The Rise of Chess Into the Mainstream

How the Coronavirus pandemic and Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ have given the 1,500-year-old game an online resurgence.

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Maggie Schneider

Members of the Bronx Science Chess Club play chess in 2019, before the Coronavirus pandemic stopped in-person activities. This year, the club continues to stay active. “Chess Club adapted well to the virtual world,” said Asif Anzum ’21, Vice President of the Bronx Science Chess Club. “We have been playing chess with each other online, and we plan on teaching chess strategies, watching chess videos, streams, and movies together.”

In the wake of the immensely popular Netflix show ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and the Coronavirus pandemic that has kept many of us at home, chess’s popularity has exploded this year, with websites offering games reaching all-time highs in users. “Chess is really fun because it is a mental game; you always have to stay alert,” said Asif Anzum ’21, Vice President of the Bronx Science Chess Club. 

Anzum started playing chess in elementary school, but his preoccupation with other activities kept him away from the game in middle and high school. At least that was the case until this year, when he was able to rediscover his love for the game thanks to the free time afforded to him by the pandemic. 

“The pandemic made me play chess again because I couldn’t pursue other hobbies such as basketball,” said Anzum. 

Anzum is one of many who started playing the game recently. Chess.com, the most popular online chess website, has seen over 11.1 million new users since March 2020. 

At the beginning of 2020, chess took off greatly with the Pogchamps tournament. This tournament featured popular streamers competing against each other, bringing a great amount of attention to the game. At one point during the June tournament, 63,000 people were watching, making it briefly the top-viewed Twitch stream. 

Many of these Twitch streamers created content with chess masters to improve their chances at success. In addition, many chess masters have started their own channels including super Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura. In one stream, Nakamura mentioned how chess’s name recognition around the world, even before this year, allowed it to gain popularity so rapidly. 

Another popular streamer is International Master Eric Rosen. He talked about how chess used to be a game where only the top fifty to one hundred players could gain enough money for it to be their only job. However, now, with the big boom in chess and the rise of chess streaming, players who otherwise would not be able to make a living off of chess, can do so as coaches, streamers, and commentators. “I think the industry is definitely expanding,” Rosen said. 

While chess was already seeing a boom early in the year due to Pogchamps and the pandemic, Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit brought chess even more to the public consciousness. The show, which released on October 23rd, 2020 saw 62 million households tuning in during the first week alone. 

Part of chess’s popularity is that it is a game with a relatively small learning curve, but an extremely high mastery curve. It was Albert Einstein who said, “Chess grips its exponent, shackling the mind and brain so that the inner freedom and independence of even the strongest character cannot remain unaffected.”

And it seems that chess shackled many minds during this past holiday season, as retailers sold out of chess equipment due to a rise in demand. Ebay recorded a 215% increase in chess set sales since The Queen’s Gambit launched. 

As chess reaches new audiences and as it expands its online platform, it will likely continue to evolve. It will be interesting to see if chess’s popularity continues, especially after the Coronavirus pandemic eventually ends. 

To watch ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ on Netflix (subscription required), click HERE

“Chess is really fun because it is a mental game; you always have to stay alert,” said Asif Anzum ’21.

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