Adonis Diaries

Blockchain? “Queen’s Gambit effect”? Algorand? Crypto-currency… What more than digital chess? What’s the next move?

Posted on: January 24, 2022

How the blockchain is revolutionizing digital chess

Illustration credit: Peter Greenwood

It’s been referred to as the “Queen’s Gambit effect”: in the aftermath of the breakout success of the October 2020 Netflix show about fictional, struggling chess grandmaster Beth Harmon, the game of chess went through its very own moment of global momentum.

One US toy company reported that its sales of chess sets had soared by 1,048%.

Another analysis has found that, in the four months following the series’ debut in the UK, the number of people joining popular chess-playing websites grew exponentially (Do they know what exponentially means?

Similar effects were observed in other countries.

Trending TV shows aside, furlough-induced free time and stay-at-home lockdown orders brought about by the global pandemic were almost certainly factors in increasing numbers of people ordering new sets, or dusting off their old chess boards – physical or digital – and pushing the pieces.

Chess games started flooding the internet: on game live-streaming platform Twitch, chess streams became ubiquitous and professional chess player Hikaru Nakamura quickly raked in 1.3 million followers.

Rather than gawping at high-octane Battlefield missions, video-game fans were enthralled by French defenses and flawless four-move checkmates.

It is no big surprise that chess has gone digital, explains Ilya Merenzon, CEO of World Chess, which has organized several World Chess Championships, and runs the International Chess Federation’s exclusive online gaming platform FIDE Online Arena.

Chess was the first ever computer game in the world,”

Already in the 1950s, British computer science pioneer Alan Turing had been hard at work to create a chess-playing program; go back further in time, and you’ll find that Charles Babbage was toying with the idea of building a “machine that should be able to play a game of purely intellectual skill successfully such as… chess” in the 1860s.

But the scale of chess’s current digitisation is staggering: Merenzon says that the ratio of physical versus digital chess players today “could be as much as one to 100,000.”

Even more compelling to witness has been the emergence of a specific aspect of the nexus between chess and the digital world: the growing overlap between chess fans and cryptocurrency evangelists.

Rising-star chess grandmasters such as Alexandra Botez, have made no mystery of their fondness for cryptocurrency technology; Botez herself played – and won – a much-hyped Twitch-streamed chess game against Vitalik Buterin, the inventor of the Ethereum cryptocurrency network.

Chess tournaments have also been held where the prizes were denominated and paid in cryptocurrency.

“We see a very high overlap between computer scientists and people who like computer science and cryptography and chess players,” says Sean Ford, COO of blockchain technology company Algorand.

“There is a way of thinking about people who become very strong at chess – they think through not just the first move, but the interrelationship between that move and all future moves – and when you look at cryptography and cryptocurrency, you find that the people who build really good tech in the blockchain space and innovation in the blockchain space, they’ll have a similar way of thinking.”

But the relationship between cryptocurrency and chess could soon go beyond being a curious happenstance.

The digitisation of the game of chess is an exciting opportunity, but also a challenge, in that it dramatically expands the number of players around the world – players whom international chess organisations want to cater to, engage with and bring into the fold of professionals in some cases.

But how to do that quickly, efficiently and securely? It turns out that crypto – and crypto’s backbone, the blockchain, might have the answer.

Building Blocks

To understand the opportunity, we need to first understand the blockchain and its relationship to cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrency can be thought of as a system to exchange digital units of value – files representing a currency, or any other desirable item – in a decentralised fashion that does not rely on a single intermediary.

In its purest incarnation, as laid down by pseudonymous inventor Satoshi Nakamoto in his 2008 Bitcoin “white paper”, the intermediaries to be cut out are banks and central banks, and the cryptocurrency is intended to serve as stateless, quasi-anonymous, digital money.

In order to pull that decentralised act off, Nakamoto used something called a “blockchain”.

A blockchain is, at its core, a ledger: a list of all transactions ever made in a certain cryptocurrency, collectively maintained by a swarm of independent computers.

On the Bitcoin blockchain, these computers validate “blocks” of several transactions through an electricity-consuming process called “mining”, which requires solving a complex mathematical problem; the first “miner” to crack that problem gets to approve the transaction block, alongside a reward in bitcoin.

This basic structure – which has been adopted by innumerable other blockchain projects with different variations – is designed to ensure the ledger’s security and immutability.

In order to change a past transaction, indeed, a rogue miner would have to rewrite several blocks, and this process is so costly in terms of computing power and energy consumption that any wannabe criminal would be better off just by playing by the rules and bagging their mining rewards.But the blockchain is not without issues: mining-based blockchains – such as Bitcoin or Ethereum – have been criticised for their wasteful energy consumption, and for the relatively low speed at which transactions are approved

Nevertheless, since its 2008 debut, blockchain technology has inspired creators and technologies across a huge variety of domains.

The same structure that can be used to exchange Bitcoins can be leveraged to execute all kinds of transactions without relying on a third-party validator.

A blockchain can be used, for instance, as a decentralised database for proving ownership: a “coin” or “token” can be minted that acts as the stand-in for a real-word asset or property, and whoever holds it in their cryptocurrency “wallet” can use that as a title deed.

More recently, that concept has been expanded to reinvent the concept of fandom and collecting.

Some blockchains, in fact, allow individuals to create unique crypto-assets called non-fungible tokens, or NFTs, associated with a certain work of art or collectibles.

While the most headline-grabbing instance of NFT sales has been associated with the field of digital art – with visual artist Beeple bagging over $69m in a Christie’s auction for an NFT associated with his work “Everydays: The First 5000 Days” – the impact of this technology on sports has grown increasingly significant.

Several athletes, sports teams and sports federations – including Wimbledon champion Andy Murray, Italian football team Juventus and the NBA – have started minting and auctioning NFTs representing special objects or even famous moments of historic games or matches.

“Sport is basically following the exact same trend as many other fields with blockchain assets or NFTs,” says Gauthier Zuppinger, co-founder of the platform, which specialises in analysing NFT trends.

“It started from the most basic use case – which is basically to just own something.

But Zuppinger thinks that sports teams and organisations are gradually becoming more creative in terms of how blockchain technology and NFTs might be used to bring innovation to the sports themselves – and to the fan experience.

“The more complex thing is creating value,” he says. Now, because of a convergence of various circumstances, it turns out that chess might be uniquely positioned to leverage blockchain and create that value.

Blockchain enables secure recording and storing of player rankings

The Crypto Gambit

Chess players’ skills are gauged through a system called Elo rating, named after Hungarian-American physicist Arpad Elo, who invented it in the 1950s.

Elo ratings are akin to a transaction system: each chess player has a certain number of points defining their skill levels; in case of defeat, some points are docked and transferred to the winning rival, whereas in case of a victory, one’s Elo rating will be increased by absorbing some of the losing player’s points.

Elo ratings are important in that they are used to gain access to certain events, high profile matches and even the World Championship. Which is why, says World Chess’s Merenzon, the explosion of digital chess – exciting as it is – raises a big question: how to prove, keep track of, and keep secure the Elo ratings of chess players who play exclusively online?

“Fewer than 1% of players are considered professionals by the World Chess Federation, meaning that they play with a board so they have rankings; the rest play online. And we, as operators of the official online chess-gaming platform, had to come up with a way to not only record rankings, but also to store them, to give people access to them.”

“We figured that the best, most obvious way to do it is using blockchain.”

World Chess teamed up with blockchain platform Algorand, which devised a system for preserving official ratings and titles from ​​FIDE Online Arena on its blockchain.

“Whenever you need transparency and whenever you need data security – the first idea nowadays is blockchain. And Algorand offers a very, very comprehensive solution: fast, cheap and easy to build things upon,” World Chess chief operating officer, Matvey Shekhovtsov, explains.

Algorand blockchain’s decentralisation makes sure that there is no single organisation in charge of it, which increases security and transparency, Merenzon says.

In addition, this structure might allow for the system to be extended beyond the bounds of World Chess. “In the future, this will help us to accept other third-party platforms – other chess engines – into the system, so we can also upload their ranking data onto the blockchain,” he explains.

The choice of Algorand out of all the crypto-formats was quite deliberate.

Designed by MIT mathematician Silvio Micali, it is a blockchain that has deftly wielded game theory to overcome both the slowness and the unsustainable energy output required to mine, a major criticism of popular blockchains such as Bitcoin and Ethereum.

Instead of relying on mining, it uses a system called “pure proof of stake”, in which transactions are validated by a certain number of people who hold a certain quantity of Algorand’s cryptocurrency, ALGO.

These users are selected through a continual, randomised process, and can be cut off the network if they attempt to approve invalid transactions that run counter other validators’ consensus.

“It sounds like it would take a while, but this all happens in milliseconds,” says Algorand COO Sean Ford. The energy expenditure for running this procedure is negligible, and the platform is able to complete 1,000 transactions per second, compared to Bitcoin’s 4.6.

Ford, who – like Algorand’s creator Micali – is a chess fan, is thrilled about using Algorand to forge a new future for digital chess.

“The sport was in a place where it was looking to transform, to broaden its reach, to redefine itself in sort of a modern world and take advantage of the billions of people that play around the world,” he explains.

“And blockchain and Algorand offered a number of opportunities to bridge that physical-digital gap, and breathe new life into what is one of the oldest and most respected sports on the planet.”

Merenzon recounts that the reaction of the cryptocurrency community to this initiative has been very positive. “The crypto community reacted really, really well, following our partnership with Algorand, because it’s clear that with this partnership we have opened the floodgates for further crypto initiatives.”

And indeed, as the world prepares for the World Championship 2021, this might be only the start.

“Whenever you need transparency and whenever you need data security – the first idea nowadays is blockchain.”

Symbolic ownership of unique chess moves can be achieved through NFTs

Chess In The Metaverse

The natural next step for leveraging the relationship between chess and crypto is, of course, the creation of chess NFTs.

Merenzon says that conversations with Algorand about minting special chess-themed NFTs are already underway. Fans could be able to buy NFTs that are, for instance, associated with famous chess games or chess moves.

“Think about making an NFT of the final positions in games of great significance – for example, the Fischer v Spassky game,” Shekhovtsov says. “There were a lot of games that ended in such a way that you want to record this, you want to show this, and keep this. You want to be part of it, as a fan.” But the technology could be used to cater to players as well as fans, explains Merenzon. Someone might want to mint an NFT of a memorable game they won (or one they lost, if they are good sports) online, for example. Or high-profile chess teachers might mint NFTs – and establish some kind of symbolic ownership – of their signature moves and gambits. “There is no way to copyright moves. It’d be just like copyrighting the kicking of a ball. But you can visualise it and learn it, you can NFT a move,” Merenzon says. “You can do this, so finding ways to have ownership of a good move – not necessarily commercial ownership, but maybe some other kind.” Once one gets started, the opportunities are endless – from special blockchain programmes called smart contracts used as chess-training lessons, to playing entire chess games on the blockchain, with players sending each other moves via crypto transactions. “This is not the future, it’s actually the past”, Merenzon says, “this has actually happened: Silvio Micali was the first one to play an actual chess game that has been recorded on Algorand blockchain.” But in the long run, one of the most exciting scenarios for the evolution of digital chess concerns its role in what crypto-fans, sci-fi enthusiasts and VR-geeks alike call the “Metaverse”. This is an emerging concept describing a sprawling, always-online, interconnected galaxy of online and virtual worlds. Already touted by tech giants such as Facebook and Microsoft as the internet’s next level, and envisioned as the natural home for crypto’s decentralised communities by blockchain boffins, the Metaverse will certainly be chock-full of games. And chess – what with its sitting at the intersection of games, e-Sport and crypto – is uniquely poised to take the Metaverse by storm. Zuppinger points to Axie Infinity, an online video game that allows players to earn cryptocurrency tokens, as an example of what the Metaverse might shape up to be. “You can make crypto-money with this game, if you play well. So you see more and more people in developing countries, mostly in the Philippines, who are getting extremely good at that game – it’s a full-time job,” he says. “In the future, you could apply the exact same mechanism to chess. But there’s more than just play-to-earn: with chess, you can be trained. There are a lot of chess trainers. So you can imagine that someone who helped you get more skilled at chess will be paid for that, and will automatically get a percentage of your crypto earnings once you start winning.”

But the Metaverse’s real promise is that it could help chess players engage with their fans at unprecedented levels and in ways that are still unheard of. Those people who now just stare at grandmasters competing on Twitch will soon be able to wear their VR headsets and find themselves just inches away from the board in a wondrous virtual arena, side by side with thousands of fans. “Scalability is probably one big upside of the Metaverse. In a digital environment you can create many, many instances of the same thing,” explains Ryan Gill, co-founder of Metaverse company Crucible Network. He says that where a physical arena can, for example, accommodate maybe 20,000 chess fans, a Metaverse chess game can potentially be attended by millions. “There’s just a much higher scalability and much lower cost for the supply and value chain.” Merenzon is similarly optimistic. “I’m sure that the World Championship match will be played in the Metaverse shortly,” he says. Chess is one of the oldest games in human history, going on 1,500 years and counting. But thanks to its mathematical perfection and gripping nature, it has also been a perfect sandbox for technical innovation – from shams like the chess-playing Mechanical Turk to modern-day chess computer games. Now, as chess enters the crypto era and is bound for the Metaverse, one thing is clear – the future of chess is one that looks truly disruptive.


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January 2022

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