In August, the world of online chess was abuzz with news that five-time U.S. chess champion Hikaru Nakamura had become one of the first chess players to land a lucrative contract with a major professional video game team.
In fact, it appears he was the second chess player to be signed by a U.S. based e-sports organization. The first signing happened days earlier — with a young Canadian chess whiz.
"Hikaru is obviously a lot more established and accomplished than I am. But I did sign on, theoretically, about a week before he did," said Qiyu Zhou, laughing.
Zhou is a 20-year-old University of Toronto student double-majoring in economics and statistics who has been playing chess since the age of four. She holds the title of Woman Grandmaster, won the Canadian women's chess championship in 2016 and has been on the national chess team for six years.
Her engaging social media presence combined with her chess skills has made her a mini celebrity on the live streaming platform Twitch, which attracted the attention of Counter Logic Gaming (CLG) , a Los Angeles-based e-sports organization that fields online gaming teams. That in turn, prompted the e-sports organization to offer her a contract.
'Man, people really love their Canadians on Twitch'
"If you watch Zhou's stream, she's one of the most amazing chess personalities out there," said Dan Fleeter, chief operating officer of CLG. "Not only is she a grand master, but ... her content is educational and informative, and will bring in the next generation of gamers and chess players."
CLG's move to sign Zhou is another sign of the growing interest in online chess, which has experienced a major boost in popularity during the pandemic. Zhou's contract in particular highlights the significant role played by Canadian players and streamers.
In fact, three of the most well-known streamers on Chess.com, which bills itself as the world's largest chess website, are all Canadian, according to Nick Barton, its director of business development.
"For whatever reason, people are really gravitating toward them," Barton said. "I'm not sure exactly what it is. Maybe it's just the friendly Canadian disposition or something. But man, people really love their Canadians on Twitch."
And Canadians, it seems, are really taking to the online game. In June and July of last year, Chess.com brought on 22,000 new members from Canada, Barton said. June and July of this year, on the other hand, brought another 82,000 Canadian members to the platform.
There's also been an increase in the number of chess clubs joining the website, along with the number of forum posts and number of messages being sent, Barton said. And at least some of this, he suggested, is fuelled by the pandemic.
"The point being, it's the social activities that are really leading the way on Chess.com, where people are basically finding friends and finding their communities on the site that they otherwise would be trying to find out in real life."
From March through August, people watched 41.2 million hours of chess on Twitch, four times as many hours as in the previous six months, according to the analytics website SullyGnome, the New York Times reported.
Most of the games online come in the form of rapid or blitz chess, where players have just so much time to make a move, meaning matches are over in minutes, instead of hours.
Online chess rivalling in-person game's popularity
What all this means, says Barton, is that they're now just starting to see the online game catching up to the over-the-board game, the real life in person matches in terms of prize funds, and top professionals competing playing in such online events.
The World Chess championship, the pinnacle event of chess, still takes place over the board. However, the International Chess Federation brought the Olympiad chess tournament online for the first time in its nearly 100 year history because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The event attracted 1,500 players, including top players all around the world representing 180 countries.
Meanwhile, Chess.com hosted an online tournament in June called PogChamps for people who were popular streamers but amateur chess players and drew 100 million views over a two-week span.
"You're starting to see a shift toward more serious events, historic events coming online," Barton said. "We've actually seen quite a few of the senior players, a lot of these legends, take the online game up."
And with e-sports organizations showing interest in chess, the opportunity is there for it to become a true spectator sport, Barton said.
"And it's through influencers and content creators and frankly, great chess players like Zhou that we're able to do that," he said.
"They're engaging, they're very talented people and they're young and they are vibrant. They break the mold of what you think of or other people think of as chess players. You don't imagine a cool, hip, trendy early 20-something who's also very good at other video games, who happens to be a chess woman grandmaster and a Canadian champion."
From chess champion to online personality
Viewers can watch Zhou stream her matches, whizzing around the online chess board during a game, chatting with fans as they post messages from everything about chess, life, diet and gaming.
Zhou, who goes by akaNemsko and has nearly 75,000 followers on Twitch, says about 50 per cent of her streaming content is not chess related. The categories on her Twitch page include chess, along with one called "Just Chatting" and the online multiplayer games League of Legends and Torchlight III.
A recent stream, for example, featured the chess champ talking about the wine she bought and cooking a striploin steak. But one of her most popular posts, one that garnered 130,000 views, was a game of blindfolded chess she and her opponent played blindfolded, verbally moves on online chessboard.
"You desperately want people to realize that this is not just a game you would have played in front of a fireplace when you were a kid, but now it's a game you can casually play online," Zhou said.
WATCH | Botez in action:
"One of the biggest things about chess.that's so great is that it's timeless. Giving it a redesign, giving a new sort of atmosphere, getting different personalities involved in it is really good for the game."
Zhou's friend and chess streaming colleague, fellow Canadian Alexandra Botez, said for her, the emphasis is much more on entertainment than perfect play.
"One thing I really worked on was making sure I'm talking aloud and really explaining it, that my audience knows what's going on or trying to add some commentary," Botez said.
"I think chess has a pretty high barrier entry and would be tough to understand at first so I would always try to break it down, make it more interactive," she said. "I make jokes about my opponent."
Democratizing chess online
Eric Hansen, a 28-year-old grandmaster in Calgary, founded the company Chessbrah, which streams and includes commentary on tournaments while also providing a behind-the-scenes look at the chess lifestyle.
WATCH | Chess Brah in action:
"It felt like there was a disconnect in chess between what people knew. There wasn't a lot of in-depth behind the scenes about the players and personalities at all. Without that, I felt like that hinders the game.
"We just wanted to open the door and say, 'Hey, we're young Canadian players who play the game and it's a fun game.'"