don't have as much of the chess background. They're new viewers, and for a new viewer a game that takes place in 45 minutes or less is way more digestible than one that takes four-six hours."

Broadcast-friendly: "The general format of rapid and blitz is more broadcast-friendly. Classical is limited by the fact that you can only play one game per day. With rapid and blitz, you can do full-blown matches between two players [within hours]. The tournaments don't take as long."

Scale: "Anyone can play. Time zones aside, anyone who wants to play can play instantly. That's just not possible in OTB formats."

Time: "I think that rapid is the sweet spot as far as time goes for a chess fan. A game takes 35-45 minutes, and a match takes three-four hours. When I compare it to League of Legends or Counterstrike, it takes the same amount of time roughly." He also added that football games are similar.

"This is the amount of time that we see in sports and gaming. That's proven to be kind of the sweet spot, how much time people want to dedicate to watching."

Inactivity In Classical Chess

Some of the world's best chess players are not active in classical chess. Of the 10 top players in the world, up to five of them are considerably inactive.

The world's top 10. Image: 2700chess.com.

GM Alireza Firouzja played just three classical events in 2022 and has not committed to any in 2023 yet. He has participated in several Titled Tuesdays since late 2022 and has kicked off 2023 playing in the Airthings Masters Play-In on Chess.com. 

GM Hikaru Nakamura, one of the most popular chess streamers, played in just three classical events over the board since 2019. A world top-10 player, he makes the majority of his earnings playing online—and has been reported to be the world's wealthiest chess player.

GM Viswanathan Anand, India's number-one player, played in two classical events in 2022.

GM Sergey Karjakin played in one classical tournament in 2022, the Tata Steel Chess Masters. This case is specific as FIDE banned him for six months for ethics violations.

GM Ding Liren, who is more active now, barely qualified for the Candidates Tournament 2022 due to his inactivity. He needed 30 rated games minimum in the last year, and he had played in just four before playing the rest required in the span of about a month.

With the exception of Karjakin since his ban from FIDE, all of these players have participated in online rapid and blitz events held on Chess.com or elsewhere since the pandemic. 

Is Classical Chess Being Phased Out? The Verdict

Will classical chess be obsolete in two years? Unlikely. 

Will rapid and blitz be equally as popular as classical in two-five? Maybe—it's really not clear. Classical chess is growing in popularity too, but so is rapid and blitz.

The world championship of classical chess remains the most popular, highest-prize event every two years. Rapid and blitz events, even online, have not eclipsed that. (Yet?)

AnthonyLevin
NM Anthony Levin

NM Anthony Levin caught the chess bug at the "late" age of 18 and never turned back. He earned his national master title in 2021, actually the night before his first day of work at Chess.com.

Anthony, who also earned his Master's in teaching English in 2018, taught English and chess in New York schools for five years and strives to make chess content accessible and enjoyable for people of all ages. At Chess.com, he writes news articles and manages social media for chess24.

Email:  anthony.levin@chess.com

Facebook:  https://www.facebook.com/anthony.seikei/ 

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