Chess, Stress, and Rock & Roll

Falling down the Internet chess rabbit hole

Vincent Vanhoucke
4 min readMar 1, 2022
Credit: Kaboompics on RawPixel

‘Dad, you’re an addict!!’

It began as a classic Covid story: binging Netflix, watching the Queen’s Gambit, and before I knew it, I had three distinct chess apps on my phone, was studying obscure gambits, and lurking on /r/AnarchyChess shaking my head at a missed en passant. The fall was precipitous, eminently fun, and surprisingly, deeply introspective as well.

It all started when I subscribed my kid to ChessKid to teach him the game. Before I knew it, the whole family was watching FunMasterMike’s engaging tutorials and solving puzzles together. Watching kiddo develop into a much stronger player than myself in the span of a few months fueled my desire to keep up (beats Pokemon any day.) It had been a long time since I had attempted to pick up a completely new skill entirely from scratch and I relished the challenge. YouTube’s recommendation engine likely got a whiff of my nascent interest and that was the beginning of my downfall.

I quickly discovered that a pioneer of YouTube chess, an unassuming Croatian player going by the screen name of Agadmator, had astoundingly north of a million subscribers and a devoted fan base commenting on and remixing his lo-fi content. He recently organized an online tournament which was so popular it crashed the online platform ( is one of the two main players in the online chess world, a player-supported, free, open-source platform coming out of France., which also runs ChessKid, is a popular US commercial equivalent.)

The current king of YouTube chess is probably Levy Rozman, aka GothamChess, whose videos combine a perfect mix of entertainment and scholarship. On Twitch, the crown goes to Hikaru Nakamura, a monster of a player with an ego to match, and one of the few who can claim true world-class status both online and over the board. And of course, there is god himself, a.k.a. Magnus Carlsen, who dominates the field so thoroughly he got bored and needed to make up new challenges for himself. Dialing up the entertainment factor, you have Anna Cramling, Eric Hansen, the Botez sisters, and countless others attempting to turn the game into a performance art — with admittedly varying degrees of success. French speakers may also enjoy Julien Song’s excellent tutorial videos. Indeed, this particular rabbit hole runs deep.

The most fascinating part of this journey has been one of self-discovery. Stress has always been my nemesis in all things, and in chess, I discovered the perfect micro-laboratory for stress response. My Lichess ELO rating tells the story: my no-limit correspondence rating currently stands around 1700, ok for someone who barely knew the rules a year ago, but in rapid chess (10–15 min), it goes down quickly to 1300, and in blitz (3–5 min), down further to a downright embarrassing 900. If these numbers mean nothing to you, a differential of 400 ELO corresponds to a 10-to-1 chance of winning against the other player. In short, my slightly stressed-out self is also 10x more boneheaded, and under real pressure I become about 100x the doofus I usually am. I am embarrassed to say that it somewhat matches evidence from other real-life experiences rather well.

My current chess hero is international master Eric Rosen, who manages to combine ruthless efficiency with a calm, almost hypnotic demeanor. Watching him unleash devastating traps while casually sipping tea is wonderfully soothing and inspiring at the same time. My own attempts at playing rapid chess are nothing of the sort. I dread clicking the ‘join’ button. The second ‘e4’ is on the board, my heart rate shoots up. My palms get sweaty. Throughout my life I have entered many high-stakes intellectual challenges where you have to compete under time pressure: university entrance exams, grad school qualifiers, job interviews … Yet this no-stakes-whatsoever, online thumb-wrestling competition with a complete stranger feels exactly the same to my undiscerning gut.

It is remarkable how poorly calibrated my instinctual fight-or-flight reaction can be, and maybe that’s a personality flaw worth attempting to solve. What better playground to explore one’s intellectual and physiological limits than in 5-minute battles of wits to earn silly Internet points. The notion that chess teaches you valuable life skills such as tactical and strategic thinking always felt somewhat suspect to me, particularly given how the chess prowess of celebrated grandmasters of the past seemed to correlate more closely with mental illness than actual life skills, but it is certainly a lesson in grit, mental resilience, and humility. Time to take a deep breath and brush up on my Stafford. The Internet of chess never sleeps.



Vincent Vanhoucke

I am a Distinguished Scientist at Google, working on Machine Learning and Robotics.