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Online chess is taking over the digital world, and it’s not done yet

chess players

Chess is one of the oldest and most storied games in the world. But recent innovations and developments around the game have given it more popularity and prominence than it might ever have had before, and online chess appears to be here to stay.

No traditional game has better benefitted from the prevalence of livestreaming and digital play than chess. Popular for many generations, the game has seen a sharp uptick in play and spectator following as the world’s top players become digital celebrities.

How to play chess

Chess is famous for its depth of strategy and tactics, but the game is relatively simple to play. Two sets of colored spaces are laid out across a grid that is eight spaces wide and eight spaces tall. Chess is a two-player game, with each player having their own set of colored pieces. One player controls the white pieces, while the other controls the black pieces. The player controlling the white pieces moves first.

Chess’ depth comes from the fact that there are six different types of pieces, and each piece has its own movement patterns. The queen, for example, can move freely in any direction on the board so long as it’s able to trace a straight line to its intended destination. In contrast, pawns can only move forward one space, outside of a couple of very specific instances. In the middle there are pieces like knights, which can only move in an L-shaped direction.

This combination of different movement possibilities adds up to make for a very complex game, with many branching strategies and strategic variants playing out depending on which pieces move where.

The goal of the game is to capture the opponent’s pieces by landing your pieces onto squares occupied by your opponent’s pieces. Games end up the king piece is either captured or is guaranteed to be captured no matter which move it makes during the player’s next turn.

When did chess become popular?

Chess has a long history of play dating back more than a thousand years ago. That long history is a part of its enduring popularity. There are few modern traditions, much less games, that date back as far as chess while remaining popular and relatively unchanged.

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That’s not to say that there haven’t been any changes. The game’s origins are in other, similar games that date back even further. Rules continued to be tweaked and adjusted in following centuries. The modern game of chess was fully established with its current ruleset in the 19th century, and this time also saw a great deal of interest grow in the game. Many texts were published concerning the rules of the game and posing tactical puzzles for readers to resolve. Chess clubs were formed in which players could compete with other like-minded chess players and socialize.

This increase in interest and in tactical scrutiny naturally led to the further development of competitive chess. The World Chess Championship has its origins in the 19th century, and that tournament, albeit in a very different format, is still played to this day.

Where to play online chess

The prevalence of options for playing online chess has played a key role in increasing the popularity of chess. Today, players have many options for playing the game online.

The most prominent options for playing online chess are likely chess.com and lichess.org. Both platforms allow players to play chess online for free, though each differs from there.

Chess.com offers and heavily incentivizes its paid subscription service. This allows players to take part in an unlimited number of puzzle games, as well as providing access to a robust series of tutorials to help learn about the game and improve.

Lichess.org is a completely free service. While it offer a very capable version of online chess, its offerings beyond that aren’t quite as robust as those on chess.com. But for those who just want to play chess online and aren’t concerned with many features beyond that, lichess remains a fine option.

More recently, Chess.com has seen increasing partnership with the world’s top players and promotion in association with high-level tournaments. This notably included partnering with Magnus Carlsen, the world’s top-ranked chess player and a multiple-time world champion.

Who are the best chess players?

Magnus Carlsen is often considered the best chess player in the world today, and is thought to be one of the greatest and most accomplished competitive players in the long history of the game. Carlsen first became the world champion in 2013, a title he held for 10 years before relinquishing it by choosing not to defend his title at the 2023 World Chess Championship. There, the title was claimed by Chinese player Ding Liren over Russian opponent Ian Nepomniatchi. This was Nepomniatchi’s second runner-up finish in the event.

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Hikaru Nakamura is another notable player considered to be among the world’s best. His results have only improved with the advent of online chess, as Nakamura has transitioned to being a streamer and entertainer first while simultaneously finding greater success in play and capture multiple major tournament titles.

Other top players include such names as Fabiano Caruana, Alireza Firouja, Wesley So, Levon Aronian, Anish Giri, Nodirbek Abdusatorov, and many others.

The world’s best online chess players are increasingly popular online as the prevalence of online chess and its ease of access has increased visibility in the game. This has seen increases in the number of competitive chess tournaments played online, and in the prize pools for some such events.

How strong is Stockfish in online chess?

Stockfish is currently considered to be the strongest online chess engine in the world, and through most of its history it has been considered either the strongest or among the strongest chess engines available.

Stockfish was originally released in November 2008 and has been further iterated upon since then. It was first developed by Marco Costalba, Joona Kiiski, and Tord Romstad, though it has since moved into being a sort of community project.

Stockfish is able to play up or down relative to its competition and the requested level of play. At its highest level, Stockfish is far beyond the relative skills of any human chess player.

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Written by Jared Wynne

Jared Wynne has been covering gaming and esports for the past two decades. He's a former competitor in Counter-Strike, and still counts it among his favorite games along with RPGs like Baldur's Gate and Mass Effect. He studied journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, has been published at such outlets as The Daily Dot and The Esports Observer, and is the former Editor-in-Chief at WIN.gg. You can find him on Twitter / X at @JaredWynne.

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