As an international chess master and teacher, John Bartholomew of Eagan is consistently asked: “How do I go about studying chess openings?”

Bartholomew found there was no efficient “go-to” resource to offer his students, as they often got lost in the overwhelming number of learning options in websites and instructional books. Bartholomew himself has built a YouTube channel dedicated to tutorials to help.

So when David Kramaley, a fan of the YouTube videos, reached out about a chess tutorial interface he had developed, Bartholomew was immediately intrigued.

“I was thinking, this is exactly what I would want if I was first starting out the game, or even if I were more experienced in the game,” said Bartholomew, 30.

Kramaley, CEO of Chessable, started playing chess competitively about four years ago. As he worked to improve, he found traditional sources, like books and other chess tutorial websites, weren’t helping him win games.

“I stumbled upon this belief that if you start playing chess seriously as an adult, you can’t get better or it’s hard to get better,” he said. “I didn’t want to believe that.”

He used his background as a video game developer and psychology major to try a different tactic. Kramaley created a basic online interface to teach him the main points of a chess tutorial book through repetition, and he got immediate results.

As Kramaley developed the simple tool to teach chess openings, he reached out to Bartholomew to get feedback from, and possibly to partner with, an international chess master. Bartholomew is one of the strongest players in the U.S. As a schoolboy, he won both the National Junior High School Chess Championship and the National High School Chess Championship, and he’s now ranked 56th among U.S. players. He’s an international master, which is one step below grandmaster.

Kramaley admits that the concept was underdeveloped when he presented it to Bartholomew, but Bartholomew saw an immediate value for those working to improve their game. Bartholomew, based in Minnetonka, officially signed on as Chessable’s co-founder in November 2015.

While Kramaley studied for his master’s degree in psychology in London, Chessable became a part-time venture for the two.

They built anticipation for a beta launch in February 2016. With Bartholomew’s backing, the site attracted immediate interest, with 5,000 unique users signed on within the first month. The daily users dropped off after the initial opening, but after regrowing the customer base the site now has 18,000 members.

“With him backing us we got our first set of fans and followers,” Kramaley said. “They knew that if John was behind it, we must be onto something good.”

Late last year, the team added Simon Wuttke, one of the site’s first users, as a volunteer front-end developer to fix bugs on the site. As the membership base grew, Wuttke eventually became Chessable’s first full-time employee, and Kramaley started working full-time as well.

The revenue model for Chessable consists of selling books and premium memberships. Chessable runs on a “freemium” model. Paid memberships give users access to advanced tools and statistics to measure their progress.

The interactive books, which are usually designed exclusively for the Chessable interface, help users learn important opening moves and explains to users why the moves are played.

Bartholomew authored many of these repertoires and also reviews material before it can be submitted to the site. Chessable receives about 30 to 40 percent of each book sale, while the rest goes to the author.

From February to November of last year, Chessable had gross profits of 13,100 pounds, or $17,000. Though they proved the venture could make money, it was hard for the two to get investors on board.

“Chess is a difficult business for investors to make money out of, because it’s niche,” Kramaley said. “We’re trying to prove that wrong, because I think chess is a growing market.”

After disappointing results from two Kickstarter campaigns, Chessable in April secured backing of 100,000 pounds (about $129,000) from private investors. The team will use the new capital to expand the product offering and boost Chessable’s marketing presence.

While websites such as chess.com give users the opportunity to play online, Kramaley says he hasn’t found any direct competition to Chessable’s business model. Kramaley said that most physical chess books initiate passive learning, whereas the Chessable app works as an interactive strategy guide.

Kramaley says the brand also has an advantage in partnerships it has built with Bartholomew and other chess masters collaborating with the program. As Chessable’s membership grows, he wants to prove that repetition learning can accelerate development as a chess player.

“Ideally what we want is people to train from absolute beginner to perhaps a master level,” Kramaley said. “Many people don’t think becoming a chess master is possible for them, and I want to prove them wrong.”

 

Alex Van Abbema is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.