by Dave Argento ’21 A&E Staff
Since the onset of the pandemic, people stuck at home have sought new outlets for entertainment to replace some of the many activities rendered obsolete by COVID-19. As a result, the 1,500-year-old game of chess has seen increased consumer interest as an engaging and safe source of fun. Although the steady increase in playerbase and viewership that the board game saw during the pandemic helped the chess world, it more importantly provided the perfect foundation for the unprecedented boom that would follow the release of one of Netflix’s top shows: The Queen’s Gambit.
The Queen’s Gambit, starring Anya Taylor-Joy, tells the story of a young, orphaned girl named Beth Harmon who takes her acute interest in chess to eventual mastery of the game and chess stardom. The compelling narrative comes as an inspiration to many with its powerful message of an underprivileged girl battling addiction and defying the odds to reach the top of the male-dominated arena as a young woman. Contrary to many of the depictions of competitive chess in prior films and series, director Scott Frank put forth additional effort and attention to detail in order to integrate into the show a more accurate depiction of the competitive chess world than mainstream media had ever seen before.
Harmon’s success in beating the world champion Vasily Borgov parallels the massive success of the series. Viewership data shows 62 million households watched The Queen’s Gambit in the first 28 days after its release, more than any previous Netflix scripted limited series.
With this record performance, the entire world of chess has enjoyed skyrocketing intrigue into the classic board game. The clearest evidence of this rise in interest is the booming sales figures of chess sets. Marie Fazio of The New York Times writes, “At Goliath Games, a toy company that sells several varieties of chess sets, set sales are up more than 1,000% compared with this time last year.” The chess set market grew over 125% in just the first weeks after the series premiered.
Although chess has shown tremendous growth in physical board sales, the skyrocketing success of its online platforms also proves how the age-old game has adapted to the contemporary world. Chess.com, one of the top chess websites, reports it has seen millions of new fans flock to the site for games, lessons, and puzzles, giving the site its biggest annual growth since it launched in 2007. Since March, it has added 12.2 million new members, including 3.2 million who joined after The Queen’s Gambit debuted in late October. Popular chess streaming channels, such as Grand Master Hikaru Nakamura and the Botez sisters, have enjoyed massive increases in viewership on platforms like Twitch.tv and Youtube.com.
As with any major trend, there are questions regarding the extent of the staying power of this explosive growth following the current boom. Two-time U.S. women’s champion Jennifer Shahade says, “Growth like that isn’t expected to keep pace as interest in the Netflix show dies down.” She says she believes the interest may translate into a “generational effect.” The most comparable period of mainstream media attention in chess history is likely to be the historic 1972 World Chess Championship won by American Bobby Fisher over Soviet Boris Spassky. Although we are not seeing chess tournaments on cable news channels, the future of chess is likely to be brighter thanks to the inspiration ignited by Beth Harmon.