Chess (Yes, Chess) Is Now a Streaming Obsession

Though Mr. Nakamura began streaming chess consistently on his Twitch channel, GMHikaru, in 2018, nearly all of his 528,000 followers have come aboard since the pandemic began. And as his popularity has skyrocketed, media attention has increased — including a cameo as himself on the television drama “Billions” in May.

“It’s just amazing to see the level of support and the love that I’ve seen from the Twitch community,” Mr. Nakamura said. He added that the most appealing part of playing and streaming chess was simply “the fact that I’m so good at it.”

It helps that he has an unimpeachable chess pedigree. In 1998, at age 10, he became the youngest player in the United States to be named a master, a title earned through strong performances. Five years later, he became the youngest U.S. player to graduate to grandmaster, the highest title. He has since won five national championships.

On his Twitch channel, Mr. Nakamura, who lives in Los Angeles, rarely stops talking. His stream of commentary and chatter, even as he directs his pieces with the precision of an orchestra conductor, is one of the main reasons fans have flocked to him.

“He draws people because he’s so good, but also, there are other top players on Twitch that are not as engaging as he is, not as funny, not as in tune with the sort of Twitch culture,” said Brandon Benton, 34, a postdoctoral physics researcher at Cornell University who watches Mr. Nakamura stream. He’s a “down-to-earth memer and jokester.”

If you’re picturing a chess match as a drawn-out slog — well, you’re not wrong. A classical game without time limits can last five hours. But many online battles, including nearly all the games that Mr. Nakamura streams, are blitz chess. Each player has just a few minutes to complete all of his or her moves, leading to an aggressive, risky style of play that fans say is exhilarating to watch.

A player’s timer stops only when it is the other person’s turn to move a piece, so planning ahead and making quick calls is vital to managing the clock. The climax often comes when mere seconds remain and the combatants exchange a rapid flurry of moves.

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