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A Surge In Online Chess Fans Leads To A Game-Changing Tournament

Clutch Chess Tournament Participants, GM Leinier Dominguez playing GM Fabiano Caruana in 2019 Saint Louis Rapid & Blitz
Crystal Fuller | St. Louis Chess Club
Clutch Chess Tournament participants Leinier Dominguez playing Fabiano Caruana in 2019 St. Louis Rapid and Blitz.

With the world of online chess suddenly experiencing a boom in viewership during the coronavirus lockdown, organizers from the St. Louis Chess Club are rushing to grab a piece of the increased audience with a brand-new tournament format that may upend the staid tradition for which the game is known. The idea, called Clutch Chess, promises to attract new fans who would normally be watching baseball or basketball but instead are now gravitating to online chess tournaments in record numbers.

The first major test of the new format is set for May 26-29, when the top four American chess stars will compete for the lion’s share of a $100,000 prize fund. The names include world-ranked players, including No. 2 Fabiano Caruana, and three of the world’s top 20 players — Wesley So (No. 8), Leinier Dominguez (No. 14) and Hikaru Nakamura (No. 18). The entirely online tournament will vie for attention with the newly established Magnus Carlsen Tour, named and coordinated by the current world champion from Norway, which boasts $1 million in sponsorships.

“It is amazing how much top-level chess there is online right now,” said Mike Klein of chess.com, one of the biggest chess websites that stands to gain from the surge in fan interest. “You should see the usage numbers. ... It's like another [Bobby] Fischer boom of sorts.”

The chess world last saw a similar surge in 1972 when Bobby Fischer, an American, defeated the Soviet representative, Boris Spassky, in a match that gained international coverage. However, once Fischer retired from chess three years later, the rise in new devotees flatlined. Now, decades later, with a sudden appetite for chess once again, chess promoters desperately want to take advantage of this once-in-a-generation opportunity. The challenge in attracting and keeping the new online fan base is part of the motivation for the new Clutch Chess format, which addresses a significant flaw that has dogged chess events for years.

“With the standard scoring system, the final rounds of chess tournaments can be anticlimactic,” said Tony Rich, executive director of the St. Louis Chess Club. “We want to keep people watching from start to finish, because every match will have drama till the very end.”

A single chess game traditionally awards one point to the winner, zero to the loser and a half-point for a draw. This means that a match would effectively be over by the time one player won more than 50% of the games. The new Clutch Chess format is designed to make a multigame match more dynamic by awarding two points for wins achieved at the halfway point and three points for wins at the end. In addition, players can earn significant cash bonuses for winning these so-called clutch games, with as much as $10,000 riding on a single result.

“You see it happen all the time in sports, where the fans start heading for the exits when the game’s a blowout,” Rich said. “But imagine a rule change in football where a touchdown scored in the last five minutes is worth 14 points instead of seven. Suddenly, a lead is not so safe anymore. Add a huge cash prize for those last-minute scores, and then viewers have a compelling reason to stay in their seats just to see what will happen.”

The new format will be played at a rapid pace, with most games ending in under 30 minutes. It’s not without controversy in a mind sport that prides itself on its long history and entrenched habits. However, a new generation of chess fans has helped to drive the popularity of the game to previously unseen heights and who may be more receptive to fresh ideas. With other Clutch Chess events planned with even bigger prize money at stake, the chess world will soon find out if the past or the future wins out. Watch all the action live at uschesschamps.com from May 26-29. Tournament rounds begin daily at 3 p.m. CDT.

Through chess, Maurice Ashley has not only made history as the first and only African American international grandmaster in 1999 but has translated his talents to others as a three-time national championship coach, two-time author, ESPN commentator, iPhone app designer, puzzle inventor and motivational speaker. Ashley is the creator of Clutch Chess and is a regular commentator for major tournaments held at the St. Louis Chess Club.

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