Top Picks From Print: As “The Queen’s Gambit” Captures Viewers, Chess Makes a Comeback During the Pandemic

During+the+pandemic%2C+chess+has+experienced+a+rise+in+popularity.+The+recent+Netflix+show+%22The+Queen%27s+Gambit%2C%22+featuring+a+fictional+girl+who+competes+against+the+best+chess+players+in+the+world%2C+has+contributed+to+the+chess+boom.+Staff+illustration%3A+Dorinda+Xiao.

Dorinda Xiao

During the pandemic, chess has experienced a rise in popularity. The recent Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit,” featuring a fictional girl who competes against the best chess players in the world, has contributed to the chess boom. Staff illustration: Dorinda Xiao.

Madison Liu, Staff Writer

Note: This story originally appeared in the 47.3 print edition of The Coat of Arms in February 2021.

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Although chess has long been a popular pastime, it has never been as popular or had as large an audience as other professionally played games such as soccer, basketball or even League of Legends. However, a recent Netflix series released in Oct. 2020 called “The Queen’s Gambit” has pushed chess into the spotlight and greatly increased its popularity.

“The Queen’s Gambit,” a seven-episode series based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, follows fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon throughout her life as she attempts to become the best chess player in the world. The series is highly acclaimed by critics and, according to Netflix, is their biggest scripted limited series to date, garnering over 62 million views in the month after it was re-
leased on the streaming platform.

“The Queen’s Gambit” had a tangible effect on chess popularity. According to toy industry analyst Juli Lennett in a New York Times article, sales of chess sets grew 125% after the premiere of “The Queen’s Gambit.” More than 100,000 new members registered for a popular online chess website, Chess.com, each day in November — five times more than average, according to Chess.com Director of Business Development Nick Barton in an interview with Business Insider.

The show and resulting media attention have also inspired several Menlo students to learn how to play chess. “I’ve watched ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ and I think seeing it on TikTok and hearing so many people talk about it made me want to learn chess,” junior Uma Misha said. Misha began playing chess at the end of last year.

“The Queen’s Gambit” isn’t solely about chess — other themes, including substance abuse, family and gender were highlighted, which resonated with sophomore Taara Banerjee. Banerjee learned to play chess in second grade at her school’s chess club, where she was the only girl. “[Beth Harmon] was the only girl playing chess and she played against all boys, which was my connection to the show and what inspired me to play more,” Banerjee said.

Even to experienced players, “The Queen’s Gambit” was still captivating and intriguing.“What I liked about [‘The Queen’s Gam-
bit’] is that they used actual games that were played by masters, and the chess terms and strategy they included were also real, so the whole show seemed very authentic,” math teacher Henry Klee said. Klee has played chess for most of his life and previously advised Menlo’s chess club.

Aside from drawing in new players, “The Queen’s Gambit” also changed public perception around chess. “I think that [‘The Queen’s Gambit’] definitely had an impact on the rise in chess popularity,” Misha said. “Chess is kind of branded as a nerdy or geeky thing to do and the show has rewritten the narrative around chess and made it seem cooler.”

A second factor in the rise of chess popularity is Hikaru Nakamura, an American chess Grandmaster (the highest rank a player can achieve) who is ranked first in the world for blitz chess (International Chess Federation) and is also one of the most popular chess streamers on Twitch. With over 889,000 Twitch followers and 702,000 YouTube subscribers, Nakamura (@gmhikaru) has played a major role in increasing the visibility of chess and bringing it to a larger audience. “Everyone doesn’t have their whole life to spend playing the game, so for me, it’s more important to bring the game to everyone,” Nakamura said in a Twitch stream.

Another popular chess YouTuber named Antonio Radić, better known as Agadmator (@agadmator) has over 971,000 subscribers and makes analysis videos about matches that are easy to understand for all skill levels. “I’ve watched [Agadmator] a lot. He has broken down a lot of the games from ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ which were interesting, and he is always very energetic and enthusiastic,” Klee said.

Even after this initial boom in chess, people continue to play because it is a way to connect with others. “I think chess has definitely been a good activity to do with friends, and it’s also been a good way for me to connect with my parents too, so it does have a unifying factor,” Misha said.

The main reason chess has become so popular is not because of a TV series or YouTube but because the game is so complex and unique. “Just when you think you have chess figured out, you realize you don’t know as much as you thought,” Klee said. “Chess is one of those things that you work your whole life to try to get good at it, but you can always get better.”