“There’s something about taking a plow and breaking new ground. It gives you energy.” – Ken Kesey
Hikaru Nakamura is one of the greatest chess players of all time. He took up the game at seven years old and quickly became an international phenomenon. In 2003, at the age of 15, he broke Bobby Fischer's record to become the youngest American grandmaster ever. Nakamura went on to achieve a peak FIDE rating of 2,816, earning him a position ranked just behind Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion. He is presently 11th on the official list, 8th in the unofficial live ratings, and just placed a solid 4th at the 2022 Candidates Tournament, the gating event for entry into the FIDE Chess World Championship match next year.
Time management plays a critical role in the game of chess. The more time a player of Nakamura’s caliber gets to think, the more likely they are to play near-perfect chess. Games can’t go on forever, however, and limits must be imposed. In classical chess – the format used at the FIDE Chess World Championship and most major events – each player is allocated 90 minutes to make their first 40 moves. Extra time is awarded after crossing that important threshold. The need to effectively allocate thinking time adds a unique and often decisive strategic element to the game. Many blunders occur between moves 35-40, as the threat of flagging forces players to move without the chance to fully think through the consequences.
The spread of social media and the resulting addiction to quick dopamine hits has impacted most aspects of our lives, and the chess world has won no reprieve. Nobody makes time for multi-hour-long chess games anymore, but they might be willing to watch 20-minute summaries of them on YouTube. Concurrently, chess has seen an explosion in the popularity of games between famous players battling under tighter time constraints. In “rapid” chess, each player is allocated 15 minutes, with ten-second increments added to their clock after each move. In “blitz” chess, it’s three minutes with two-second increments. Rapid and blitz games are simultaneously imperfectly (and thus, entertainingly) played and custom-fit for consumption on social media. FIDE now hosts a world championship in each of classical, rapid, and blitz modes – much to the chagrin of purists who think only classical chess is “real chess.”
The old guard recently exposed their collective lip curl during the 2022 Candidates Tournament when Nakamura spent one of his rest days competing in a popular online blitz tournament. While the other top contenders for the Candidates’ coveted prize were reviewing their games and preparing for their next matches, Nakamura spent the day streaming his participation in Titled Tuesday. He was criticized by some senior grandmasters for what they perceived to be a poor example of unseriousness. Naturally, Nakamura streamed his review of their comments.
Parents just don’t understand.
Where traditionalists saw the flow of attention towards rapid, online play as a reason to lament, Nakamura saw opportunity and pounced. Classical chess rewards a player’s ability to calculate many moves ahead and to carefully determine the best move to play, but rapid and blitz reward a player’s intuition about what a good move should be. Nakamura has a phenomenally quick mind and an brilliantly developed instinct for the board, and many believe he is the strongest player ever in these time-constricted formats. He is also savvy on social media and possesses a disarming charisma perfectly suited for an online culture so many of us struggle to understand. As a result, Nakamura has become a social media superstar who has likely done more to popularize the game of chess than any other human in history. Many resent his success.
Nakamura is now a professional streamer and spends dozens of hours a week playing chess on the internet. He broadcasts his games live on the wildly popular website Twitch, where he has accumulated over 1.5 million followers and thousands of paying subscribers. (Twitch is that thing your kids spend all day watching on their tablets instead of playing outside.) Owned by Amazon, the site has over 140 million monthly active users and accelerated in popularity during the Covid-19 lockdowns. Streamers like Nakamura interact in real-time with their subscribers, and watching him routinely destroy otherwise excellent chess players in blitz play despite intentionally sacrificing his queen – all while keeping up with an endlessly rolling influx of live comments – is awesome.
Nakamura saw the future of what chess could be and threw himself headfirst into making it happen. It is precisely because he prioritized engagement with his fans that he has so many. In our own small way, we have tried to do the same with the evolving nature of financial analysis and commentary. The traditional research houses and old-school media outlets are being disrupted by the rapid-fire nature of Twitter and plug-and-play publishing sites like Substack, and we have dedicated our professional lives to capitalizing on these trends.
As longtime Doomberg readers will remember, we published monthly updates on our progress prior to turning on the paywall, something we paused while we focused on the critical work of transitioning to a “real” business. Three months into this new phase of our crazy experiment, we felt it appropriate to update our most loyal subscribers on how things are going. Let’s dig in.