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The 'Rapid' Decline of Classical Chess



Chess is cool. No, don’t refresh the page: really. Chess is no longer a confusing game played by the nerdy kids in an afterschool club devoid of girls. It’s a game which, having faded in and out of cultural relevancy for centuries, has suddenly reached the zenith of its popularity. It has become an unexpected success on streaming services such as Twitch, and its top players are celebrities for their lifestyle as well as their sporting abilities.


Not all forms of chess are thriving, however. Classical chess — that is, chess played with long-time controls over the board- is the traditional mode of the game. The greatest honour in the world of chess is undoubtedly to be World Chess Champion; a title which is decided in the classical format. Yet the world’s best chess player Magnus Carlsen, himself a five time World Chess Champion, all but refuses to play classical. The incumbent chess champion, Ding Liren, is also currently absent from top level play. All signs seem to indicate that, although the game of chess is thriving, classical chess is not.


So what’s wrong with the format? The decline of classical chess can be likened to the decline of test matches in cricket. Classical chess takes time, and nowadays, no one has any. The format of chess which boomed in popularity over the COVID lockdown was speed chess (games played in ten minutes or less). Speed chess can be played on bus journeys, on break, in bed- even on the toilet. It’s quick, easy and impersonal. Classical chess, however, must be played in person and takes hours. These conditions are hardly conducive to popularity in the modern era.


Furthermore, classical chess doesn’t make financial sense- not even for the game’s top players. Top players like Carlsen make far more money from streaming and online content creation than professional chess. Classical chess is more time consuming, less profitable and less fun.


But how can ‘less fun’ be quantified? Isn’t that a subjective measure? Magnus Carlsen stated, in a post-match interview at the 2023 FIDE World Cup, that he finds classical chess “stressful and boring”. This is far from a stunning endorsement from the world’s most famous chess player. When even he says it’s boring, the issue should be considered endemic, even if the game’s purists disagree.


Then there is the spectator issue. Speed chess tournaments regularly draw audiences of over 100,000 on online platforms like Twitch and Chess.com. The only classical tournament which could get such viewing figures is the World Chess Championship itself. Speed chess has decisive results because time management produces human error. Classical chess, on the other hand, usually ends in a draw at the top level. The game is thus perverted into a competition of who can recite the most optimal computer lines. People don’t want to watch chess played by computers. They want chess played by humans, who make human mistakes.


Let us return to the question: what’s wrong with classical chess? In the world of the 21st century, the answer seems to be everything. No one can say that classical chess will ever truly ‘die’, but its decline has been rapid. Or rather, due to rapid- the chess format played over ten minutes.


Can speed chess and classical chess really coexist? Unlike most classical chess games, this contest isn’t heading for a draw. At the moment, it looks like a forced mate.



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