In 2005, BYU alumni Erik Allebest and Jay Severson created a chess website with the intention of becoming the world’s largest online chess platform.
Allebest and Severson first met in 1995 and became friends when they were freshmen at BYU and, according to Severson, they bonded through their shared passion for chess. Severson was the chess club president at the time and met Allebest after he was challenged to a game of chess.
“I began to teach Erik lessons in our dorm and his love for chess helped him build his first two companies,” Severson said.
According to Severson, Allebest began his first company Wholesale Chess after he returned from a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and Allebest later asked Severson to help him with the e-commerce site. In 2005, Allebest sold the company for $2.5 million.
In 2005, Allebest acquired the domain name Chess.com for $55,000, after selling Wholesale Chess.
Allebest reached out to Severson about starting up Chess.com after working together on Wholesale Chess. However, Severson had some reservations.
“It’s really hard when you have a wife and kid at the time and you are trying to pay off a mortgage and you are working a job that isn’t paying you anything,” Severson said.
According to Severson, the difficulties of being the only developer and database administrator was also an incredibly difficult task because “every little problem” was his responsibility — leading to lots of days and nights with long hours and little sleep.
Both Severson and Allebest said the culture they grew up in helped them overcome the many obstacles they faced when building the chess website.
“The culture we grew up in emphasized hard work, self-reliance, discipline and loyalty,” Severson said.
Allebest said he was grateful to have spent his formative years at BYU due to its lack of negative cultural influences like traditional college partying, which helped him stay on track with his goals as he built the chess website.
According to Allebest, it was important to tackle obstacles one step at a time — otherwise, it would become overwhelming and make it impossible to successfully build the company.
“Anything, when looked at zoomed out, can look impossible. But everything, when looked at zoomed in, is achievable. It’s cliché, but we never looked at the mountain, we looked at just the very next step,” Allebest said.
Severson said the biggest regret he had was they did not have a laser-focused road map for the program, and they just threw everything at the wall. Severson believes they could have gotten to the features that really mattered faster if they really narrowed in on what was most important for the website.
Severson took this experience with him when he left Chess.com in 2018 to venture on his own to create the new mobile app Landover for Settlers of Catan.
“My experiences at Chess.com has helped me to not make the same mistakes the second time around,” Severson said.
Although they no longer work together, Severson and Allebest both said how they are grateful to still have such a strong friendship after working together for so many years.
“The bonds you make in college can last forever if you invest into the relationships,” Allebest said.
According to Allebest, the one aspect of building the Chess.com website that has been the most successful is how it has changed people’s perspective on chess.
“When I was growing up chess was for nerds. Now, in my 14-year-old son’s world, that isn’t even a concept. Everyone plays chess. In one single generation we changed the mindset toward the greatest game on the planet,” Allebest said.
Since the pandemic and the release of the Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit” in 2020, chess has gained popularity. Chess.com subscribers increased from 50 million to over 100 million over a three-year period.
“We are living in a chess renaissance right now,” Rob Harker, current president of the BYU Chess Club, said.
According to Harker, the online chess community is a segue into a community for people to network and get to know each other through their love of chess.
Additionally, according to Harker, online chess is a megaphone for over-the-board chess because it allows more people to explore the world of chess and engage in tournaments and other events in person.
Severson said the goal for the company was to bring the game of chess around the world to everyone, especially kids, who hopefully would become passionate about chess. He believes they have accomplished that goal.