It was 8 a.m. Tuesday in St. Louis when the American chess grandmaster Fabiano Caruana, ranked second best in the world, moved his pawn to E4.
It was 6:30 p.m., and over 8,000 miles away in Nashik, India, when his opponent, Vidit Gujrathi, responded from his home, just seconds after Caruana’s opening: pawn to E5.
And so began the Online Nations Cup, an unprecedented international team chess tournament borne of the coronavirus pandemic.
While the outbreak has forced most sports around the world to shut down, chess has not only found a way to carry on — it is thriving in some ways. In the past several weeks there has been a surge in grass roots participation in chess to go along with a few high-profile professional events online.
This past week, the Online Nations Cup brought 36 of the world’s top players together in their homes across multiple time zones, from Brooklyn to Beijing. They have been moving pieces on their laptop chessboards in a competition that, at its core, is the same game they would contest under normal conditions.
The tournament can be seen on multiple platforms, has a record purse of $180,000 and is being broadcast in a dozen languages.
“It is one of the biggest things we’ve ever done on chess.com,” said Daniel Rensch, the co-founder of the site, who commentates on the action live.
Video game versions of most sports entail entirely different skill sets from the real thing; manipulating a remote device from a couch bears little resemblance to being sacked by a 300-pound lineman. But online chess is essentially the same game, and when other sports were halted in March under a worldwide shutdown, fans were left starving for something to watch — and do.
With newfound time on their hands, people have turned to online chess by the millions.
“Participation online has doubled, at least doubled,” said Arkady Dvorkovich, the president of FIDE, chess’s world governing body, which is co-hosting the Online Nations Cup with chess.com.
The flood of enthusiasm has left chess.com and the other big chess websites like Chess24 and Lichess scrambling to keep up. Nick Barton, the director of business development for chess.com, said server capacity had to be increased to meet demand, technicians and engineers were asked to work overtime, and others were hired to handle the global crush.
The servers twice went down briefly — once by design — and officials could virtually track the spread of the virus through the geography of the new sign-ups.
“It has been sad in a way, because you could see it move country by country,” Rensch said. “Italy went from 4,000 per day to 10,000 and it just swept across as different countries dealt with the Covid-19 pandemic.”
Barton said chess.com is on target to experience five years of growth in three months. In April, 1.5 million joined, compared to the more typical 670,000 new members recorded in January.
Local clubs moved online after their physical locations closed, drawing new members.
“There has been a huge flock to chess clubs,” Barton said. “People can build virtual communities as a way of emulating real life.”
The shutdowns meant that most live tournaments that are usually held in arenas, hotel ballrooms and convention halls were canceled, and for most there was no replacement. When the biennial Chess Olympiad — a major team event scheduled for August in Moscow — was scrubbed until next year, FIDE and chess.com ramped up a concept they had been discussing for years: a new online team event.
They put it together in roughly three weeks, and most of the best grandmasters in the world signed up, save for Magnus Carlsen, who is ranked No. 1 and just finished hosting his own unique online event recently.
Carlsen won that event on May 3, and when it was over, Jan Gustafsson, the grandmaster who was commentating, signed off by thanking fans for watching. He added: “Not that you guys have any other choices. Let’s face it, there’s no other sports going on.”
But there is real chess and two days later, the Online Nations Cup began as the richest online team event ever, with the winning team sharing $48,000. It is a double round robin that runs over six days with six teams — the United States, China, India, Russia, Europe and one called The Rest of the World. The top two teams meet in the final on Sunday.
There have been a couple of minor glitches, such as when Team Europe’s Zoom conferencing went down briefly on Day 2. But after four rounds with 24 games per day — 12 at a time — this tournament, and the Carlsen event before it, have helped to quench a chess enthusiast’s thirst.
“There’s a lot of games, a lot of drama and that’s amazing,” a somewhat exhausted Rensch said on Wednesday, after broadcasting the third and fourth rounds. “Sometimes it can get a little crazy, but it’s been super exciting.”
Four players from each team compete in each round, seen via webcam in their offices, bedrooms and kitchens. The format is rapid chess with the same 25-minute time control used in world championship tiebreakers. The starting time was designed to accommodate so many different times zones: Rensch is in his studio in Phoenix, ready to broadcast before play begins at 6 a.m. there, but for the players in China, it is 9 p.m. when play starts.
Each team has a captain — Garry Kasparov, the former world champion, captains Europe — and they decide each day’s roster. One woman must play in each round for each team, and each team also has one male and one female alternate.
“Involving women in tournaments like this is a great idea,” Dinara Saduakassova, a former junior champion, wrote in an email before her first match for the World team on Wednesday. “I would like to see more and more girls and women playing chess.”
Her opponent in that first match was the U.S.’s Irina Krush, who played from her home in Brooklyn. Saduakassova is playing from her home in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan, where she set up a mobile router as backup. Wi-Fi is as important to these events as bases on a baseball diamond.
Anish Giri, a Dutch grandmaster playing from his parents home in Rijswijk, the Netherlands, said that he is obsessed with his connectivity.
“I was playing in a smaller online tournament and the Wi-Fi went out,” Giri said in a telephone interview recently. “I was furious. I did a lot of research and I upgraded everything. Now my Wi-Fi is absolutely insane.”
Another key issue is fair play. No one expects the top players to cheat, but FIDE and chess.com, which invest heavily in anti-cheating methods, still must ensure the integrity of the tournament. So, an arbiter and a proctor are assigned to monitor every player, and multiple cameras can show every angle, including all the laptop screens, at all times.
At live tournaments, players are permitted to walk around and go to the bathroom, but in online competitions players are all but glued to their laptops. That affected the tactics in at least one game.
“I was just trying to play as quickly as possible because I kind of had to use the restroom,” Caruana told Rensch in an interview after his win over Gujrathi.
There are other subtle differences, too. Some of the intensity is lost in online chess with opponents sitting thousands of miles apart.
Dvorkovich, the FIDE president who is also the captain of the World team, said that makes it harder for some players to concentrate.
“We are missing the emotional part when people meet and shake hands,” Dvorkovich said. “People love when they look over the board into the eyes of their opponent. People are missing that. But this is a very good substitute.”
It has been for millions of amateurs, too.