Engaging fans in “boring” sports – How chess is stepping up its broadcasting

by Ben ECKL

Ok, hear me out. I love the game of chess. It is one of my favourite ways to spend free time. I have played tournaments in all time formats and play regularly online. But still, one must admit that chess is mostly boring to watch. Let’s first examine three main reasons for this and then have a look at how the chess industry has been addressing these issues in the last few years.

The first reason is the classical time format. Here, each player gets somewhere between 60 to 100 minutes for their first 40 moves as well as an additional 30 to 50 minutes for the rest of the game. The longest game ever recorded (admittedly, not under this exact time control) took place in 1989 between Ivan Nikolic and Goran Arsovic and lasted for four days 1)! Among the most dedicated chess fans, this game might be legendary, but even they would probably not have watched most of the event. Under the current time controls, matches like this wouldn’t be possible. But games that take 5 - 6 hours are still very common. It is extremely hard to provide interesting and engaging broadcasting for an event that takes so long and where it can sometimes take an hour for a player to make the next move.

The second reason is the prevalence of draws. The four-day game I just mentioned? Yes, it ended in a draw. The World Chess Championship match of 2018 between Magnus Carlsen and Fabiano Caruana featured a spectacular 12 draws out of 12 classical games. The match was finally decided in a tie-break in a faster time control 2). The next five World Championship Games were also draws by the way 3). The average drawing rate among Grandmasters across all time formats since 1970 is 53.14% and this number increases to roughly 65% for longer time controls 3) 4). Football might be one of the few other sports were draws are common. But even they have drastically lower numbers with 20.16% in the English Premier League, 27.54% in the German Bundesliga and 28.99% in the French Ligue 1 for the current season 5)

The problem of draws has further increased due to technological advancements. In the 20th century, it was not unusual for one player to have a strong advantage after the first 10 – 15 moves and to convert that to a victory. With data bases containing all games ever recorded 6) and engines that can play at a higher level than any human 7), preparation for chess games has become very accessible and easy. Nowadays, it is common for Grandmasters to memorize the first 15 – 20 moves of the openings they play (and all the possible sidelines). This leads to more drawn positions after the so called “opening phase” of the game, because the players know the best responses to all sensible moves. And if both players play perfectly, the result is generally assumed to be a draw (since chess is not yet completely solved by computers, we cannot say that with absolute certainty) 3)

These first two aspects are even tiring for top level players at times. Arguably the best chess player of all time, former World Champion in Classical Chess and current World Champion in Rapid and Blitz Chess, Magnus Carlsen has been one of the loudest voices criticizing the status quo in the last few years. After winning it four times, he resigned from competing in another Classical World Chess Championship in 2022. In an interview he stated: “I don’t enjoy it. […] under the current format with the time control that there is, it’s extremely unlikely that I will compete in the Classical World Championship.” 8) Instead, he has been consistently driving innovation in the chess industry for the past years, which we will get into in the next section. 

And finally, chess is a really difficult game. Every broadcast has the challenge of making the viewer understand what is happening. For most sports, it is fairly easy for the fan to follow the action and for the broadcaster to explain the more difficult aspects to the audience. But in chess, it is a) impossible for a regular viewer to simply understand everything that’s happening on the board and b) difficult to explain the intricacies of certain moves or move orders to a casual audience. Let’s try this out. Here is a position from one of my own online games and the first and only time I’ve ever beaten an International Master: 

What do you think was the original evaluation of the position? Winning for white, drawn or winning for black? What about the second position? Depending on how much you know about chess, it can be very difficult to assess the implications of what happened in these two moves and even to assess just the first position. We’ll get back to the actual evaluation later. But to reach a broader audience, broadcasters must be able to make the audience understand what is happening on the board. 

How Chess is improving the Broadcasting experience

There are four ways in which the chess industry has tried to improve the fan experience of watching games:

Faster Time Controls

Rapid Chess (around 10 - 20 minutes per player with 0 - 10 bonus seconds per move) and Blitz Chess (3 – 5 minutes per player with 0 – 2 bonus seconds per move) have always been around. But for most of chess history, Classical chess has been seen as the pinnacle of chess whereas Rapid and Blitz were just formats for fun. The difference in prestige associated with the Classical World Championship compared to Rapid or Blitz World Championship is enormous. But Rapid and Blitz have several advantages for broadcasting and are gaining popularity. Firstly, the shorter duration of a game combined with players rarely thinking longer than a few minutes makes it immediately more fun to watch. Secondly, Rapid and Blitz Chess feature more decisive games because the short thinking time leads players to make more mistakes. Thirdly, Rapid and Blitz events normally feature more games per day and per match (e.g. two players play a best of four). This creates more interesting story lines and comeback or must-win situations for players.  

One of the key innovators here is Magnus Carlsen, who started the Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour in 2020 to keep chess alive after the pandemic hit. 9) The tour consisted of five tournaments with Rapid time controls and best-of-four matches. It also popularized a tie-break system called Armageddon. 10) If the score is 2 : 2 after four games, the players have to bid how much time they need for the last match. The maximum is 15:00 minutes with no bonus time per move. Whoever bids lower gets the black pieces (normally a disadvantage because you move second), but he only needs a draw to win. This leads a) to super exciting games / stakes and b) to interesting bidding wars. In a similar event last year, the rivals Hikaru Nakamura (who many consider the current world number 2 in Rapid and Blitz) and Magnus Carlsen played each other. Getting to the Armageddon, Hikaru bid 08:59 min while Magnus bid 08:58 min. 11) This may not seem like much, but these small and entertaining moments really add to the overall experience. This exciting new twist works especially well for short form content. The Magnus Carlsen Chess Tour has now evolved into the Champions Chess Tour, organized by Chess.com, the biggest online chess platform. 12)

Higher Rewards for winning a game

The scoring system for chess has always been 1 point for a win, 0.5 points for a draw and 0 point for a loss. 13) Some think that this doesn’t incentivize winning enough. In the (Meltwater) Chess Tour 2022, they experimented with awarding 3 points for a win and 1 point for a draw, making it more lucrative to win. However, it hasn’t really been implemented in big scale tournaments since then. Chess.com uses a different incentive for many of their online tournaments. There, you can go on so-called win-streaks. If you win multiple games in a row, you will be awarded more points for every new win. 14) However, this is also not implemented in any big scale tournaments. The reasons for this are mostly concerns around fairness, luck, and the fact that a perfect chess game from both sides should be a draw. Still, it is an interesting approach to reduce the number of draws and make for a more interesting viewer experience. 

New Chess Formats

The origins of chess are somewhat unclear, as many civilizations have played different variants of the game. The rules we know today have been in place since around the early 19th century. 15) But recent times have seen many new game modes that enrich the game of chess. There are multiple variants that are just for fun. On Chess.com, one can pick from dozens of game modes like 4 player chess, odds chess (based on your rating difference one player has less pieces) or 3-check chess (you win when you check the enemy king 3 times). 16) 

While most of these are only for casual players, one format has made it to the big stage. I’m referring to Fischer Random Chess, also called Chess 960 or Freestyle Chess. It was developed by former World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer, who was concerned with the evolution of the game after computers changed the approach to opening theory. 17) In this chess variant, the back row of pieces is randomly shuffled at the beginning of each game, leading to 960 different possible starting positions for a game. After that the rules follow those of standard chess. This makes it impossible to simply learn specific lines and even the top Grandmasters have to think from the first move. The elite of the sport is actually quite interested in this format, as it also takes the pressure of their shoulders to study opening theory for hours every day. It seems to be less interesting to amateur players though, who are happy to have some more structure in their games. 18)

But for the viewing experience it is actually fascinating to see Grandmasters thinking from move one and sometimes blundering as early as move 3, which is unheard of in regular chess. There has been a Fischer Random Chess World Championship for some time now, and in the beginning of this year there was the first major tournament in this format outside of the World Championship. And of course, it was Magnus Carlsen who organized the event and - to the shock of few people -managed to win the so-called Freestyle Chess G.O.A.T Challenge. 19)

Chess.com also features some other game modes in tournaments with big names of the sport. Just recently, they organized the Team Chess Battle, where teams of two play against each other. What makes this interesting to watch is the fact that the players communicate with each other, and we can listen to their thoughts in real time. 20)

Overall Broadcasting Setup

Let’s illustrate this last point visually. These are the Classical World Chess Championship broadcasts from 2000 and 2023 respectively:

       Of course, the graphics are better, but that is not what we are mainly concerned with. I want to draw your attention the three details that really enhance the viewing experience. 

Firstly, the number of details displayed. In 2000, you could only see the time of one contender and no information at all about the current state of the match. In 2023, you can see both times, their score in the current match, how long they have thought about the current move, which game it is and what a player needs to win the whole match. These are all minor details, barely taking away space from the broadcast. But they enable a viewer who has not followed the match for the last 10 days or just randomly stumbles over it, to immediately understand the stakes and current situation.

Secondly, the second chess board on the screen. Nowadays, the small chess board on the right side is most often the live board. The “main” board in the middle of the screen is actually a board that the commentators control. This might seem confusing at first, but it is a genius step to be able to engage viewers. With this board, the commentators can show variants that could happen / could have happened and therefore why some moves might be brilliant, and others could not be played. In the year 2000, the commentators had to do that all of that verbally. And for most viewers, the phrases “In this position d5 is the main move for black. White threatens to take on f7 with the knight, forking the rook on h8 and the queen on d8. d5 blocks the vision of White’s bishop on c4 and after e takes d5, Knight a5, Bishop b5 check, c6, d takes c6, b takes c6, Bishop d3 and knight d5, black has almost equalized the position.”  You can have a look at the starting position below. You can try to follow it, it is the best way to defend against the fried liver attack, an opening that can lead to a very quick win for white if black does not know what they are doing. Hopefully you see, why it is difficult to follow this in real time, especially when it gets more complicated. Don’t get me started on black’s second-best move, Bishop to c5 which leads to head-spinning complications. To be able to show this visually on a commentator board is incredibly helpful and makes understanding what happens accessible to a wider audience.

   3rd position: The Fried Liver Attack

And finally, the addition of the evaluation bar. The white and black bar on the left of the chess board. This bar shows the evaluation of the current position by the strongest chess engine. If the bar fills more with the colour white, white has an advantage on the board and the other way around. It also shows the numeric evaluation of the position. 0.0 means that the position is perfectly equal. An advantage of 1 is as good as having a pawn up in an otherwise completely equal position. A rook is worth 5 points and a queen is worth 9 points. But this evaluation also considers the strategic weakness and strengths of any position. Generally, an evaluation < 1.0 is mostly still drawable. From 2.0 upwards, it is almost always winning for that side. 

Now let’s add the evaluation bar to the first two positions I showed in the introduction.

You may still not exactly understand what happened between the first and second position. But if you’re rooting for black, you know that it is now time to get excited. Nowadays, the evaluation bar is implemented in all major chess broadcasts and for good reason. It is, however, not without controversy with some arguing that it takes away from the fascination and mystery of the game. 23)


And what is the result of all of this? In the last three years, 102 million players have signed up to Chess.com. A 238% increase! Beginning of 2023, Chess.com had 10 million players active simultaneously for the first time. 24) The last two World Chess Championships have been the most watched tournaments in the history of chess, amassing around 600,000 viewers at the peak times 25) which would make it the fifth biggest e-sport by this metric. 26) The biggest chess Youtuber GothamChess closes in on 5 million subscribers 29) and second place GMHikaru is around 2.2 million. 30)

Chess has gained massively in popularity in the last four years. But this was also strongly aided by the Covid-19 crisis as well as the airing of The Queen’s Gambit, a massively successful Netflix Series that followed a young orphan girl on her way to a chess prodigy while struggling with addiction. 31) However, the change in Broadcasting has definitely played its own part already and will play an even more crucial part in the future. Interesting broadcasting will be the key to maintaining this new audience and to be more attractive to sponsors which in turn can bring more money to the game and make it more accessible to everybody.

Fast time controls, incentivizing winning, new formats and an overall more entertaining broadcasting set-up have massively improved the viewing experience of chess and these methods can aid as ideas to other sports that may generally be considered to be “boring”.