How two BYU grads launched the world’s most popular chess website
When the domain chess.com was up for auction, Erik Allebest and Jay Severson pounced. They ended up reinventing a thousand-year-old game
When Erik Allebest and Jay Severson met on the third floor of Merrill Hall at Brigham Young University they had no premonition they would later spend several years together huddled over a computer writing code while overseeing the creation of an online empire now worth over $500 million.
Though they didn’t know it then, their professional relationship would be built on their shared love for the game of chess, a common interest they discovered when Severson — BYU’s chess club president (and only member) decided to “destroy” Allebest in a round of the game as revenge for Allebest’s abrasive first impression.
Following this stinging defeat at the hand of his recently acquainted floormate, Allebest offered to pay Severson $7 an hour to give him chess lessons.
Since their fortuitous meeting in 1995 as college freshman, the pair’s business venture — Chess.com — has become the world’s most popular chess website, attracting a whole new audience to the game.
After years of slow, steady success, Chess.com experienced massive growth coinciding with pandemic-era lockdowns and the popularity of Netflix’s chess-drama “The Queen’s Gambit” in 2020. This growth has accelerated in the years since, with the website reaching 100 million members in December 2022, and record levels of traffic in January 2023.
“I never would’ve guessed in a million years that Chess.com would be as big as it is today,” Severson said. Both Allebest and Severson spoke to Deseret News about how Chess.com got started, and where they think it’s going.
As the company has grown to dominate the chess world — consistently hosting the top chess players and the game’s most prestigious events — Allebest, CEO of Chess.com, said he feels responsibility to steward the game into the future, even as recent cheating scandals threaten to undermine the website’s credibility in its newfound role.
Allebest had already started multiple neighborhood side hustles by the time he graduated from his Orange County high school. But it was at BYU where his entrepreneurialism and his passion for chess began to intersect.
Between taking chess notes on 3x5 index cards and trying to get through his English undergrad as quickly as possible, Allebest would build two chess-related companies while at BYU. He later sold both for over $2.5 million.
The first was a chess tutoring program that Allebest implemented in dozens of schools across Utah after returning home from a church mission to Resistencia, Argentina. The second was Wholesalechess.com, which Allebest recruited Severson to help build, establishing a professional partnership that would last over 15 years.
“It was just a lucky yin and yang fit from the start,” Allebest said.
After a few years developing a chess e-commerce business, Allebest’s vision for a business model centered around chess became more expansive. “I imagined a place where people could build a chess home online: find friends, store games, tell their chess story, share ideas, play in a safe and friendly environment, and learn from each other,” Allebest wrote in a blog post.
Allebest eventually sold Wholesalechess.com in 2005 and entered Stanford Business School, where he had several opportunities to intern at famous Silicon Valley companies. But his attention was absorbed by something else: A domain name — the perfect domain name.
“Chess.com” was up for auction following the bankruptcy of its previous owner. Using the capital he had accumulated from selling his tutoring business, Allebest bought the domain for $55,000.
Though “Chess.com” was almost guaranteed to result in instant, monetizable traffic regardless of the website’s content, Allebest said he wanted to create something new for chess lovers.
Severson was harder to convince. But as the project progressed, and as it became clear that the website Allebest envisioned would need to be built from scratch, Severson decided to quit his job building software for a mortgage real estate company and become a full-time, unpaid, chess website developer. Not a job description his wife felt happy about, he said.
‘An overnight success 15 years in the making’
“We had no investors, we had no funding, Erik and I weren’t getting paid,” Severson said. “It’s a classic startup case where everybody’s saying it’s a dumb idea, and at the back of your mind you’re thinking, ‘Is it a dumb idea?’”
Allebest, on the other hand, never had a doubt, he said, remembering with some nostalgia sitting in Severson’s “blistering hot, third story attic-feeling room, coding until 2 in the morning, 2:30, 3,” only to drive home, sleep, and do it all over again the next day.
This went on for two years. Finally, in May 2007, the pair launched the website, and instantly the number of visitors began to creep up. “There’s something thrilling about birthing something and then seeing it slowly grow,” Allebest said. “And the fact that it was growing from the moment we planted that seed — it has never stopped growing — and that is why it has remained thrilling for me.”
In the decade that followed the launch of Chess.com, the website experienced steady growth. Allebest and Severson hired more employees, acquired smaller chess companies and rolled out new features. Severson eventually stepped away in 2017 to work on another online gaming project.
And then in 2020, the world discovered Chess.com in a big way.
The COVID-19 boom
“Everybody went indoors and a lot of people started playing chess as one of their COVID-19 hobbies,” said Brenan Klain, chief engagement officer at Chess.com, who has been with the company since graduating from BYU in 2011. “Everything kind of just doubled right then.”
Actually, they tripled. In March 2020, the number of daily active users rose from 280,000 to 1 million. This spring spike was repeated on a greater scale in the fall, following the release of “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix, a story about an orphaned girl who rises to become one of the world’s greatest chess players. At its peak, Chess.com was hosting 6 million users a day and a million new users a week.
While some online businesses that grew during the pandemic have seen their numbers drop, Chess.com hasn’t had that problem. After welcoming its one millionth member in 2010, Chess.com reached 100 million members in the final days of 2022 with a record seven million of those being active members on Dec. 31.
A few weeks later, on Jan. 20, that record was broken with 10 million active members. The site now regularly hosts more than one million games an hour.
“Right now we’re in a period of the highest growth in chess that we have ever seen,” Klain said. “It seems like chess is kind of hitting that main current in society.”
A new era for chess
Despite the website’s success over the last three years, Allebest said the thing that brings him the most satisfaction is how Chess.com has taken the game from being “the serious thing that you had to be good at, to the thing you can do at any level and have fun with.”
Allebest points to chess variants, like Puzzle Rush and Duck Chess, and the popularity of the recently released AI bot, “Mittens,” as ways Chess.com has made chess more appealing for a broader audience.
“The fact that we literally, within one generation, fundamentally changed the perception of chess and its role in society, that is what really hits me deep down and what I’m most happy about,” Allebest said.
Maurice Ashley, the first African American chess grandmaster and three-time national championship coach, has also observed this change in the culture and sees Chess.com’s rise to dominance as an almost entirely positive development.
“The impact that they’ve had on the chess world and continue to have is nothing short of remarkable for somebody like myself who’s been in chess for four decades,” Ashley said.
While Ashley praised Chess.com for broadening the base of chess fans and supporting professional players, he said that the problem of artificial intelligence-assisted cheating, which gained attention last year because of widely publicized scandals, could pose a threat to Chess.com’s ambitions.
Chess.com has been criticized for handling cheating allegations in private and for allowing players caught cheating to return to the website using different accounts. But Allebest defended the company's actions, saying they have invested millions of dollars into developing a cheating-detection system to enforce fair play and protect “the soul of the game.”
“We have really felt, both as fans and as stewards, the responsibility that we really wanted to make (Chess.com) the best possible thing,” Allebest said. “Because here’s this precious, amazing, awesome, old, ancient thing that we can have a moment to impact. We have the domain name about this thing. We’ve got to do this right.”