How the Indian stand-up comedians are popularizing the game of chess
Chess has become the most popular sport in this lockdown. The main reason is that the game doesn't lose its essence when you play it online. Apart from the ease of playing, there is also one more reason why chess has started to get followers who hitherto thought that the game was not so interesting. And that reason is stand-up comedians of India led by Samay Raina. Samay is a stand-up comedian and also a chess lover. He began streaming about chess on his YouTube channel around two months ago and now has inspired thousands of people across the globe to take up the sport. How did he do that? We interview Samay and his friends and get to know how it all began!
"The game is beautiful, it was just not marketed in the right way" - Samay Raina
Vidit Gujrathi has a blindfold around his eyes. He is thinking hard for his moves. The popular US chess streamer Alexandra Botez is his opponent. Vidit is playing blindfolded on three boards against Alexandra and the crowd cannot believe that this is even humanly possible! As Vidit calls out his moves, the host of the show Samay carefully makes the moves on all three boards. Alexandra fights hard, but deep within she knows, it's all over. It was a thrilling spectacle as the India no.2 didn't put a foot wrong and won all of his three games!
Now this show on YouTube was simply wonderful to follow, especially to see what a top level chess player like Vidit is capable off. But what made it even more interesting was the number of people following this stream LIVE. A massive 20,000+ people! Now that's equal to filling in 2/3 of the Wankhede cricket stadium! Talk about chess not being a spectator sport!
The last time such numbers were seen in online chess viewing was for an absolute top event like the World Championship Match or the Candidates! But here we are in May 2020, with absolutely no chess tournaments taking place and locked in our homes. Yet, the game of chess is enjoying a phase of unprecedented following. But it's not just because chess can be played online. It's not the only reason why the sport has become popular. It is because of a man who had an idea. An idea to stream chess, to bring it to the masses. to make it look cool. And that man is Samay Raina.
Samay started a YouTube Channel in March 2020 and began streaming chess in a creative way during the Coronavirus lockdown.
Not only has Samay brought the popularity of the sport to a whole new level, the 22-year-old youngster, originally from Jammu and Kashmir, but now living in Mumbai, has used chess as a tool to raise funds for some good causes.
Is Samay a chess player? No! He doesn't even have a FIDE rating. Does he know the theory of Sicilian Dragon? Absolutely not! Did he know all of the top players in the world of chess? No! Then, how did a complete unknown to the chess world make the sport so popular? How did he manage to raise more than Rs. 15 lakh using chess as a tool? How did he get people like Vishy Anand, Anish Giri, Vidit Gujrathi, Yuzvendra Chahal, B. Adhiban, Nihal Sarin, Sagar Shah, Tania Sachdev and several others to join him in his mission? How did he achieve a such a massive live following to the sport which was hitherto considered impossible? Well, here's the story of a man who loved chess, and believed that he could connect with his audience using it. Here's the story of Samay Raina.
Samay Raina and Chess
"When I was in the fifth grade, my father got me a computer," says Samay who explains to us how he got interested in chess in the first place. "When the computer came home I spent a lot of time on it playing video games like GTA vice-city and others. This used to make my dad very upset. Like a typical North Indian father he wanted me to excel at academics and get into IIT. But I didn't really enjoy studying. One day I realized that my computer has this default "chess game" installed in it. When I was exploring it, my father entered the room and asked me what was it that I was doing. I told him that I was playing chess and he smiled, asked me to continue and left the room."
Samay was surprised by his father's behaviour but soon realized that his dad believed that chess is a game for the intelligent people. "For him chess was an alternative to academics! This meant that whenever I felt that my father was going to enter the room, I would open chess on my computer and start playing it." Samay started playing chess just as a means to avoid studying, but it soon started to grow on him. "My grandfather was a pretty good chess player. His level would roughly translate to a 1400 Elo in the current day. He lived in Delhi and whenever we were planning to visit his place, I would get excited to play chess against him. He would beat me on 9 out of 10 occasions, but there always used to be that one game where I would end up on top and the feeling I would get after that win was incomparable! I used to be in seventh heaven."
At some point Samay started playing inter school tournaments and one day came back home with a trophy! "You know how parents are", Samay reminisces. "They started to think I am a chess champion and they would say it to almost everyone who came home! I would often play chess with the guests and sometimes even beat them! As a young boy I also started believing that I was a chess champion!"
Samay's romance with the sport didn't last too long. Once he reached higher grades, studies took over and he could no longer continue chess. So what exactly happened in the lockdown? How did he come back to the sport? "Because of the Corona virus situation my stand up comedy career was on a hold. I figured that even after the situation normalizes, there would not be any shows happening until the end of the year. So I decided to channelize my energy through live-streaming. Yes, I am a stand-up comedian, but even before that I am an entertainer. My task is to make people laugh and now instead of live shows, I could do it online through my YouTube channel!"
Samay's friend Tanmay Bhat and a few others helped him with the technicalities like setting up the equipment, softwares and the basic points related to live streaming. "Once the things were set up, the most natural thing to do was stream PUBG. PUBG is a popular online video game. I like it very much, but somehow I felt it didn't suit my style. You know, there is a concept in stand-up comedy called finding your own voice. It exists in chess as well. What do you associate Mikhail Tal with? Attacking play, right! So I wanted to find my voice in live streaming and that's how chess struck me."
After his initial acquaintance with chess as a ten-year-old Samay had forgotten about the sport for nearly a decade. It was the popular YouTuber Agadmator who brought Samay back to the chess board. "I started to watch all his videos every day and showed it to my room mate also who got hooked onto it. Thanks to Antonio (the man behind Agadmator's channel) I got to know Mikhail Tal, Bobby Fischer, Paul Morphy (A night at the Opera!), I still have some of these great games running in my head. I also played a lot online and once my chess.com rating reached a high of 1300, which I am very proud of [laughs]."
"In the third year of my college I entered the stand-up comedy scene and realized that there were some chess fanatics like me as well - Vaibhav Sethia, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Abhishek Upmanyu and a few others. So coming back to lockdown and finding my own voice, I decided to stream chess. I believe in this theory that if you are interested in something, there will thousands of people out there who would interested in the same thing as you! I knew if I streamed chess, it will have its chunk of followers and so it began!"
Samay played it smart. First he started with the stand-up comedians and the first few videos had a live watching of around 1500 people with all the top stand-up comedians playing chess. "Comedians are funny, and so they made playing chess fun. I started receiving messages that "Wow! It was so cool to follow chess, Never knew chess was so interesting!" and so on. That inspired to keep moving and soon great chess stars like Anand, Vidit, Adhiban, Yuzvendra Chahal Nihal Sarin, Sagar Shah, Agadmator and several others joined my show!"
Who is that inspired Samay? "When I started following chess, I got inspired by Fischer. But you know it had more to do with the aura and mystery around him. Just like we had Undertaker in WWE! But I am not a chess player, so Fischer's moves did not motivate me. The people who really inspire me are Agadmator, Sagar Shah, Vidit Gujrathi, Vishy Anand and also the young talents of our country! These are the people following their passion without any fear. Because if you think about it, these youngsters have chosen their career in chess at such a young age. Even when I was in 10th grade I couldn't decide what I wanted to do with my life, and here we have 10-year-old kids who are taking up chess, giving up everything else, just to become good at the 64-square game. That really moves me."
Although Samay is just 22 years old, he is already considered by the experts as an amazing talent in the world of stand-up comedy. But Samay is modest about his achievements. "I want to say that all of this fame, popularity, winner of Comicstaan is a mirage. The real champions are you guys, who are working hard each and every day following your passion. I am just glad that so many such great players in the chess community know of my existence."
Samay did some study of why chess was not as popular as it should have been. "There is a stigma around chess that it is meant only for geeks or only for studious people, or intelligent people or socially awkward people. This is not true and I wanted to break this myth. So first I got the most interesting/funny people - the group of stand-up comedians, to play the most boring game (at least that's what many people thought). And we just had fun playing chess. It was far from a perfect game! There were blunders all around and once someone also placed the queen in front of opponent's king for free which was simply captured! You don't see such things in an international arena! But that's how we played and that's when people realized that chess can also be fun!" Samay's friend and also one of the most popular stand-up comedians Biswa Kalyan Rath says, "I like chess because it is a game that anybody can play at their own level and have the same level of braingasm. It’s very satisfying for the brain to create and solve these mini puzzles inside the match. As you play more, you start to discover that it’s more and more elegant."
Vaibhav Sethia likes chess for the combinational beauty of the game. "I have a compulsive need to understand an error or weakness in my game. The fact that amongst so many possibilities in a position there’s just one best move. A move that could potentially overpower what all the opponents pieces have been trying to do combined. Finding it in limited time is the best rush I can get. It's beautiful to watch an aggressive set of moves culminating into a checkmate, or an unexpected sacrifice."
Once people had started enjoying the sport, Samay decided to bring on some of the big names in the world of chess. Vidit Gujrathi, B. Adhiban, Nihal Sarin and so on. And that's when the next stigma started to break - that chess players are boring! "Look at Vidit," says Samay, "He is such a cool, young guy. He could simply be mistaken for any other engineering student, but here he is - India no.2 and an absolute genius. Adhiban! What do I say about him. He is funnier than even some of the stand up comedians. When he comes to the show, we keep our mouths shut, we know he is going to take care of the comedy part! In fact after the lockdown I am going to help Adhiban release his comedy special. He is so good! And Nihal is the cutest. It's wonderful to have a talent like him in the show. And Sagar Shah, people have started growing so fond of the way he teaches. When I don't call him to some of the shows, people start spamming we want him! So that's how things are changing in the world of chess. I would say, the game is beautiful, it has just not been marketed in the right way!"
What should be done to popularize chess? Biswa says, "I kind of agree with it that chess is not a spectator sport. Because it’s very hard to follow unless you can visualize future moves. I think some way of helping people visualize and evaluate positions would help along with interesting commentary." Vaibhav Sethia has his own take on the subject. "I think sports are a showcase of physical dominance while chess is of mental. Physical dominance is more primitive in nature and thus we enjoy yelling while watching a match in a stadium unlike in chess match where my expression of appreciation would be in a way more evolved (or at least less primitive) way. Now if Maslow’s hierarchy is true, we know which category the majority people will fall into. Also I think business wise, selling a stadium (which people will go only for that atmosphere) is more profitable. Chess is too small a playground. Sports sell everyday-use merchandise which has a big role in its own advertisement too. I can wear Air Jordans everyday but I would barely get a chance to showoff a Staunton Chess Set. Still, good commentary can help raise interest in people."
What are Samay's next plans now? "I don't know what the future holds, but at least during the lockdown I am keen on streaming more chess, do more charity streams and raise funds for the people whose lives are in danger. We are all facing a tough time, but whoever is reading this, deep within he or she knows that he is not going to die in the lockdown. The worst thing that will happen is that you have to wash more utensils, or sweep your home, or wash clothes. But there are people out there working on the field who are putting their lives in danger and I want to do something for them. Through chess we were able to do two charity streams - in the first one we raised Rs. 8.33 lakhs and in the second one we raised Rs.7.1 lakh. I am completely enamoured by the idea that I can sit at home and just with one laptop raise funds and actually make a difference. I will continue doing that in the days to come. I am hoping to do more good things in this lockdown so that once it's over I can indulge in some bad things, and God won't be too upset with me!" [Laughs]
Well, we don't know Samay and his friends would continue streaming chess post the lockdown period, but one thing is for sure, they have in many ways introduced thousands of new fans to the sport. Something that we are extremely grateful for!