Arts & Culture

Canada's Bid to Create a World Chess Champion

Montreal’s Eric Hansen is a self-described Chessbrah, but he could also be the best player this country has ever had

Illustration by Joel Kimmel

Illustration by Joel Kimmel

When Eric Hansen isn’t at the club or at the gym, he can often be found on the online-streaming platform Twitch, where more than 15,000 subscribers know him as the face of the channel “Chessbrah.” There, he performs barely believable feats of chess mastery. Hansen, twenty-five, primarily trades in “bullet” games—high-octane speed chess in which each player has one minute total to make all of their moves. He’s got a knack for what enthusiasts call “calculation,” the brute-force brainpower that allows players to examine many long chains of potential moves near simultaneously. Sometimes he’ll win in as little as fifteen seconds.

Hansen’s challengers range from beginner nobodies to the world’s greatest players. On occasion, he’ll add layers of complexity, like trying to win while holding his breath. When Hansen succeeds, he beats his chest, or pounds his desk, or throws his baseball cap across the room. Sometimes he makes angry horse noises. It should be noted that Hansen wins often—he is a grandmaster and could become the best chess player in Canada.

His performances are soundtracked with brash, addictive dance music. It’s all about chesstosterone. He’ll shout things like “Gimme that fuckin’ material, buddy!” (“material” being chess slang for “pieces”) or “Right there, right there, for Big Papa.” Fans the world over tune in. Some like the show so much they give money: Hansen brings in about $1,500 each month in donations; the largest one to date has been $10,000.

It also helps that Hansen doesn’t look like the meek, bespectacled dork one might imagine when thinking of a “chess star.” He is six foot one, long, lean, and muscular, and has a taste for Hugo Boss blazers. His handsome yet triangular head led one online commenter to describe him as “a hybrid between James Bond and a Toblerone bar.”

However, being merely a popular online chess gladiator is not Hansen’s dream. Hansen, if he could choose his life, would like to be one of the best tournament players in the world. That profession can be quite rewarding if you manage to crack the top fifteen. There are sponsorships and big prize money. But Hansen, ranked 193rd at the time of writing, is a plateau or two below that.

Climbing to that highest level is painfully difficult—much more difficult than being a Chessbrah. To be a top tournament player, you need to study constantly and commit to a strenuous year-round string of competitions held in far-flung, unexciting locations—places like the Siberian nowheresville of Khanty-Mansiysk. But Hansen enjoys his life in Montreal. He likes to party, and drink, and dance. He is often seen with pretty young women.

Hansen, however, is nothing if not competitive. That’s why, when he received an invitation to visit the frozen seaside town of Wijk aan Zee in the Netherlands, he got on a plane. Wijk aan Zee (rhymes with “dike on K”) is where the Tata Steel Chess Tournament—often described as the Wimbledon of chess—is held each January. If you want to become the best chess player in the world, you need to play at Tata Steel.

Wijk aan zee is made up of a bunch of houses, a few pubs, a church, and a beach. It’s a nice place to be if you like staring out at nothing from nothing. From the window in Hansen’s hotel room, he could see yellow grass and a gym for the disabled, which featured a wood-fired pizza oven out back.

When I joined Hansen halfway through the tournament, he was weary. Competitive chess games are often long—sometimes six-hour tests of cognitive fluency in which one unwise move could mean immediate defeat. The stakes here are especially high, because performing well at Tata Steel can change the course of a career. Hansen was playing in the challengers division, the winner of which would be invited back next year to play in the masters—the level that features the all-time greats, such as world champion Magnus Carlsen.

Early on in the tournament, Hansen’s natural talent shone. When facing Jorden van Foreest of the Netherlands, for example, Hansen was totally in control, seemingly bullying van Foreest’s pieces around. To paraphrase George Orwell: imagine a Canadian boot stamping on a Dutch face, forever. At the game’s end, Hansen shattered the shield of pawns protecting van Foreest’s king while the young Dutchman’s pieces stood uselessly on the wrong end of the board.

But later, when facing off against Sopiko Guramishvili, the lowest-ranked player, Hansen was sweating. Guramishvili had aimed a battery of pieces right at his king, and defeat was unsettlingly, and unexpectedly, plausible. Hansen was playing the Grunfeld Defence, letting his opponent’s pieces occupy the centre of the board, then stabbing at them from odd angles. It’s a tricky strategy. You need to know a lot of what chess players call “theory”—sequences of moves discovered by other players in previous games. This is one of the quirks of chess: being a great player requires rigorous study as well as quick thinking. And, as it turned out, Guramishvili seemed to have studied the theory more than Hansen had. The result was like playing Jeopardy! with someone who had been fed the questions.

Hansen needed to find a way out, and he got one by making a mess of the game. In chess, there are two kinds of positions: “dry” positions are all about subtle, long-term manoeuvring while “sharp” positions are about creating chaotic, multifaceted brawls laced with imminent danger. It’s like the difference between a fencing match and a bloody knife fight. Sharp positions require significant calculation—so much is occurring at once, and one slip-up can mean getting checkmated on the spot. This is just the kind of environment, however, where Hansen thrives.

He ripped open the board with a risky counterattack, hoping he’d be able to out-think Guramishvili in the resulting whirlwind. The strategy of sowing disorder worked beautifully. Guramishvili became confused, and she couldn’t see the winning moves among all of the complications. Hansen managed to pull out a draw.

Hansen has relied on his scattershot mind ever since he was a kid in Calgary. When he was nine, he was tossed into chess club by his parents and teachers. There, Hansen noticed that the other children had to research the game to get ahead—memorizing typical positions, absorbing the wisdom passed down by the great players of history—but he didn’t. He just calculated. “I’d get a bad position,” he said, “but I could trick my opponents.” Young Hansen was a lazy genius.

Being innately good at the game is, incidentally, the only way a Canadian player has a chance of breaking into the international chess world. That’s because our country doesn’t take chess very seriously. That’s not a moral judgment, but it’s worth pointing out that Canada’s lack of interest in chess is anomalous. The top ten players in the world are Armenian, American, Azerbaijani, French, Indian, Norwegian, and Russian. Chess is a global sport, except in our part of the globe. The lack of any serious chess community here means that Hansen had no real tutelage and has to travel a long way to play against serious opponents—all the competitive tournaments are in Europe, Asia, or the United States.

These factors put Canadian players at a significant disadvantage. A Russian child who’d shown Hansen’s skill would have received harsh instruction from weathered grandmasters. If he’d been Armenian, he would have been rewarded with a government salary once he became an established player. In Canada, however, Hansen must fend for himself, which makes it difficult for him to stay motivated. Consequently, he exists sort of half in and half out of the chess world, studying intensely sometimes, partying intensely at other times, and travelling to occasional contests in places like Azerbaijan, winning $3,000 here, €1,000 there.

Players who know Hansen are sympathetic to his particular plight. Yasser Seirawan, a friend and former top-ten player born in Syria, is impressed by how far Hansen’s talent has taken him in the absence of a wider support system. “I don’t understand how he became such a strong player coming from Canada,” he said. Seirawan is an elder statesman of the chess world—a man of perfect manners, adored by everyone. He’s seen world champions come and go, and he knows that Hansen has tremendous potential. But he despaired at the young Canadian’s lack of discipline. Hansen’s routine revolves around studying chess alone on his laptop for a couple of hours here and there. Seirawan, however, described the stringent regimens followed by Russian players, who often have coaches applying constant pressure. These players would never get away with living the leisured lifestyle that Hansen enjoys. “Russian culture, no. If you join the ballet, guess what? Your life was the ballet,” he told me. “Eric needs that message to hit him like a two-by-four week after week, day after day.”

After hansen’s missteps against Guramishvili—and a few others—he had fallen considerably behind the front-runners. By the last match of the fourteen-game tournament, first prize was impossible. Nevertheless, the game had an emotional heft: it would determine whether Hansen spent his last night in Wijk aan Zee with his head held high.

His final opponent, Ilia Smirin, didn’t look like much—a greying chronic nose-picker possessed of a broad paunch. But Smirin was perhaps the division’s deadliest player, and he meted out uncompromising punishment in every game. Smirin, who had the black pieces, played the Kan variation of the Sicilian Defence, a sequence of moves that sets up a dangerous clash that could result in the sudden victory of either player. This delighted Hansen. Once again, he was playing the kind of volatile chess his brain is best at.

Away from the board, Hansen has an easygoing, frat-boy-like energy. At the board, he is transformed. You get the impression that he’s an unexploded bomb imperceptibly vibrating with suppressed energy. Smirin played fearlessly. Hansen, meanwhile, carefully manoeuvred his pieces in a way that looked innocuous, until, like the strands of a complicated knot pulling taut, they suddenly united in a common goal. Seeing that an unavoidable attack was about to occur, Smirin gave up before the killing blow was delivered.

After the two shook hands, Hansen went to the press room to hang out with a couple of cute reporters he’d befriended. “Nobody brought a flask for me?” he asked. “No drinks? Where’s the party?” After establishing that alcohol wasn’t immediately forthcoming, his manner became almost presidential as he reflected on his bittersweet feelings. “This is by far the biggest test I’ve been given, and I think I passed,” he said.

Shortly after, a bus took us to the closing party, which was being held at the headquarters of Tata Steel, the company that sponsors the tournament. The party was about as thrilling as you’d expect a chess tournament held by a steel company to be—a tasteful jazz combo played while we ate pea soup. Hansen received no medals, having come in fourth. However, he did receive a sportsmanship award for being a really nice guy. The prize itself was a carpet on which was printed the face of Vugar Gashimov, a great chess player who died at twenty-seven. Apparently, Gashimov was also a really nice guy.

The real celebration came later at the lobby bar of Hansen’s hotel. Some of the world’s best players, fresh out of the masters division, were there getting drunk and throwing down, playing casual games at boards scattered around the glass-walled room. The air was full of shouts, taunts, and curses. “Was that good for you, too?” “Checkmate him, my darling.” “Fuck you, stop attacking me.”

Hansen was elated. But even in this moment, he seemed worried about the future. Once back in Montreal, he would be alone again in his little apartment, surrounded by a city of people who didn’t care whether or not he became Canada’s first truly great chess player. He wasn’t sure whether he would press on regardless. “I’m gonna go back and it’s gonna be chill,” he said. “I’m just gonna be drifting.”

An hour later, Hansen was getting sleepy. He wanted to dance, but the music was dull. The bars in Wijk aan Zee apparently never play techno. As the players played on around him, Hansen could feel his energy fading. “I’m like Liv Tyler in Lord of the Rings,” he said. “I’m an elf and I’m dying slowly.” He started dancing alone to the music in his head.

The Writers’ Trust of Canada supported the author of this story.

Sasha Chapin (@sashachapin) has written for Vice, Hazlitt, and the National Post.

Joel Kimmel’s work has appeared in Fast Company, Playboy, and the New York Times.

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