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Beating Bobby Fischer: An Interview with Anna Cramling

Photo via Activision Blizzard

Her name may not be Beth Harmon, but like the fictional heroine of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, Anna Cramling Bellon is taking on the traditionally male-dominated world of chess and paving her own unique path to success. Known as Anna Cramling across Twitch, YouTube, Instagram, and other platforms, this 21-year-old Swedish content creator and chess master has over 640,000 YouTube subscribers and almost 200,000 Instagram followers. In the last few years, Anna Cramling has literally changed the game, shifting it from the high-stakes stage of geopolitical rivalry to the everyday drama of poignantly human stories that, in her words, “make chess more than just chess.”

Ariella Reynolds: Can you tell us about your path, YouTube, Twitch—all of it—and what led you to that path?

Anna Cramling: I always loved chess and I always wanted to make chess something that other people loved. A few years ago, I was lucky enough to get some commentating opportunities for chess tournaments, which was something I had not done before and was extremely nerve-racking. I thought that I could play chess, but I didn’t know how to talk about chess or if somebody was even going to watch when I talked about chess. I thought it was really fun to commentate chess, so I decided to do it by myself. I created my own Twitch Channel and YouTube Channel where I played chess and talked about chess. In recent years, chess has had a huge boom due to different factors, such as The Queen’s Gambit

AR: Absolutely. It’s been quite a run so far. If my math isn’t too far off, your YouTube videos alone—and that’s not counting Instagram, Twitch, or any other platform—have amassed over 31 million views in the last six months. For videos about chess. Or are they? Let me read some of the titles: “He Insulted Me, So I Gave Him a Chess Lesson,” “Chess Expert Trolled Me Into Thinking He’s a Beginner,” “I Discovered an Unrated Chess Genius in a Small Bar.” Why do you think they’re so popular, besides the factors that you’ve already mentioned?

AC: All of them are based on very relatable human experiences. For instance, I discovered a chess genius in a bar, and it’s like, you’re in this small place, this regular bar that anyone could go to—everyone goes to bars. But a girl discovers a chess genius—what is that all about? It’s all based on kind of relatable things, and I think that that is what makes it resonate with people. It’s almost as if they could also have done it. I also think that they find it kind of fascinating to see a young girl playing chess against all kinds of different people. Chess has this image of mostly being played by men, stereotypically. Even today there’s a huge, huge gap in chess tournaments among the percentage of female and male participants. I think that it’s still pretty new to see a young girl being good at chess and beating people, and I think that people also find that story fascinating.

AR: In one of your videos, a Washington Square Park chess hustler teaches you and your Grandmaster mom how to play chess, because he just assumed that you two didn’t know what you were doing. As a woman, how do you feel about leading a movement like this when, for decades, this was a sport, as you mentioned, that was dominated by men? 

AC: I think it’s amazing. My mom was one of the first women in the world to become a grandmaster. I think that she was trying to set an example both for herself and for other people that you can be a woman and you can be a grandmaster. You can be really good at chess even though you’re a woman, which sounds obvious, but it’s something that people before, and still some people today, believe is not the truth. A girl can play chess, a girl can be good at chess, and a girl can have a lot of fun with chess, and it’s not weird; it’s very normal. That’s the example that I’ve tried to set through my videos, and I think a lot of times I get the statement that, “Oh, but there’s so many girls that play chess. There are so many female content creators. There’s you, there are the Botez sisters, there are so many girls that play chess.” I think that it gives off the idea that it’s actually completely normal for girls to play chess, when the truth is that in chess tournaments, there’s still a huge, huge, huge gap. Which I think is very sad, and what I’m really hoping for is that in the future that gap closes down and it becomes normal that a lot more women play. 

AR: When I think about you and what you do today, the stories you tell, the game that you’re kind of creating with this blend of content creation, stories, and chess, it looks a lot different from the game as it’s traditionally been played. It’s historically been this political game. I tend to think of Bobby Fischer versus Boris Spassky in 1972—that match was widely considered to be a Cold War victory for the United States over the Soviets. Given the game as you’re playing it, do you think chess is still a geopolitical game waged between these rival nationalist superpowers? How do you think it’s changing as a whole? 

AC: Obviously every country wants to be really good at a sport and every country wants to have a sports superstar who’s the best in the world at what they do because that makes the people from that country proud and that makes that country look like a great country. I think that psychology is always there in a way; chess has historically been really big in certain countries. I think, though, that in the recent World Chess Championships, it hasn’t felt so political, not the same way I think it did 50 years ago. From what I understand, it felt a lot more political, like you mentioned, in the Bobby Fischer match. There have been a lot of World Championships later with people from all kinds of different places all over the world. It almost feels as if it’s now more about the personalities, about who the chess players are, than about what country they come from. 

AR: So when you create chess content on YouTube, Twitch, wherever it is, are you representing yourself, your personality, your individuality, or are you representing anything else? 

AC: I’m definitely just representing myself. It’s really just me showing off my chess adventures and showing off the people I meet. I’m from Sweden and there’s actually a lot of people that don’t know that I’m from Sweden. I do think it’s kind of fun to show Sweden around a little bit just because it’s a country that is pretty small and a lot of people haven’t been, especially in my audience. 

AR: Now, here’s a quote you may remember: “You’re playing a little too well for my liking.” Do you remember who said that to you?

AC: [chuckle] Magnus Carlsen.

AR: Magnus Carlsen has been dubbed the Mozart of chess. And he said that to you when you played him in one of your videos. That video alone has 11 million views. Compare that to the Spassky-Fischer match—a match called, at the time, the match of the century, with maybe just a few million viewers. How do you feel when I talk about numbers like that? How does it feel to be able to touch so many people at the same time in ways these legends never could? 

AC: It’s crazy. It’s, I think, completely incomprehensible; it’s hard to take in. It’s easy to just see a number, but you don’t really understand how many people it’s actually touching, how many people have actually seen it. I have had people come up to me with a phone saying, “Are you the blonde girl playing Magnus Carlsen?” And I’m like, “Yes, I am.” But, in a way, growing up in this chess family where Fischer and all these players are the absolute greatest chess players, the people you look up to, it’s kind of crazy to think that some of the videos that we as content creators have made have reached even more people. It’s really crazy to think about, but I also think it’s amazing because one, obviously chess is getting a lot more eyes, and two, a lot of people are seeing that chess is not something that only a world champion in a suit in a really fancy setting can play. No, it’s something that you can play in a park against someone, and in that video, it happened to be the world champion, but it could have been anyone else. So, yeah, I think it’s amazing; it’s crazy, too, to think about because it’s myself, but it’s amazing.

AR: Did you ever think that you would get to a point where you started your own channel? 

AC: No, no. I started purely because it was really fun, and I was in high school when I began streaming. I streamed for a year while I was in high school, and it was terrible because I had so much work for my studies. I’d always stream after school just because it was fun. Then I started uploading YouTube videos without really knowing what I was doing—why not? It was never something that I planned as my job or for getting a large following. It was really purely something that I did because it was fun, and I think that’s why it means even more now that my channel has grown because I know that it comes from a place of having done this because it was just really fun. 

AR: When you think about your role as a content creator, as an influencer, what does it mean to you? You seemed to get really excited when you got 20 people to show up at a park in Umeå in northern Sweden and play chess with you. You said you were trying to start a movement. So what kind of a movement are you trying to start exactly?

AC: I think I’m really just trying to get all kinds of people to play chess. I’m trying to see people on the trains playing chess on their phones, or I remember in high school whenever I went through some corridors and saw some people watching Gotham Chess videos or playing chess on the computer, I thought, “This is insane.” Somehow, the stuff that fellow chess content creators and I are doing is touching these high school kids who, two years ago, would never have played chess. Really what I’m trying to do is get chess to become something that most people know about. Not everyone has to play, not everyone is going to love playing chess, but I want it to be this thing like football. Like, “Oh, you play chess. That’s just as normal as someone playing football.” So I’m not trying to start a movement, but I’m just trying to spread chess and get more people to play it.

AR: You mentioned earlier the aspect of connection. How exactly can chess inspire that sort of connection? How have you seen that happen?

AC: Well, when you’re in a new place, in a new city, or wherever you are, it’s kind of hard to just go up to someone and talk to them. If you do, it’s probably going to be someone around your age or who you have something in common with, because why would you otherwise? But most people wouldn’t. I think that the chessboard is just a great icebreaker. All kinds of different people can love chess, people from different ages. So to have a chessboard, it’s a very inviting way of getting someone to play with you, but also to get someone you’d never play with or talk with to do that. So, yeah, I’ve realized through my encounters that if I didn’t sit there with a chessboard, I’d never speak to this person. But then I’m so happy that I did because we can both share our lives and share our stories.

AR: Do you believe that chess can bring together people not just on an individual level but on a global scale? When we look at the news headlines, we see a world that’s tearing itself apart politically and socially. Do you think that chess can help bring it together?

AC: I do think that chess can bring communities together. Obviously, I don’t know if chess is going to fix every problem in the world, but I do think that when you play chess against someone, you forget everything about that other person apart from the chess game. I feel like just playing chess in general and meeting people from all kinds of different parts of the world gives you a little bit of a better understanding of different people. Because no matter who you’re playing, you’re sitting in front of the chessboard at the same level, you have the same chances of winning, and you’re both completely equal. And I think it makes the world feel smaller. It’s like, no matter where you’re from, you’re my chess opponent. 

AR: It’s interesting, too, because I would have thought of it the other way around. I would have thought of it as, “Oh, if this is my opponent, then we’re in competition. And so that alienates us from each other.” Why do you think that people don’t tend to experience that effect?

AC: Even though you’re competing with someone, it’s almost like you’re sharing this really special thing with them. So for about five hours, which is what a long game of chess typically takes, you and this person are creating this story through your chess game. And nobody else is creating that. It’s only the two of you that are kind of sharing the same train of thought for such a long time. So in a way, it almost feels like you get to know your opponent. You’re sitting in front of them, you’re looking at their every expectation. You’re looking at their expressions. You’re looking at their mannerisms. For such a long period of time, it almost feels like you know them even though you don’t. And I think that even if you’re trying to beat each other, there’s more this level of understanding of each other for that time than there is this level of, “Oh, we are so different. I’m just trying to beat you.”

AR: Chess legend Gary Kasparov has said that AI is hard to beat because it is just so relentlessly precise. It isn’t playing any psychological games. It doesn’t get tired. It just plays with precision. It takes the humans out, the drama out, and plays the best game it can every single time. You, by contrast, spend your videos and streams featuring human beings and their stories front and center. You play up the drama, the psychology, the stories, as you’ve mentioned. Why is it so important for you to tell these stories?

AC: I think that they make chess more than just chess. And I think that anything needs more layers to it, no matter what it is. I think that football is just a technical sport, without the feelings that you have when you’re watching it because you’re rooting for a team. And in chess, you’re rooting for certain chess players, or you’re somehow creating a certain story in your head. Without that, I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s pointless, but it just doesn’t give the same feeling. So I think that human beings need to feel things. Stories are so important for chess to become bigger because those are the things that people really find fascinating more than the chess games in and of themselves.

AR: Gotham Chess, also known as Levy Rozman, whom you’ve mentioned, has said that he likes you because you are, next to him, the hardest-working person in chess. What are you working on now? Can you give us a teaser about new projects and content we should watch out for in the future?

AC: I am actually traveling to Montenegro to participate in the European team chess championship tomorrow. I’ll be representing Sweden there with my mother. My dad is helping out there, too, but both my mother and I are going to be on the same team. So I’ll be making videos about my experience there. I’ll be doing recaps on how it is to be a chess player and what the story is about competing at that level. I’ve done a lot of stories about just going out and playing random people. I also think that it is really fun to show people how it is to compete in a chess tournament. So I’ll be doing that. I’m playing another tournament in one month. So I have two big chess tournaments coming up that I’m very excited to both play and share with people. 

AR: What are the pros and cons of tournaments versus just playing someone in a bar?

AC: A pro of playing in a tournament, I think, is that you feel the chess game a lot more. It matters more because you spend so many hours sitting there playing, and it’s going to affect your rating. You really care. It’s really heartbreaking, sometimes, to lose a game when you’ve spent so much time and effort on it. Whereas in a bar, obviously it’s not fun to lose, but you don’t get this heartbreaking feeling when you lose a shorter game against someone random. A con is obviously that it takes a lot of time to play chess tournaments. It’s very, very tiring. It’s very stressful. I do think that the positives outweigh the negatives. I love playing chess tournaments. It’s a lot of fun. And it’s the one time I feel like I can actually try to play my best chess because I’m so focused, whereas in bars and all that, it’s not always about playing the best chess, but it’s just about enjoying the time that you have there. It almost becomes a whole different game and sport for me when I’m playing in such a casual setting versus competing.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.