The 2022-23 school year at Berkeley High School has been unique in the rise of in-class casual gaming. Wordle, Touchgrind Skate, and FIFA Mobile have all passed through, leaving little in their tracks. These games have enjoyed surges in popularity largely because they generally aren’t too demanding to play, and success can be achieved with limited consumption of the user’s time and attention. The most recent beneficiary of the trend is a game with very little recency about it: chess.
Most often delivered to BHS students through its largest commercial distributor, Chess.com, the game’s rise among youth has been strange for many adults who know our generation by our lack of enthusiasm for most “intellectual” activities. Parents who have all but given up on having well-read children and teachers who have struggled with students’ outright rejection of less accessible learning methods have noticed the irony of this trend. Their question is, “Why now?” Chess is among the oldest and most influential games in human history, having been around for over 1,400 years. Its intellectual significance is nearly unmatched, and the cultural gravity that has come with that is enough to make a legitimate college degree out of the study of chess and its history. What has changed to pique kids’ interests at BHS in 2023?
Julius Rosenbach, a freshman in Hive 1, got into chess via the internet. “I had played chess before, but was moved to download the Chess.com app after seeing an interesting clip of a Twitch chess stream.” Social platforms and their increased use have played a role. In fact, all facets of this explosion in popularity seem to lead back to four root causes: Twitch, Chess.com, TikTok, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Suvaan Gurung, another freshman, is ahead of the curve, and has been playing for over two years on Chess.com, his account predating the trend. “I’ve been playing for a while, but have only started to see chess content on platforms like YouTube and TikTok during this school year.” Shows like “The Queen’s Gambit” and events such as Twitch’s take on celebrity all star games with internet personality amateur chess tournaments, PogChamps, that have bolstered chess’s popularity further, with upwards of 75 million views between them.
In 2018, Chess.com acquired Komodo Monte Carlo chess engine, an artificial intelligence by which moves are chosen through win probability instead of the “traditional” move-by-move approach, similar to the probabilistic methods of machine-learning chess projects. In a way, chess is the perfect platform for artificial intelligence and machine learning. As experiences with Chess.com’s engine tells kids, there is always a best move, and with such exposure to it, that concept can be somewhat addicting. Gurung finds himself often taking consecutive moves back very quickly, in search of what the engine sees as perfect. This mechanism makes chess a fast paced, rewarding activity, with very little thinking involved. CEO Erik Allebest said, “Chess.com is proud to invest in the future of machine learning as it relates to artificial intelligence in chess.” And that’s exactly what it is, an investment. Here, artificial intelligence relaxes the need for close attention and mental strain. The website is also an excellent teaching tool, albeit slightly addictive, but is overall very appealing to teenagers.
“I had played chess before, but was moved to download the Chess.com app after seeing an interesting clip of a Twitch chess stream.”
Chess.com’s engine tells kids there is always a best move, and with such exposure to it, that concept can be somewhat addicting.