I watch a lot of chess. (I also watch skateboarding and, more recently, surfing.) I mean on YouTube mostly, though sometimes live.
I’m not a good chess player, and although I’ve learned something about openings, tactics, strategy and endgames, I’m still a patzer. (Chess word for rubbish player.)
I’m not sure exactly what it is I like in the videos. Partly, from an intellectual point of view, I understand that chess is just about the perfect game to be represented on the screen in front of me. On the left, there is room for a pretty much life-size representation of the 64 black and white squares of the board. On the left, there is room over for the face of the YouTuber.
In other words, chess videos don’t require a change of scale for the thing they are dealing with. It’s as if you’re hovering directly over the board – no interference. That’s exciting. (If you like chess.)
Live chess broadcasting is a very mixed business. The most exciting matches are the most exciting sport I’ve seen in years – apart from Cumberland & Westmorland wrestling. The commentary can be great, it can be unwatchable.
When I first heard Yasser Seiriwan and Jennifer Shahade, I thought I’d never seen two falser people, or with more annoying voices. The fact that Jennifer always seems to be pouting at herself in an imaginary mirror doesn’t help. Nor the fact that Yasser seemed to be trying to outgrip the Cheshire Cat. Most annoying was that when Yasser turned to Jennifer for a reaction or a moment of ‘Don’t you agree?’ (as is conventional in most broadcasting) she’d persist in looking straight ahead, leaving him awkwardly dealing with her left ear. But I’ve come around to them. Jennifer is good on what players are thinking. Yasser is better in the company of the Chessbrahs who, in turn, are better in company with him.
Top of the live broadcasters are on Chess24, with Jan Gustafsson and Peter Svidler being the choice pairing. But Ginger GM and Fiona Steil-Antoni are more relaxed and silly. Anything that FIDE, the governing body of chess, hosts itself is likely to be magnificently crap. FIDE are desperate to monetise chess into pay-per-view but have no sense what people want to watch. On a couple of occasions, they’ve tried to ban other broadcasters from covering important games – so almost everyone hates them.
Most of the time, I watch videos.
Some of the YouTubers are just very good narrowcasters. Allow me to introduce you to my six favourites, in reverse order.
There is something wonderful in the laconic delivery of MatoJelic who always began with some variation of this spiel: ‘Hi This is Mato. In this video I will show very interesting game that was played between X and Y in Z tournament. Where is Z? Z is capital city of…’ and always ended with ‘Thank you for watching this video. I hope that you enjoyed it.’ His voice is very calming, even when he’s being excitedly adoring. (Side-note: Almost outdoing MatoJelic for minimalism is Suren, who plays through great games of the past or of that afternoon.) Presentation, too, is about as minimal as it can be.
USP: The chill factor.
An early favourite, partly because I’d never come across bullet chess (all one player’s moves in the game played in fewer than 60 seconds) was ChessNetwork. My favourite ones were almost the equivalent of listening to drum’n’bass in 1992 – entirely too fast to be believably human. Here’s an example. Watch a couple. You’ll find that the in-jokes start to pile up – wanting to win the first place confetti, the Adobe Flash gambit, telling himself to breathe when things get tense. He’s also great at explaining – at slower pace – the most significant recent games.
USP: Uncontrollable laughter at his own mistakes.
More recently, I’ve been watching the playing and commenting videos by Ginger GM. He’s very funny and frank but there’s also something painful about watching him. He’s like a genuinely deranged pirate. You know that he could probably be a much stronger player, if he didn’t allow himself to have so much fun (alcohol).When he celebrates, I get the odd feeling that this is what many English men look like, to non-English men. Particularly embarrassing when we win.
USP: Pink triumphalism i.e., Stick that in your pipe and smoke it!
is probably at her best when alongside Ginger GM, Fiona Steil-Antoni’s approach to chess is a lot more generous than some of the male YouTubers. Mistakes are mistakes not signs of stupidity or encroaching senility. She seems delighted to be hanging out with other players, and to make them get on better with one another, the world and themselves. This is particularly so when she’s with GM David Howell.
I’d say the best chess commentator, in terms of insight and experience of the game at the highest level, is GM Peter Svidler. He is Russian. He apologises for his English using idioms most English speakers wouldn’t know. He is admiring of good play in others, and self-deprecating about himself. But he’s one of the strongest Grandmasters who is prepared to speak frankly about their thought processes. Hikaru Nakamura, who has started YouTubing, offers top-level attitude but is a bit inarticulate. You get the feeling his mind is whizzing too fast. The world champion, Magnus Carlsen, is always playing mind games with future opponents when he says anything about his play. And he only tends to grant interviews when he’s won. Chess24 hosts Banter Blitzes (where top players play anyone who is a member of the site), and Svidler’s are always great. (Also worth checking out are those with GM Loek van Wely, who is genuinely withering about his opponents’ bad moves but also strangely warm.)
USP: Modest and modestly hilarious genius.
Daniel King (PowerPlayChess)
is probably the most professional, the most affable, and the best. This is hardly surprising. He has been a chess commentator for years.
Here he is in 1995 with Maurice Ashley getting extremely excited about Kramnik vs Kasparov.
You always come away from one of Daniel King’s videos feeling you’ve learned something worth learning. He seems like the ideal chess teacher. He has great taste in chess players – and is particularly good at conveying their individual styles. He also has enviably great hair.
With all of the YouTubers, I become a little obsessed with their tics. One of Daniel King’s is the gulp of tea midway through a video. He seems to have problems with croaky throat, which may be why he’s narrowcasting rather than broadcasting.
USP: Ability to talk to you as if you were really there.