Competitive chess has gone completely online in what has proven to be a boon for the game. The obvious place to start is The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix’s popular series starring Anya Taylor-Joy, who seems born to play the anti-ingenue; and the actor who played Harry Potter’s cousin, Dudley Dursley; as well as that cute kid from Love, Actually who, all grown up, looking like the mustachioed spawn of Indiana Jones and Trinity from The Matrix. The well-acted if overhyped series has captured audiences by layering the kinds of made-for-TV storylines and motifs that are even more alluring than variations of the queen’s gambit: Triumph as gender equality; triumph as America the communist killer; sex and drugs, self-sabotage and fame; fashion.
Few of these themes are unheard of in chess. In the early ’70s, Bobby Fischer felled a mighty Soviet in the most storied match in chess history. And Judit Polgár, the best female chess player ever, would likely balk at the fact that I used “female” as an adjective there, as would Hou Yifan, who famously dropped out of the women’s championship cycle years ago despite being the titleholder. To compete solely with(in) one’s gender is detrimental, they believe. The sex and drugs, though? That’s something new, at least to me.
Though the narrative of a pill-popping orphan with childhood trauma who grows up to become a world-beating chess vixen proved to be partially responsible for a big bump in the game’s online adoption, chess had been riding the shelter-in-place wave well prior to the show’s November release. People are stuck at home, eager for new outlets for their fingers on their phones, which remind me of those mini-analog chess sets obsessives might carry around with them before the game went digital. Some of this newfound adoption has come via mainstays like Chess.com, which has added 1 million new members per month since last March, and Lichess, where 78 million games were played in November alone. And then there’s the Play Magnus Group, a holding company named after and owned in part by World Champion Magnus Carlsen, which reported month-over-month growth of 292% from October through November for its Magnus Trainer iOS app. The Twitch channels of a number of top-level players have also blown up, including those of Alexandra Botez and grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, a five-time U.S. champion and blitz beast, who has seemed to have found his calling as a livestreamer. Nakamura’s Twitch fame has brought him not only viewership but also wealth, which historically is a scarce thing in chess, even for the best of the best. Nakamura, the first grandmaster to sign a contract with an eSports team, says his Twitch livestreams currently average about 15,000 concurrent viewers, with numbers swelling to more than 50,000 for coverage of major tournaments, such as December’s Airthings Masters.
Sponsored by a Norwegian consumer radon gas monitor manufacturer, the Airthings Masters is the second leg of the Champions Chess Tour, a series of 10 online chess rapid tournaments (15 minutes for the game, with 10-second increments) organized by the Play Magnus Group. All tournaments are broadcast on Chess24, Twitch, and the Champions Chess Tour website, which drives traffic to and from Chess24, Chessable, and CoChess—which makes sense because all of the brands (websites, apps) are owned and operated by Play Magnus Group, whose stock value has nearly doubled in the three months since its Oct. 15 debut on the Oslo Stock Exchange. The first tournament, the Skilling Open, sponsored by a Nordic trading platform, was won by current world No. 9, Wesley So, a Filipino American who plays under the U.S. flag. In 2020 alone, So, who won $30,000 for beating the “unstoppable” Carlsen on his 30th birthday at the Skilling, took in nearly $250,000 via Chess24, good for 12th on Forbes’ list of top eSports earners that year; Nakamura earned about $350,000 on the same platform, good for seventh; and Carlsen aka DrNykerstein took home more than $500,000, enough for the top spot on the list. (Among the ranks of other high earners are the best “Call of Duty” and Magic: The Gathering players, which sounds about right.)
All three of them—So, Nakamura, and Carlsen—competed in the 12-player Airthings Masters, although they were not paired against one another in the eight-player finals. None of them made it past the first round. Carlsen was upset by world No. 29 Daniil Dubov of Russia; So lost to Frenchman Maxime Vachier-Lagrave (No. 5); and Nakamura was taken down by Armenian Levon Aronian (No. 6). The final pairing of the quarterfinals pit world No. 4 Ian Nepomniachtchi (Russia) against Teimour Radjabov, the No. 10 player in the world, from Azerbaijan.
In the end it was Radjabov against Aronian for the Airthings Masters title, in a matchup of world-class grandmasters with Jewish fathers. Aronian doesn’t use his father’s last name (Aronov), stating in 2014 that he feels “much more Armenian than Jewish, although there are sides to me which are more Jewish culturally, involving the arts and music.” One aspect of his Armenian pride derives from Tigran Petrosian, a Soviet Armenian chess legend who became world champion in 1963 after besting defending champion Mikhail Botvinnik, a Russian Jew nearly 20 years his senior.
The dots between Aronian and Azerbaijan can be connected via Petrosian—and the Caucasian standoff, a long-running territorial conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia. Petrosian once coached a promising young chess player named Melikset Khachiyan, an ethnic Armenian who, in 1988, was living in Azerbaijan (then a Soviet Republic) when war broke out between the countries over the Nagorno-Karabakh oblast. Khachiyan fled to Yeravan, the Armenian capital, and Aronian’s parents provided him a room in exchange for chess lessons for their son, Levon, then 6 years old. From an excellent article in The New Yorker, July 2017:
[Aronian’s] chess skills were a route out of poverty. In the years following independence, blockades with Turkey and Azerbaijan, which still hold today, killed trade. Blackouts were common then; Aronian and Khachiyan would often practice by candlelight, up to six hours a day. Aronian loved the concept of sacrifice, and the idea that he could do anything so long as he achieved one goal: Kill the king. He went out little, forfeiting friendships and the trappings of boyhood … By the time he was thirteen, he was making enough to support his family.”
Another Central Asian chess great with a Jewish father is Garry Kasparov, who once said that his pragmatism came from his Armenian mother, Klara Kasparova, who recently died, and his capricious and creative nature came from his father, whose last name is Weinstein. “This,” wrote Kasparov of his parents’ Armenian-Azeri origins, “is sometimes called an explosive mixture.”
Like Radjabov, Kasparov was born in the Azerbaijani capital of Baku, where Jews have lived for more than 2,000 years, including 30,000 today. As a child, Kasparov, whose father died of leukemia at the age of 7, trained at Baku Pioneers Palace, a state-run extracurricular center for youth (or, Pioneers) that he recalls looking like a “fairy-tale chess castle.” At the same school with Kasparov was Boris Sheyin, Teimour’s father and coach, beginning age 3.
Two years after Khachiyan escaped Baku, Kasparov recalled anti-Armenian hysteria “everywhere” in connection with the continued Nagorno-Karabakh conflict. From his book, Garry Kasparov on Garry Kasparov, Part 2: 1985-1993:
I will never forget “Black Saturday,” the 13th of January. It was a beautiful sunny day and over the sea was a rainbow, but in Baku mass pogroms were beginning on an unprecedented scale— seizures of flats, robberies, rapes and brutal murders. It was impossible to believe this, but people were attacked and beaten to death with iron bars, burned alive and thrown out of upstairs windows. Many Azeris saved their Armenian friends from being killed, but others, seeing the inactivity of the police and the army, were afraid to come to their aid.
Sixty of Kasparov’s friends and family, including his cousin and Aunt Nelli, gathered in Zağulba Bağları, by the beach in Baku, protected thinly by two KBG officers who would likely be no match for pogromists. “Save us, save us!” they begged the world chess champion, then 27, over the phone, day and night, before the line was suddenly severed.
With the help of the USSR Chess Federation, Kasparov’s business connections in Moscow, and Boris Rogatin, the leader of the Soviet sports trade union, an escape plan was hatched. A plane carrying the “Kasparov group” took off on Jan. 17, 1990, from Baku, bypassed the Azeri police, and landed in Moscow. The faces of the refugees, victims of ethnic cleansing, were etched with “indescribable grief.” They had virtually no possessions. When they landed at the snowy airport, some in light clothing, they awaited a “terrible fate ... A position in which thousands of Armenians found themselves,” wrote Kasparov.
“Reaching the airport, with Azeri rebels trying to block all accesses, was quite an odyssey,” Kasparov told El Pais, mission accomplished. “I saved their lives by miracle.”
A month later, Kasparov made his debut in Spain at the 20th Torneo Internacional de Ajedrez Ciudad de Linares—a super-tournament for which he had not properly prepared. He won. It was to be the first of his eight titles there.
Kasparov would soon turn in his Communist Party card. Though formerly a “leading light” in Gorbachev’s Democratic Party of Russia, he would later blame his perestroika for “Black January,” calling for Soviet troops to leave Azerbaijan.
Thirteen years later, in February 2003, Kasparov faced a then 15-year-old Teimour Radjabov in a classical game at Linares. At the time, Radjabov was the youngest ever to earn the grandmaster title (age 14) and Kasparov was No. 1 in the world; he hadn’t lost a game playing with white in seven years. The teenage Radjabov beat the mighty Kasparov, playing with black no less, his only victory in the tournament.
David beat Goliath; but Kasparov, who had won the tournament five years in a row at that point, eschewed the traditional handshake after resigning after 39 moves, opting instead to callously move pieces around the board in frustrated self-analysis. Kasparov did not win the tournament, either. In fact, he later took issue when Radjabov was given an end-of-tournament “beauty prize” for his win over his fellow grandmaster from Baku. Kasparov would retire two years later.
While analyzing that game last summer, Radjabov called that victory “maybe the happiest moment of my life.”
Today, Radjabov is one of two top-10 grandmasters from Azerbaijan (the other is Shakhriyar Mamedyarov). In 2019, Radjabov defeated Chinese grandmaster Ding Liren to take home the FIDE World Cup, a $110,000 payday. For that victory, he earned the right to compete in the Candidates Tournament, the winner of which determines who will face world champion Magnus Carlsen and vie for the crown. In March, however, Radjabov withdrew his name from the Candidates due the timing of the tournament and coronavirus concerns. By rule, he was replaced by Maxime Vachier-Lagrave but when FIDE pushed the tournament to another date 20 days later, Radjabov was unhappy, and controversy is now afoot.
The Airthings title match between Radjabov and Aronian took place over two, four-game rounds on Jan. 2 and 3, firmly and freshly into a new year. Playing with white in both games 1 and 3, Radjabov was met by a variation of the queen’s gambit called the Ragozin defense, which is named after Viacheslav Ragozin, a Soviet grandmaster who once helped Botvinnik train for championship play and whose systems are aimed at equalizing and dynamizing play for black. The first three games were drawn, setting up a decisive game 4, in which Radjabov played a precise Berlin Defense with black and, after 23. f6, simplified by exchange and began to pick off pawns with his rook. Aronian, who declined a potential draw by repetition prior to his miscalculation, paid the price and resigned after 48 moves. Day 1 went to Radjabov (2.5-1.5).
Last fall, renewed conflict broke out between Armenia and Azerbaijan—this time ignited by an Armenian offensive that went disastrously wrong. Aronian says he hasn’t been able to sleep since the war began again in late September—to say nothing of his grief over the loss of his wife to a car accident in Yerevan last spring. “My country is under assault by Turkey and Azerbaijan,” he said in October after beating Carlsen in the Norway Chess tournament. “I know many people [who have been casualties of the conflict]. Many that I was friends with.”
A day prior, Radjabov tweeted: “The terrorist state of Armenia is attacking civilians again and again, 5 dead, 35 wounded, Ganja city is outside of the conflict zone but getting attacked again and again, just shows the terroristic behavior of their leadership and military forces. #StopArmenianTerrorism”
For years, Armenians and Azeris have refused to play on each other’s turf, or have been forced to withdraw or been removed, but the fact that the Airthings Masters took place online obviated such real-world questions.
Radjabov, 33, is married and has a young daughter. After finishing last in the 2013 Candidates tournament, he stopped playing in as many elite competitions as his confidence was drained, he later reflected.
For the Airthings tourney, Radjabov, who’s clearly finding a powerful stride, said he had taken it “super serious.” On day 2 of the final, in game 1, Aronian had winning chances with white, finding check on move 22 with his queen, making full use of a nasty bishop pin. But after the “completely wrong” 29. Re6?, the game ended in a draw (after repetition). In the next game, Radjabov, who had lost just one game the entire tournament, secured the victory after move 62, meaning that he only needed a draw in game 3 to capture the title. He did, and then he cried.
Azeri President Ilham Aliyev and his wife, Aliyeva, congratulated him for “demonstrating professionalism, will and perseverance,” which “made the people of Azerbaijan happy.
“Today it was really tough,” Radjabov, 33, said after the match, head in his hands, after two sets against Aronian. “Trying to keep the focus and concentration till the very end takes a lot of emotions as well, to keep this way of calmness that I’m trying to produce, not to show if I’m happy or not happy about my position. It took me so much energy. I am completely exhausted.”
Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.