Young Canadian chess stars lead drive to popularize the royal game on Twitch – Ottawa Citizen

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In late January, Nemo Zhou paused her studies at the University of Toronto, all the better to play nightly sessions of online chess, sometimes into the wee hours.

For the 21-year-old, who lived in Ottawa before moving to Toronto in 2018, the board game is much more than a cerebral diversion. Zhou was a child chess prodigy who won the Canadian Womens Chess Championship in 2016 and holds the internationally recognized title of Woman Grandmaster. With her economics and statistics classes on hold, she can put more energy into her exploits on Twitch, the worlds leading streaming service for gamers.

I am a lot happier focusing on streaming, which I love, Zhou says.

Zhou only joined Twitch last June, but has amassed 124,000 followers. Earlier this week, thousands watched Zhou play bullet chess each player has just a minute for all moves with online adversaries. Computer screens showed a birds-eye view of the virtual board, with pieces moving with every mouse click. Zhou, in a separate screen, provided droll banter punctuated by her squeaky laugh.

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Definitely a lot of people stay around for just me, Zhou says.

Streaming has even become Zhous livelihood. Two months after her Twitch debut, she was signed by Counter Logic Gaming, and is one of just a handful of sponsored chess streamers.

Before she began streaming, Zhou thought about going into investment banking. Now, shes not so sure. I dont think that far ahead, she says. The futures pretty open for me.

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Her runaway popularity, along with successes by other top young Canadian chess players, relies on not only her engaging personality and willingness to sit for hours at her computer, but also on the global pandemic and a certain Netflix TV show.

While COVID-19 closed chess clubs where players battled in person, sheltering in place has sparked a chess resurgence, in family rooms and online.

The chess.com community has 30 million members and during the pandemic, tens of thousands of Canadians joined each month, says Nick Barton, the websites vice-president of business development. More than 1.8 million Canadians are on chess.com, which can be joined for free, including 500,000 who joined in 2020, Barton says.

Meanwhile, the Chess Federation of Canada, the 90-year-old organization principally for enthusiasts who play whats now called classical chess at tournaments, had about 3,800 members last May plus roughly 5,000 junior players, says CFC president Vladimir Drkulec.

The Queens Gambit, the chess-themed Netflix smash that debuted in late October, helped extend the chess boom, says Barton. More than 100,000 Canadians joined chess.com in November, he notes.

Meanwhile, Zhou and her peers use Twitch and other social media to popularize chess for a younger generation that already enjoys online gaming and just needs a nudge to take up chess.

While Zhou previously created instructional DVDs for the German company ChessBase, she now targets newcomers through streamings immediacy and less rigorous interactions. You dont have to have played chess for years and years. You can have fun, she says.

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A precursor for Zhous successes is Calgary-based Eric Hansen. Hes 28, a Grandmaster, and Canadas third-rated chess player behind two Russian emigres. He also pioneered chess streaming, having broadcast his quick, casual games in the early 2010s. He even took the handle Chessbrah now his brand on Twitch, where 175,000 fans follow him.

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Hansen was ahead of the curve in 2015 when he committed more time and resources to streaming chess, unsure if he could build an audience. While online games had embraced streaming, chess still wasnt there, Hansen says.

But after a few years, Hansens rising celebrity on Twitch led to opportunities including invitations to play in better tournaments abroad and provide commentary for world-class chess events. I ended up getting really busy outside of the channel due to the channels success, he says.

Chessbrah, which also involves Hansens fellow Calgarian and Grandmaster Aman Hambleton, has always been a fun, relaxed channel, Hansen says. Were trying to be edgy. There might be drinks, loud music, unfiltered commentary.

Weve done 24 hours in a row, without a break. We dont do that too much, says Hansen, who says Chessbrah is more about entertainment than instruction.

Hansen admits streaming eight hours daily can burn you out. Turning the camera on every day and having to talk to people, it does get tiring, he says. But he says he has no choice if he wants to capitalize on the current chess boom.

While Chessbrah hasnt signed with an e-sports company, it accepts donations and has advertisers, partnerships and even merch at the Chessbrah e-store.

Canadas top chess streamers are a two-sibling team. BotezLive stars Alexandra Botez, a 25-year-old who has represented Canada at Chess Olympiad events with Zhou, and her 18-year-old sister Andrea.

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The sisters, who signed last December with e-sports giant Envy Gaming, have more than 625,000 Twitch followers and almost 250,000 YouTube subscribers. In addition to Envys support, BotezLive has A-list sponsors. During a recent stream, Alexandra pitched McDonalds coffee and DoorDash deliveries between chess moves.

Originally from Vancouver, the Botezs live in Austin, Texas. While Alexandra studied international relations at Stanford University, she now streams full time. BotezLive, which launched in 2016, has exploded from 73,000 followers on Twitch last May to almost nine times that, broadening from its chess focus to variety streaming while forging partnerships with other gaming communities and personalities.

Its crazy Its moving so fast. Its become so much a part of my life, says Andrea, who plans to attend university after a gap year but still continue streaming.

E-sports and chess are both male-dominated and Andrea says being a young woman in both fields is a double-edged sword. The chess community has largely been supportive, she says, although some people attribute their success to their looks rather than their chess abilities.

The point is that you really have to be really good at making chess understandable and entertaining for any level, Andrea says.

Our huge goal is to have chess become part of mainstream gaming culture, she says. That will take years to build up, but its happening.

phum@postmedia.com

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Young Canadian chess stars lead drive to popularize the royal game on Twitch - Ottawa Citizen

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