What it is like to join the Champion League of Chess

In June 2022, in the midst of the busiest time of the year both professionally and academically, I joined the Champion League on Chess.com on a whim. Here is the journey of how I got there.

How it all started

When I was about seven or so, my dad used to bring me to one of a few youth facilities in town and participate in chess class (We called them “Nhà Thiếu Nhi” in Vietnamese). We did not have much access to entertainment back then, and PC games were not allowed in our household, so chess ultimately became the only few things that I played during my childhood.

I started to get better at it, and somehow, ended up in third place in a local chess competition. Finishing the final game in the late afternoon when my dad would pick me up before heading home, was possibly one of the proudest moments from primary school that I could still remember until today. Although I never join competitive tournaments again, chess has been one of the games that I continued playing, especially with anyone who has an interest. Most of the time it’s mainly for fun, but sometimes, it was a way to get through times when I was bullied as a kid.

On the way to being a Chess Queen

Fast forward to the recent years, when Netflix becomes a thing that everybody uses and talks about as part of our cultural norms, the excitement for chess grew in me again. Although I didn’t finish watching the Queen’s Gambit, I felt a sense of fulfillment that a series about my favorite game became so popular and highly regarded.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth in The Queen’s Gambit. By Elle.com

Thus, somehow, I got back to chess. In a brief few weeks at the summer school that I was in as a counselor, I got sometimes to play against 13-14-year-olds that I almost lose to. My high school friend was still playing every day, and I had never won against him in any match. So I really took that to heart and put my time into getting better.

Putting in the effort

The platform that I use to practice chess is Chess.com, one of the biggest online chess communities in the world. I started anonymously, and then with a user ID named impulsively as “MachoMagician”.

The challenge was that for every week, you have to become among the top players of your division, by acquiring as many points (trophies) as possible through winning matches. The division consisted of around 50 different players, trying to compete for the top. The wrecked twist is that after each week, the points are reset if you do not progress to the next level. Therefore, many ended up playing hours just to get wasted.

Courtesy of Chess.com’s League Advancement Rubric

The journey to the top took quite a slow start when I would only recognize that I was in the Crystal league a while ago. The jump from Crystal to Elite League was the hardest, as you have to keep playing to stay at the top 3 in your division to advance. And from the Elite League to the Champion League, I felt like I had to put aside so many of my real-life responsibilities to accomplish it. Beyond the Champion League, there is still another level where you have to be in the top 1 of all divisions, called the Legend League. The Legend League is the toughest one to join and to battle in because you would have to undergo through the fastest, smartest players in all Leagues.

Eventually, I ended up ranking among the top players and finally joined the Champion League.

Chess.com: Champion League Celebration 😀

The games that got me there

Chess has always been fun, but being in the Champion League felt even more marvelous. It’s a mind game, but more than that, it’s a way I could release stress. The focus needed to checkmate, and the visualization of steps that each piece could potentially move in was what makes me feel excited and engaged, to say the least. I did not do much book learning, but you can always ask me what color the tile e6 is. I could also tell you how to get your White Pawn to upgrade, or when might be the best time to swap the Rook and the King. The Queen is a badass, as she could move anywhere on the table as she likes, while the Bishop is the loyal buddy running herself diagonally across the tiles ready to checkmate. The King is always threatened, but during the end game, he is not only the most crucial one but also the most powerful one in combination with other pieces. Throughout the games, I have felt the gut pain when experiencing a heavy defeat, and the euphoric happiness when winning over a split of time.

The above games were some that I have won with different setups. Before reaching Champion League, I have played about 825 matches with people whom I have never met, people who have come from all different countries of the planet that I have not traveled to. I chose Japan simply just because I was residing in the country, and that geography matters less in an informal setting like online chess. Regardless, I was amazed at how diverse the communities were. I wish that I could meet them in person somehow, or organize a real-life tournament that they often do in a leveled chess championship. Below is a graphic for all the “passports” of opponents that I have played against on Chess.com.

A number of nationalities are represented on Chess.com that I have played against.

Practice facing defeat

Besides the celebration of victory, Chess really taught me to be patient with failure, and learn how to improve with every mistake. It is not about defeating others, it is about working on your own reflection. At the end of the day, chess for me is another skill that I could use to interact with others and exchange a little bit of my knowledge on strategy or tactics. The complexity of the game and how deeply rooted history and world political dynamics are also intriguing parts of why I spend time playing chess. Perhaps instead of going to war, people can just sit down and play chess. The outcome of a deal does not have to be relying on a flip of a coin or getting bloody with all the unnecessary weapons as such.

In a recent game, I lost due to Queen checkmate protected by a Rook. Our time was squarely tied but lacking a Queen as well as a defending Knight to keep opponents at bay was difficult. This type of defeat happened way more often than you think there is. You just have to learn from your past mistakes, move on, and focus on the next game. Courtesy of Chess.com
This was the best game that I’ve played, having +24 points acquired and a well-ahead-of-time checkmate with Qh5#. Courtesy of Chess.com.

Keep moving forwards

Unlocking this new challenge of being in the Champion League really made me feel much accomplished. There are about 197544 Champion players worldwide as of June 25th, 2022, and I ranked about 163,190 among them. Given that there are more than 88 million players on Chess.com, joining this highly selective group was unreal for me. It’s still a long way to go to beat the best of the bests, but I guess the journey of skilling up is always fun.

It is all about practice

Although being a Grandmaster has never been my life aspiration, I don’t mind taking the challenge and maybe one day, I could sit down with one of the world’s Grandmasters, shake her hands, and take a moment to appreciate her greatness. Or even better, I could tell my dad how I met up with Anya Taylor-Joy and have her finally play the Queen’s Gambit. My hope for the future would be that Chess could be played forever, by anyone from any walk of life. If I eventually have a grandkid, I hope she said “I’m proud of grandmom for being in the virtual Champion League.”

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