Sometimes arenas can be cruel. The second place score in Saturday’s Bullet Titled Arena would have been enough to win June’s bullet arena by 19 points. Instead, it was enough to lose to IM Minh Le by 24 points. Minh was absolutely dominant, starting out by winning an incredible 22 games in a row. From there, he cruised to an easy victory. Le has recently completed his third GM norm and should be officially named a GM at the next FIDE congress barring any norm shenanigans, which, unfortunately given the FIDE norm process, cannot be totally barred. Le has been over 2500 for a while now, and was probably an easy pick for the “strongest IM” title. The GM title would be a well deserved honor for a player who is clearly not in over his head against even the very best online blitz and bullet players in the world.
Our second place player almost didn’t play at all. GM Hikaru Nakamura was streaming live on Twitch and had just finished his last round in the week 22 Chess.com Rapid Championships qualifier. He was watching some other player’s game without much interest when a viewer suggested a different activity: Play in the Lichess Title Arena. Naka suddenly became very quiet. “Is it bullet? Let me think about it…” The stream fell into an awkward near silence for more than a minute while Nakamura deeply pondered what to do. Finally he decided, “Alright, let’s do it” A moment later he added “Why not? Who cares? It’s content”
For those not in the know, it may seem strange that Naka’s decision to play or not would evoke such soul-searching. The comments in the chat give a clue as to the cause. “The forbidden platform!” “Danny Rensch in shambles!” “Are you allowed to play on Lichess?!” Among Naka’s fans it’s understood that playing on Lichess is not appreciated by the bosses. Midway through the event a Slack private message sound could be heard. Nakamura glanced to the side, presumably at another monitor and a dour look appeared on his face. “Oh look. What a shocker, I guess somebody noticed I was playing in this event”. Chess.com uses Slack for their internal communications. Nakamura seemed annoyed. “Ridiculous, [you] try and play a bullet arena and… you heard Slack.”
Nakamura’s viewers have a little fun with a poll during the event.
So what’s going on here? Is Nakamura allowed to play on Lichess? In the past, Nakamura has described getting in trouble for associating with dangerous free software terrorists. In September 2020, He played in the “Champions Showdown 9LX,” an online chess960 event organized by the St. Louis Chess Club with games played on Lichess. The event was rebroadcast on his Twitch stream using Chess.com software. From a glance at the stream, there was no way to know the games were being played on Lichess. On his stream, Nakamura recounted being scolded by Chess.com Chief Chess Officer Danny Rensch while the event was ongoing. “I lose this tough first game to Shahk,(Mamedyarov) … apparently the St. Louis Broadcast was on Lichess. In between games, I went to my second, you know, he’s sitting in the cafe by the playing hall. I went over there and spoke to him. Of course I wasn’t happy. I looked at my phone, and my phone was completely blowing up. Basically, what had happened was in between the games, Danny had written this really long message, basically just yelling at me, ‘we can never have Lichess on Chess.com,’ ‘you can’t do this’ All these different things. In between the first and second game. That just basically tilted me completely, where I lost the next two games.”
Rensch addressed the question directly in a tweet from May of 2020.
Who says Hikaru can’t play on Lichess!? I didn’t! Nor does his contract… Chesscom sponsors him, but Hikaru is free to play where he wants. He played in C24’s #magnusinvite didn’t he? 😉 He plays wherever he deems — but a Chesscom guy by choice! #FactsMatter
— Daniel Rensch (@DanielRensch) May 8, 2020
Much later, Nakamura was shown this tweet while streaming, and reacted in a way that is hard to interpret. “I’m going to flat out say it, this isn’t true. I will tell you flat out, as far as the contract goes, I am not allowed…” Nakamura then suddenly realized that the tweet was not recent and reversed course. “Oh no, it’s from May 2020? You guys jebaited me? Ok, good one…” Has something changed since 2020? If there is an answer I certainly don’t have it.
It seems that Nakamura is not the only high-profile streamer that must carefully consider who will be angered by playing in a Lichess Titled Arena. GM Eric Hansen also played in Saturday’s event, and even streamed it, from a mostly-unknown alternate Twitch account instead of his main Twitch Channel with 54 million total views. GM Daniel Naroditsky is a regular winner of Lichess events, but they almost never appear on his Twitch channel. When he does stream Titled Arenas a chat command is enabled that informs his viewers that Chess.com has graciously given him permission to play.
I must admit to being ambivalent about writing this article. Mostly, I don’t want to get these guys in professional trouble. I’m also quite happy having them play in our events, even if they have to keep a low profile. I’m sure I will also be accused of trying to knock down a “competitor,” although it’s a ridiculous thing to say. Lichess is a charity, charities don’t have competitors. Do you think that UNICEF and the World Wildlife Fund are sworn to destroy each other?
However, I realized that Nakamura’s stream viewers probably outnumber my blog readers by a significant margin. If he isn’t afraid to talk about it then it doesn’t make much sense for me to be. I didn’t decide to write this article to defend Lichess’ besmirched honor, we will be perfectly fine whoever plays in Titled Arenas. The same is not true of the average professional chess player, chess coach, or chess content creator. Making a living playing chess is hard enough, and it’s only made harder when another chess site doesn’t want you to play or make content on others. It’s one thing to require exclusivity of a full-time employee with full health and retirement benefits, it’s another to require it of contractors or even people that aren’t paid at all – and in much of the world, potentially unenforceable or even illegal. A company with tens, if not hundreds of millions in revenue can surely loosen the reins a bit and let chess players find their salary or create their content wherever they can.
The next Titled Arena is on August 13th. It will be a chess960 format.