Like marine mammals and Jeff Bezos, online chess has thrived in the pandemic. Over the past year, chess’s popularity has surged on Twitch due to lockdowns as well as that Netflix series where Anya Taylor-Joy stares a lot, with viewers watching as many hours of chess in January 2021 as they did throughout the entirety of 2019. Nobody has benefitted from this new wave of attention as much as Hikaru Nakamura.
Nakamura made his name as a prodigy in 2003 when he broke Bobby Fischer’s record as the youngest American to reach grandmaster (three others have since lowered the record), and he’s currently FIDE’s fourth-ranked rapid player in the world. Nakamura built up a steady audience on Twitch before the pandemic, but his reach expanded by an order of magnitude since 2020 began. He now has over one million YouTube subscribers and almost as many Twitch followers, which comfortably makes him the biggest chess streamer in the world, even accounting for wonky metrics. It’s been a good 12 months for Nakamura, but this week he found himself at the center of a labyrinthine spat with another one of the game’s biggest streamers, a tiff that involves a really sad fight on a lawn and two relevant parties who go by Chessbrah and Chessbae.
The saga began on March 27, when Nakamura and the aforementioned Chessbrah—real name Eric Hansen—were each streaming their side of a bullet match, a form of blitz chess that only allows three-minute time banks. (Both players excel at this setting.) Hansen wound up winning, not via checkmate but because Nakamura ran out of time. In speedier forms of chess, a player who is losing but holds a big time advantage can try to stall out their opponent, force them to burn clock, and win on time. It’s called flagging, though that’s not how Hansen won his match with Nakamura. Both players offered each other a draw, though neither actually accepted. “I don’t even care,” Nakamura said of the loss, adding, “He can take that but I don’t care. I literally don’t care.” Both players then stayed on stream and sniped at each other for a few minutes. Hansen said that Nakamura had blatantly flagged him months earlier, and Nakamura called him a poor sport and a liar.
Disagreements like this are red meat for chess streamers. The games sell themselves, to a certain degree, but the chess streaming community’s personality-driven channels and sub–reality TV feuds have also been instrumental in growing the game’s online footprint. It’s not all necessarily drama, as the Chessbrah channel’s most popular videos involve catching cheaters, speedrunning blitz games, and a series of contentious games against Nakamura. (Hansen is the channel’s primary brah, but there is a rotating cast of auxiliary brahs.) Hansen’s video of the flagging controversy rising to his second-most popular upload of 2021 is the system working as intended. In the days after the match, Nakamura’s protestations that he “literally didn’t care” were derided by Magnus Carlsen and streamer Ben Finegold, and Nakamura went out of his way to clown on Hansen after he blundered his queen in a different match against Nakamura.
What’s actually aberrant here is Nakamura’s management team filing strike notices against those who uploaded videos of his flagging loss to Hansen. Three strikes in a 90-day period can lead to the permanent erasure of a channel. Hansen confirmed on April 6 that he was just one strike away from losing his channel. “Hikaru’s been striking our videos, one more and our channel gets deleted,” he said. “It wasn’t a random strike. They approved it, they knew about it,” Hansen said one day later. This is where Chessbae enters the scene.
Chessbae (real name unknown) manages Nakamura’s stream, as well as the streaming setup for Chess.com. That gives her a great deal of power, as Chess.com is directly affiliated with most of the world’s top chess streamers. Chessbae controls, for example, which streamers get boosted by the site’s incredibly popular Twitch account. She claimed that the strikes against Hansen’s channel were not ordered by anyone on Nakamura’s team, but rather by the third-party management company affiliated with the esports organization TSM, who signed Nakamura last August. Other streamers and YouTubers also began to receive strikes (discussed in the comments here), and on April 7, Hansen aired everything out on a long stream. He confirmed that the strikes were intentional, not algorithmically given out, and that Chessbae had been using her power to suppress other streamers so Nakamura could shine. “You don’t need me to say it: The guy’s the most disliked elite grandmaster in the world by his peers, because of a 15-year period of being a toxic individual,” Hansen said of Nakamura. “He’s also the most toxic online player there’s ever been at the top. And he gets a pass on that because new people come into chess, they come to the channels and they [Chess.com] regulate the speech.”
Hansen pointed out that nothing he was saying was new information, as there are plenty of rumors about Nakamura being a dick to other players and Chessbae using her power to bully others in the community. Hansen also mentioned later in his three-hour stream that he and Nakamura fought in 2018 after a drunken night of chess with a group of other elite players. Video of the fight emerged shortly afterward.
On April 11, a YouTube account run by “Chess Bae” (though it’s unclear if it’s the same Chessbae) uploaded a video of Hansen drunkenly and rudely insulting xQc, one of the biggest streamers in the world and a frequent collaborator of Nakamura’s. Hansen streamed again the following day and alleged that Chessbae used her power to manipulate his relationship with fellow streamer and master Alexandra Botez.
“In May 2020, Hikaru started getting quite popular. Alexandra went home for a couple of days, but we wanted to see each other again,” Hansen said. “Chessbae tells Alexandra directly, ‘If you see Eric, you visit Eric, you will be cut off from all PogChamps, from all raids and hosts,'” which referred to the power of the Chess.com Twitch account to boost individual streamers.
“A lot of people asked why did we stopped collaborating or what happened, and I haven’t answered, I’ve been bottling this in,” he said, adding, “The situation right now, is that I cannot coexist with Chessbae. The personal-life manipulation and the business side of things. There is nothing that would work.”
On Monday, Nakamura released a long apology statement: “As you know, I have been a fierce competitor all of my life. I play to win. Having said that, this desire to win and my extreme competitive nature sometimes crosses over into real life. In hindsight, I realize that at times my demeanor when interacting with others has been negative. I truly apologize, and will work on that.” Nakamura also said he would no longer be working with Chessbae, and that he wanted to meet privately with Hansen. “As two of the game’s most high profile chess content creators, we have a responsibility to the community to at least meet as professionals,” he wrote.
Later that day, Chess.com’s chief chess officer Daniel Rensch released a statement on the chess subreddit, confirming that Chessbae would no longer have moderation and streaming powers. “In the past we tried to diplomatically address the frustration some streamers have had from time to time because we also supported the streamers she was managing and saw the good she was doing for them,” he wrote. “However, we recognize we let this go too far before creating more clear boundaries and removing her from our channels. We apologize to any fans, streamers, and community members who feel we did not manage these situations correctly.”
Nakamura and Hansen have returned to streaming on Twitch, and the drama seems to have cooled for now. If there is anything to learn here, it is that a house divided between Chessbae and Chessbrah cannot stand.