Chess is one of the world’s oldest board games with no shortage of players and coaches online and offline. There’s a wealth of chess books and computer programs that can help you learn the game and hone your skills. Chessable, a two-year-old startup believes that it offers something unique — a razor-sharp focus on teaching chess.
Chessable does not let you play against other players or the computer. It features interactive chess books — both free and paid — and tries to make sure that you improve at chess, no matter what level you’re at. Its approach to this is rooted in science and certain fundamentals of learning new skills. It aims at teaching chess via spaced repetition. Once you learn a set of moves, it prompts you to revise them after a few hours. If you remember the moves you won’t have to revise it for a relatively long time, but if you don’t, it’ll teach you those moves again and schedule a revision a short while after. This is similar to some of the methods Duolingo uses to teach people new languages and its efficacy has been established.
Chessable also has a fun points system to give you a sense of accomplishment for learning moves, a daily streak to keep you hooked to learning, and you can also earn rubies in game that let you preserve your streak for longer if you miss out a day or two, among other things. This gamification tactic is well-known in the free-to-play game industry and has even been used to great effect by apps such as Snapchat. When you combine this with chess books from experts that help you raise your game, you begin to see why Chessable is beginning to develop a significant following.
David Kramaley, the co-founder and CEO of Chessable, told Gadgets 360 over email that his friend (and later, co-founder) IM (International Master)) John Bartholomew really liked the idea of a chess education startup but the path was far from smooth. He told Gadgets 360: “At every point, if the feedback was completely negative (no one used it, I was ready to fold). However, I'm a fairly optimistic person so it's quite possible quitting was never truly an option.”
Kramaley first came across Bartholomew’s YouTube channel when it had just 3,000 subscribers and he was impressed by Bartholomew’s ability to teach chess. He felt that the two could make a good team and the two agreed to meet for a demo of Chessable. “I honestly went to him with a self-critical point of view, wanting him to like it but at the same time wanting his honest opinion of my MVP. Fortunately, John loved my demo and my ability to recite some extremely complex Chess Theory, and we went from there,”
“I also had great difficulties improving my own chess, to the point I felt there must be some truth to the commonly held knowledge that adults are not able to improve at chess as well as kids. I've always found it a great joy to learn new things and I have always improved,” Kramaley said. “Failing to improve at chess time and time again, despite using the existing learning tools, indicated to me that there is a gap in the market for a site that would exclusively focus on learning and improving at chess. Concentrating on the learning would be our first and most important differentiator from the competition,” he added.
Dr. Tim McGrew, chairman of the Department of Philosophy at Western Michigan University in the US, has seen a big improvement in his game after he added Chessable to his training regimen. Dr. McGrew is one of the few chess players to actually improve their FIDE (Fédération Internationale des Échecs or World Chess Federation) rating in their 50s, as he achieved an elusive 2200 rating in 2016 after he started using Chessable. "Conventional wisdom isn't altogether wrong. Chess is a game that depends a great deal on mental flexibility, memory, and internal 'clock speed,' and these are factors that heavily favour younger minds," Dr. McGrew told Gadgets 360 over email. "All else being equal, there is no way that someone at age 50 can learn and retain as much information as he could at half that age."
However, that doesn’t mean you can’t improve your game once you are older. “Just because one's mind isn't as flexible or one's memory as retentive as it used to be, it does not follow that one cannot improve in those departments. Memory, in particular, can be assisted by intelligent use of spaced repetition,” said Dr. McGrew, who’s been playing chess from a very young age, adding that Chessable provides just that. “…once you see it, the idea is so obvious that it's rather shocking no one had done it before. The beauty of the idea is that the server keeps track of what you need to review for you, so that you're reminded to review things you didn't even realise you needed to review.”
Dr. McGrew, who came into the spotlight briefly in 1997 for spotting a move that would have allowed Garry Kasparov to draw a game that he resigned against IBM’s Deep Blue computer program, thinks that if you take Chessable’s review process seriously, you could “master an entire new opening system in a minimum time span and with maximum retention”. He said, “It isn't going to give you a photographic memory. No system of review can do that. But I've found myself learning and retaining more patterns, more variations, here in my fifties than I ever did back when I was in my twenties and studying in an unsystematic way. And I've used what I've learned on Chessable to reach the National Master title.”
While Dr. McGrew was one of Chessable’s early adopters and remains one of its most dedicated users, the startup couldn’t have succeeded if beginners and intermediate players didn’t find it just as useful. Kramaley said Chessable has focused on offering something for chess players at every skill level. “Since we've been working with an incremental approach, we could not cater for everyone straight away. Initially the site was heavily oriented towards intermediate players and above (but not masters),” Kramaley explained. “Slowly, with the work we've been doing, we've been adding features and content that helps cater to more beginning players as well as masters… For instance, at the end of last year we launched 1001 Chess Exercises for Beginners, a great book that is suitable for anyone who at least knows the rules of chess. If they go through this book I am confident they'd come out the other end as intermediate players.”
The site also has books for experts such as Hyper Accelerated Dragon by IM Raja Panjwani, one of Canada’s top chess players, and 100 Endgames You Must Know that’s geared towards advanced players such as Peter Newhall, a 37-year-old from Minnesota, USA. Newhall told Gadgets 360 via email that the book has helped him feel more comfortable going into endgames, something he wasn’t as good at as opening games.
“Previously I had tried reviewing chess openings with my own Chessbase files and with Chess Position Trainer. Both should work in theory but in practice I simply wouldn't do the studying. Neither interface was fun or felt that easy to use. However, with Chessable I've studied openings almost every day since they started and currently have a 530-day studying streak,” Newhall, who runs the day-to-day operations of a web design and development company, said. While earning points, rubies, and maintaining a daily streak might seem like something that experts may frown upon, Newhall is among those who’ve found it to be very useful.
Newhall’s rating has gone up from around 1800 to 1950 since the time he discovered Chessable thanks to John Bartholomew’s YouTube channel. He explained: “I would say my game has definitely improved. However, I've been studying in other ways too the past couple of years so it's hard to say what's made the biggest difference.” Chessable wasn’t the only method of study for him, but it remains one of the factors that helped him raise his game.
“I am never caught completely off guard in the opening any longer and at least have some idea what to do even in lines I've reviewed but haven't played before. However, I do not play super sharp openings where one can be winning in the opening at my level very frequently. So I still need to play well the rest of the game — knowing my openings better is not an instant 'magic bullet' or anything like that,” Newhall added, describing his style of play and what has helped him improve his ranking. “I have definitely noticed that I probably get the type of position I want 90 percent of the long games I play. It is very nice to go into a game at any time and feel confident you will not be losing or much worse after 5-10 moves in the opening. It takes a lot of initial pressure off and I can ease into the game better without immediately feeling like I have no idea what's going on,” he said.
Getting into a game and not feeling completely lost or being caught off-guard is something that many casual players strive for and Chessable does offer tools to help you avoid that. As Chessable’s co-founder Kramaley puts it, “I guess in short, Chessable is a tool suitable for all, what matters is what course you choose once you are inside. Our goal is to keep adding new courses so that there is something for everyone.”
It's clear that the users are behind the product, but Chessable is committed to growing only at a sustainable pace. Kramaley said his previous startup Sharkius failed because he expanded it too soon, and a prominent US-based VC told him that “chess is a market where it pays to remain lean”. That is why Chessable, two years into its journey, only has a full-time team of four, with four more working part-time. While staying lean gives Chessable a longer runway, it comes with its own challenges as new features take longer to implement. However, with around 1,500 weekly active learners and 20,000 unique visitors per month, Chessable does appear to be on to something. At the moment, most of the people using Chessable are based in US, UK, and Germany, and around 3 percent of them are from India. Kramaley says the site still has some work to do before pushing for international growth but he expects that to happen sometime in 2019.
Chessable makes money from pro subscriptions at $10 (roughly Rs. 640) per month, or less if you pay yearly. Pro subscriptions offer the ability to find and focus on moves that are difficult for you, and removes lots of limitations on the free tier. The startup still makes about half of its revenue from subscriptions and the rest from selling interactive chess books. The startup also has an interesting “lifetime” subscription tier at $300 (roughly Rs. 19,000) that gives you access to all pro features for as long as the site’s around.
Chessable hasn’t yet become profitable but Kramaley says that at some point in 2018, he expects Chessable to cross over into the "default alive state" as Y Combinator’s Paul Graham puts it - “Assuming their expenses remain constant and their revenue growth is what it's been over the last several months, do they make it to profitability on the money they have left? Or to put it more dramatically, by default do they live or die?” Chessable has raised two rounds of funding, “so we are completely ok for years to come”, Kramaley tells Gadgets 360.
Chessable does not have any apps but it works very well on desktop and mobile browsers that we’ve used. Kramaley, in his email, says, “Ironically this past month I've had some of the worst internet for a while... in the south of France. Chessable works pretty well still; if you can put up with the odd page not loading here and there. We've used current (non-app) technology as well as possible to allow for poor connections and if can find more ways to optimise it we will.”
The users whom we spoke with over email feel that Chessable does have some room for improvement. Newhall told Gadgets 360: “The one area I've always wanted Chessable to improve but it hasn't yet is to have an export feature. I know it is coming but for a player like me, who mainly has my own opening lines on the site to review, it is tough to have to manually keep Chessable and my own .pgn files up-to-date and matching on my own.”
PGN files are widely used to record chess moves and you could think of them as the mp3 of the chess world (everyone uses them). “Especially strong players have their own routine figured out long ago and it always involves Chessbase and .pgn files. They are less likely to switch to something like Chessable since they already have a routine that works for them on openings,” Newhall added.
Dr. McGrew on the other hand said that there are more forms of study that the site could support. “I think there is room for the introduction of some new study methods - all founded on the same learning science that shapes everything they do at Chessable - that would increase the extent to which the system not only trains memory but also activates the more deliberate analytical section of one's mind,” he added. He would also like the site to implement some more methods to create new training programs. “I’d tell you what those methods are, but I'm saving them to tell to David Kramaley in the hope that I can persuade him to implement them before someone else does.”