Vidit Gujrathi wolfs down his dinner before a live audience. Teimour Radjabov breaks into dance moves to the Indian government's promo song on waste disposal. Baskaran Adhiban wears his sombrero at all times and says he'd be mobbed at the Chennai airport. Anish Giri brokers a deal on playing a drawing-guessing game in exchange for his YouTube channel being raided.
These chess Grandmasters -- two of them among the world's top-10 chess players and two others India No. 3 and 4 -- are among the sport's top players who are shedding their serious, studious image and revealing their humorous, everyday selves -- and all for a good cause.
You might also have seen Viswanathan Anand, cricketer Yuzvendra Chahal, chess' YouTube icon Agadmator, apart from the whole band of India's popular names in stand-up comedy -- including Tanmay Bhat, Biswa Kalyan Rath, Abish Mathew and Vaibhav Sethia -- playing chess against each other, urging viewers to chip in with contributions and stay back for unscripted, irreverent banter.
All of this thanks to Indian stand-up comic Samay Raina.
Raina (22) created his YouTube channel in March this year and has raised Rs. 25 lakh (approximately $33,400) over at least half-a-dozen charity streams for a wide-ranging set of causes -- Delhi's waste pickers, background dancers in movies, the welfare of stray dogs, the Amphan cyclone that hit West Bengal and the Assam floods.
"When I started streaming, I'd go crazy seeing 100 people watching," Raina, who lives in Mumbai, tells ESPN. His channel now has 330K subscribers with views on videos ranging between 200K to a million.
"I began by streaming PUBG with my friend Tanmay [Bhat] on his channel. I then set up my own channel, did a couple of PUBG streams, touched around 15K subscribers but realised I wasn't enjoying it. So I asked myself, 'What do I really love?' The answer was chess."
Growing up, Raina played some chess and participated in a few inter-school tournaments before academics took over. Almost a decade later, he stumbled upon Agadmator's YouTube videos and rediscovered his love for the sport. With the pandemic setting in and live stand-up shows being pushed into cold storage, Raina decided to improvise.
He mobilised fellow members of the Indian comedy TV series 'Comicstaan', most of whom are household names, into playing an online chess tournament on his stream. It got people to sit up. Here was this sport, largely considered a preserve of serious players, being engaged in by a group of people who make people laugh for a living. There was banter, trash talk and it was almost as if chess had crossed over the 'cool' sport zone.
In May, Anand played a charity game against Mathew on Samay's stream, with viewers being asked to donate every time the five-time world champion's pawns were captured. Anand was his witty self, double fist-pumping (he has barely done it a couple of times in his 30-plus years of competitive chess) and willingly lining up his pawns for slaughter. "When I called Vishy sir to brief him about the idea of the charity game," says Raina, "I told him that we'd get donations for every pawn of his that's captured, so he'd have to lose. He replied, 'I'll make sure Abish captures everything, but I'll still win.' He was an amazing sport."
True enough, Anand gave up most of his pieces, even his queen, and also cleared the deck for Mathew to promote his pawn, but still managed an easy win with black. That game managed to raise Rs 8.8 lakh (approximately $11,700), which went to waste pickers.
"I joined the livestream since it was a worthy cause and it was interesting to see how two worlds -- comedy and chess -- were getting introduced to each other," Anand tells ESPN. "I think it can only be a good thing to grow the game. It's a lot like what Hikaru [Nakamura] is doing in engaging with a potential new audience." Nakamura, the top-ranked blitz player in the world, has got Twitch smitten with chess, drawing massive viewing numbers on his channel as he goes about coaching streamers in the sport.
Raina, too, has packaged chess through online variants such as hand-and-brain play (pieces being moved by players who are 'hands' after they've been pointed out by those playing 'brain'), bughouse (involving four players and two boards), four-player chess (with four sets of differently coloured pieces) and blindfold chess, with pro players gamely jumping in.
He has even named a gambit after his home state. When the opponent has only a few seconds on his clock, the player with more time sacrifices his pieces in a completely surprise fashion. The opponent eventually runs out of time and the other player, despite losing most of his pieces, wins. "It's what I call the J&K gambit," says Raina. "It's a lot like what happened in 1990 [mass exodus of Kashmiri Hindus] when my family was driven out of the state. Overnight, we lost our home, land and belongings, but we still survived."
In many ways, for chess players, Raina is a revelation in himself. "I never imagined comedians wanting to try chess," says Azerbaijani GM Radjabov. "Serious sermons on why chess is good can only take us so far. You have to bring joy into the learning. Samay is doing that remarkably well."
Together, Radjabov, Giri and Gujrathi are referred to as 'Wolfpack' on Raina's streams. Radjabov even helped himself to Google translate the term to Hindi and discovered 'bhediyon ka jhund' and has taken quite a liking to his title of 'Baku ka Daku' (dacoit of Baku).
"I have talked to so many new people who've never played chess before but have now started learning the sport. It feels special!" says Radjabov. "Of course, I am a professional chess player not a professional streamer, but I don't see a problem combining both if one does not ruin the other." Being regularly on Raina's streams has pushed these chess players to create their own YouTube channels with Open Broadcaster Software (OBS) training assistance from their new-found 3AM friend.
There is, however, a certain cerebral character attached to the sport and the challenge can often lie in throwing it open to new audiences while not shooing away existing fans. "To be honest," says Gujrathi, "I haven't yet found my identity as a chess streamer. I'm still figuring it out. I've been doing streams which are largely 'edutainment', where I try to be instructive but mostly it is fun and banter."
What Gujrathi has found, though, is a certain comfort in being himself with his webcam turned on for a few hours every day and more than a few thousands watching. "It [the streaming experience] has definitely opened me up as a person. Earlier, I used to be really conscious while going live and would largely remain reserved, say a few things and log out. But when you're on streams regularly, eventually the audience gets to know you as a person -- what bothers you, what makes you happy and basically there is an emotional connect. You can't fake who you are really for three months in a row on a livestream. Earlier, I wouldn't have thought of doing it, but now I usually end up having my meals on the stream."
For Adhiban, it's the "unreal" fan numbers that's blowing his mind. "Guys like me or Vidit were somewhat known in the country, but now we have this whole new, almost parallel universe of people reaching out to us or commenting on streams. From being this difficult sport that most people couldn't wrap their heads around, Samay's streams have turned chess into a fun, stressbuster during these depressing lockdown days."
Beyond the light-hearted banter, Raina is earnest about his chess. He hopes to touch a rating of 1,900 and tick off participating in a Fide-rated tournament from his wish list. He's taking 8AM lessons every day from IM and ChessBase India co-founder Sagar Shah on a YouTube series called 'Improving Chess'. For fans of Raina's chess streams, it offers a continuum, a place to follow him to and get better at a sport that's perhaps new to them, or one that they've long lost touch with. "My chess.com rating was 1,040 when I started out with my channel four months ago," says Raina. "Now it's 1,450. I'm honestly very proud of that. Now I understand chess more clearly. Earlier it was like, let's play this move and see what happens. Ab mazaa aata hai (Now I really enjoy it).
"The unique bit about Samay's streams," Shah offers, "is that he raises questions that are on casual fans' minds. Doubts like 'OK, why does this move not work or what should I do with my rook now' -- that people watching might be wondering about too. On commentaries for regular chess tournaments it's hard to find such answers because these questions wouldn't occur to experts discussing the games."
"I never imagined comedians wanting to try chess. Serious sermons on why chess is good can only take us so far. You have to bring joy into the learning. Samay is doing that remarkably well." Azerbaijani GM Teimour Radjabov
In May, India's No. 1 and 2 blind chess players, Darpan Inani and Kishan Gangolli, played online against Raina and fellow comedians Rath and Sethia. Raina & Co. consulted each other and made their moves while Inani and Gangolli, who eventually won that game, played in the hand-brain format, alternating between being either part every five moves. "Contributions began pouring in through Superchats [YouTube tool that allows viewers to pay streamers during live shows]," says Shah. "Over 600 viewers pitched in Rs 3.70 lakh ($4,949), which went to the ChessBase India Foundation. We're setting up a database of blind players in the country, and the next step is to ensure they receive sustained support and access to good trainers."
Raina's livestreams were born out of the lockdown and continue to ring in viewing numbers with college- and office-goers largely attending classes or working out of their homes. A drop in interest once normalcy returns can be a logical concern.
Raina laughs. "Had we been into streaming for just a month or so, it would have had no real impact and people would move on to the next thing," he says. "But it has been four months. Also, when you watch streams regularly, as an audience you begin to connect with the host. For example, when app-based cab aggregators like Uber and Ola were new on the scene, they offered five free rides. People took those but even after they turned into paid services, people continued to book cabs. It had turned into a habit.
"Of course, I might lose the flexibility of time. Now I can stream on a Monday at 4PM and still have 9K people watching. Once colleges and offices open up, I'll probably stream at night instead."
"I think it can only be a good thing to grow the game. It's a lot like what Hikaru [Nakamura] is doing in engaging with a potential new audience." Viswanathan Anand
Outside chess, Raina has issues he feels deeply about.
He's troubled by the stifled space for art, and by extension comedy, in India's present political climate. For someone like him with roots in the strife-torn region of Jammu & Kashmir, the pangs of hurt are worse. "I wasn't born when my family was forced to flee the state, so for my generation the feeling of displacement may not be as strong. Recently, I visited the house in Hyderabad I grew up in for six years, where I had some of the best days of childhood. I was overcome by memories and emotion. I then realised it must be a fraction of what my parents feel about the home they were driven out of.
"Under the previous regime, stand-up comics could criticise policies and people in power without fear. It's what raised the level of content and made comedy more meaningful. Today, any anti-government views are met with severe backlash, abuse and trolls. This is a difficult time to be a stand-up comic in India."
But Raina wishes to fight the good fight. "Artists, across cultures and civilisations, have always resisted and rebelled against wrongs," he says. "We can't afford to back down. Agar sab dab hi jayenge toh humare kal ka kya hoga (If everyone cows down, what will happen to our future)?"
For chess in India, though, Raina is already on the forefront, leading what could be a quiet, irreversible change.