Agadmator: From smalltown Croatia, an unlikely chess phenomenon

Radic analyses chess games in simple, instructional style, drawing upon historical nuggets and anecdotes. Facebook/agadmatoryoutube

From a living room in the Croatian town of Krizevci, with a population of 21,000, emerges Agadmator, the world's most popular YouTube chess channel. Close to 750,000 subscribers, 15 million monthly views, the host's trademark quips commemorated in memes and t-shirts and its 15-minute shows eagerly awaited by chess veterans and newbies alike.

Step inside the world of Agadmator's creator and host, Antonio Radic.

For those unfamiliar with chess' fastest-growing YouTube channel, here's a quick lowdown -- on the channel, created in 2007 but offering chess content only since 2017, Radic analyses games in simple, instructional style, drawing upon historical nuggets and anecdotes with emoji cushions and his half-attentive dog Medo curled up on a couch in the background.

"I always loved chess but I live in a small town and there weren't too many people I could talk to about (it)," Radic tells ESPN. "So, starting a YouTube channel kind of made sense."

His audience is largely made up of a blitz-playing populace who aren't exactly ambitiously lining up to compete in tournaments.

"I want people who already play chess to enjoy and always be welcome on the channel, but the content is mostly tailored for newcomers and casual players. Most people will never play chess professionally or even take it up as a serious hobby but they enjoy watching games of great players." he says.

Typically hovering between the ages of 18-45, they're chess' invisible audience, hunched over keyboards and gorging on games over dinner. Radic's channel subscribers also include new learners of the sport, who may not be able to tell apart Paul Morphy from Mikhail Tal, but wait up on him to pause during crucial points of a game review to offer his audience the chance to find the best move in a position or crack a mate in two.

Radic's go-to quips, typically opening videos with 'Hello everyone' and his phrases 'Captures, captures' and 'Oh, sorry about that' are now an insignia of his shows. For a YouTube and Twitch streaming generation that prefers intuition over preparation in its chess, Radic is an apt fit. He spends, by his own admission, not more than 20 minutes setting up for reviewing blitz games played online. It's only when he works on match videos of former greats that he dedicates a lot more time reading up on their history.

"Earlier," says Radic, "since I had a 9-5 job as a graphic designer, I didn't have time to edit my chess videos. It resulted in a lot of mistakes but it was the only way I could manage time for both. Now, I only do YouTube and I have time to edit my videos, but I still don't. I hit record, do one take and whatever comes of it, goes online. A little mistake here and there is a small price to pay for viewers to get the full unedited experience. I hate it when I watch someone else's video and there's a cut every two seconds. I also try to avoid doing things on my channel that I don't enjoy on other channels, like promotions and mid-roll ads."

Last week, during his analysis of the Legends of Chess tournament game between Ding Liren and Magnus Carlsen, Radic allowed himself a 10-second break while staying put before his computer, apologising for his decision of going for a light physical workout prior to the video recording that had him out of breath and exhaling heavily into his mic. The spontaneity of his videos, not motored by fancy production, nicely offsets against going over completed games whose results are already known, in a sport predicated on precision and accuracy.

Radic's following spans a wide cross-section of chess fans across the world and he often bumps into loyal subscribers during his travels. "Many come up to me and tell me that they love what I do. Some others drop me a message on social media saying they saw me but were too shy to approach me. Most recently, my girlfriend Jelena and I were treated to free cake as the gentleman working at a cake booth was a subscriber of the channel."

The channel also finds an audience among many not necessarily looking for game reviews or chess improvement, but, possibly, just a cheerful diversion. "There are those who say my daily videos light up their day, some watch it while enjoying a meal and some fall asleep to it and tell me that I have an incredibly soothing voice. There are others who write in to tell me that my videos help them cope with depression or to let me know that their children are watching chess now instead of Fortnite. Nothing makes me happier."

Radic himself learnt to play chess when he was five from his grandfather Anto Krnjic, a Fide master, a title that ranks below International Master. He then doubled up as cameraman and video editor in his father's wedding studio, while keeping a regular job as a graphic designer.

At his father's studio, Radic snipped best moments from wedding shoots to put together videos on YouTube, the only mass-audience platform that existed a decade and a half ago.

Some of the experience was pressed into service when he decided to dedicate the channel to chess three years ago. Radic doesn't travel much to tournaments, though he does play a handful of local events himself. On most days, he records one video, while there have been occasions he's done up to five in a day. "YouTube is a hungry, insatiable beast," he says. "It has to be fed constantly. Even during vacations, I record on my laptop. I love what I do and that's the only reason I'm able to do it. I don't treat vacations as an escape from work anymore. For me, YouTube is not a job. It's a part of me that follows me wherever I go."

He is particularly proud of his channel's unique name. "Nothing else in the world is called 'Agadmator'," he declares. A diligent Google search attests to the 33-year-old Croat's bragging rights over the unusual name. The top results of the search link to his YouTube channel, social media accounts, Wikipedia page and a chess clock app offered by his channel.

Early on, well-meaning acquaintances advised Radic against the name. But its peculiarity, he believed, could be winning. "I chose the name (Agadmator) since it was already my nickname. I was told I should change it because no one can pronounce it or even remember it, but I thought that's a plus. If someone Googles it, I'm the first thing that pops up."

"There are those who say my daily videos light up their day, some watch it while enjoying a meal and some fall asleep to it. There are others who tell me that my videos help them cope with depression. Nothing makes me happier." Antonio Radic

Once his channel hit 20,000 subscribers, Radic quit his job as a graphic designer to focus entirely on producing YouTube content. "It was possible since the standard of living is much lower in Croatia, than, say, had I lived in the USA. Then, I'd probably have to wait a bit longer," he says. "We didn't have any loans or kids either so it was easier for me to give up on a regular salary and commit full time to YouTube. Also, my girlfriend Jelena had a steady job then and we wouldn't go hungry if it didn't work out. Now, as we speak, Agadmator is the biggest chess channel in the world and I can afford to live in any country. It took some time getting here."

Recently, he waded into two new projects -- a chess podcast that took off in May this year and his more ambitious Chess Manga, which is scheduled for a release early next year.

In reaching out to both kinds of audiences, those already in thrall of the game, many who resumed playing after finding his videos, and non-chess fans who stumbled upon the channel and kept coming back to learn more, Radic has been among the drivers for the sport's recent wave. His content is free, accessible and conversational with no attempts at being stuffy or uptight. It's where he finds new members of his flock -- both the pre-teen gamer and elderly librarian.

In June this year, Rick Seeger, chief science officer at a cryptocurrency technology services firm in California wrote on Twitter about discovering a chess club having been set up at the library in his hometown of Blue Hill, in Maine, during a recent visit. "I asked the organiser if he watched chess on YouTube," read Seeger's tweet, "He said, 'Yeah, I watch the guy who says 'hello, everyone'".