Rose Vernon, a 26-year-old civil servant living in London, never thought she was the chess type. “I thought chess was really complicated,” she told me, and “that you had to play for years before you had a chance of understanding what was happening on the board.” But at the end of 2020, Vernon decided to learn how to play the strategic board game. She now plays twice a week online (on the world’s largest chess website, Chess.com) and at home with her boyfriend, on a real board.
Vernon’s interest is part of a wider chess revival. On 23 October 2020 Netflix released the seven-part drama The Queen’s Gambit, which follows Beth Harmon, an orphan and a chess prodigy, who endeavours to become a grandmaster. In the month that followed the release of the fictional show, there was an estimated 215 per cent rise in searches for “chess set” on eBay. The US advertising trade magazine Adweek also reported an 857 per cent search increase for chess sets on Amazon. Nick Barton, director of business development at Chess.com, told me: “Without question, the show has made an impact on the number of new players finding their passion for chess.”
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With its slick production and dramatic subplots of drug addiction and romance, The Queen’s Gambit has glamorised chess. The show was well timed, released seven months into the coronavirus pandemic, during which many people have been confined to their homes. There is not only high demand for bingeable TV (62 million people watched The Queen’s Gambit within the first 28 days of its release) but alternative home-based activities. “There’s not much else to do,” said Vernon. “We’ve kind of exhausted all the things, like making dinner together or watching a movie, that used to be a treat.”
Of the 48 million members of Chess.com, 16 million joined in 2020, and there has been a 15 per cent increase in the number of games played per user over the course of the year. According to Nick Barton the website is like “a social network”: it allows users to join forums, chats and virtual chess clubs, as well as play chess against other users or autonomous programs. (Since The Queen’s Gambit was released, Chess.com has introduced a number of Beth Harmon bots, inviting users to see if they can beat her at various stages in her development as a player, from an eight-year-old novice to an aspiring world chess champion at 22.)
Digital chess was already growing in popularity before the show’s release. On the online gaming platform Twitch, chess has become a sensation: according to the analytics website SullyGnome, 71,630,166 hours of chess have been watched online over the past 12 months, a 247 per cent increase on 2019. Grandmasters such as the 33-year-old Hikaru Nakamura have attracted huge online followings, especially since the pandemic began.
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Last year also seems to have been a good one for local chess clubs. John Hipshon, a retired chemistry teacher, runs the Leeds Junior Chess Club and the Yorkshire Junior Chess Association, and is chairman of the Alwoodley Chess Club. “Kids are playing more chess now than they probably ever have done,” he told me. In addition to running training sessions on Zoom, Hipshon hosts online tournaments. When social distancing guidelines were introduced in March, the Leeds Junior Chess Club could only meet online, but more recently have begun meeting again in person once a week, under strict Covid rules in 12-person bubbles. Each child plays on their own board, two tables across from their opponent, replicating their opponent’s moves on their own board. Afterwards, the chess sets are stored away for a week to avoid contamination.
Even after coronavirus restrictions are eased, clubs will continue to use online platforms to practise and compete. “Lockdown has expanded what we can do,” Hipshon said: his own club has played matches against clubs in Surrey and Germany, and one of the tournaments he organises – the Yorkshire Junior Grand Prix – was entered by children from as far afield as Devon through to Nottingham.
The demographics of chess could be shifting, too. Beth Harmon – beautiful, reckless and female – is captivating because she’s an anti-hero. Leeds Junior Chess Club has 13 female members out of 49; Hipshon has tried to encourage girls to join local junior clubs, including by running all-girls competitions and training sessions. In his own club, things are “much worse”: all 30 or so members are male. But there are early indications The Queen’s Gambit may help. In December, Barton said, the number of new female players on Chess.com was at an all-time high, and female players spend more time than male players on the site.
The chess craze looks likely to stay. More than anything, the mental challenge of the game appeals in an age of lockdowns and lethargy. “Chess exercises the brain… it totally absorbs you,” says Vernon. Hipshon agrees: “I enjoy all the complexity, even though it drives you mad.”
This article appears in the 06 Jan 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Out of control