Gambit in the Queen City — a Charlotte chess center’s play for the internet
Located near a hair salon and a pediatrician’s office in a plain-vanilla retail center in Pineville, it’s an unlikely place for a nerve center of the global chess world.
But the Charlotte Chess Center is home to some of the top chess players in the United States and serves a growing population of students in public and private schools, online programs, and sessions in the center’s classroom. Almost four dozen players were competing in the center on a recent Tuesday evening, an environment where fierce competition takes place in dead silence.
The impact on chess of the Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” has been well-documented. But Peter Giannatos and Daniel Naroditsky give an impression that the power of television pales next to the power of the internet.
Now a national tournament director for U.S. Chess, Giannatos founded the Charlotte Chess Center in 2014. Partly as a result of people hibernating at home throughout COVID-19, the center’s online classes now teach 150 students a week at four levels — beginner through master. Naroditsky, the chess center’s resident grandmaster, has more than 250,000 followers on YouTube and 225,000 on Twitch.
The internet has become the gateway to chess, Giannatos said.
“The over-the-board, in-person tournaments, in-person meetups, those will never go away,” Giannatos said. “The online sphere just enables people to get involved. And then eventually, once they feel confident enough, they come out and play in person and add the social elements of the game.”
No matter where people live, they can always get a game online, he said, and internet content creation is a cottage industry that drives even more interest.
Charlotte Grandmaster is the Troy Aikman of Chess.com
Players can watch grandmaster Naroditsky at work in lots of ways. They can play an artificial-intelligence version of him on chess.com, where he’s also the lead play-by-play commentator. On Youtube, he wears big black headphones over brown curly hair, with a mustache that moves as he explains his next move. On the screen, a blue bar charts donations to his channel. Somebody named “labib9211” has just donated $51.23.
Naroditsky, who graduated with a degree in history from Stanford University in 2019, is preparing to attack.
When he was 6, Naroditsky’s father and brother taught him to play chess, and five years later he became the Northern California K-12 Champion. He wrote his first book on chess at the age of 14, and he’s since written two more. At 17, he became a grandmaster — the highest rank possible other than world champion.
Shortly after graduating from Stanford, Naroditsky joined his friend Giannatos in Charlotte to pursue teaching the game. They had met at a chess camp at Emory University.
“We were kind of the few crazy people that would teach chess all day, and then stay up until like 2 a.m., playing blitz chess and ping pong in the staff lounge, knowing that we'd have to get up again the next day and go teach at like, 8 a.m.” said Giannatos.
Moving across the country from northern California to Charlotte enabled Naroditsky to join Charlotte’s flourishing chess scene, with a stable and supportive peer group.
“Most cities have a lot of people who like chess, because there's just a lot of people who like chess,” Naroditsky said. “But most places don't have an outlet to express that. You know, there's a chess center, that's sort of impeccable in every way.”
Jordan Grantz of Louisville, Kentucky, is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of local community news.