2020 was already a banner year for chess. Then The Queen’s Gambit happened.
The International Chess Federation (FIDE) confirmed that “more people are playing more and more games [right now] than ever before in history.” At the beginning of the year online platforms registered around 10 million games played every day, according to FIDE, increasing to an estimated 17 million online games daily after the global lockdown.
By early October, though, signups at Chess.com had roughly returned to close to their pre-pandemic level, and while the site’s staff was aware of the upcoming Netflix miniseries about fictional grandmaster Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy)—it published a post on the project, which had bounced between directors and was once set to be a movie—no one foresaw what was coming.
“It was kind of a weird show that a lot of people didn’t expect the success of,” Chess.com director of business development Nick Barton said. “We were almost as caught off guard as the general public.” Signups began increasing soon after The Queen’s Gambit’s Oct. 23 release, and they haven’t slowed. “We’ve seen a record almost every single day in November for new members joining the site in a single day,” Barton said.
By the end of the month, the company was adding over 100,000 new players each day, with the share of female users growing as well. Meanwhile, online retailer eBay saw a 273% surge in searches for “chess sets” in the 10 days following the show’s release. “For context, that’s one every six seconds,” a FIDE spokesperson said.
To harness the newfound interest, Chess.com quickly secured Netflix’s approval to build a Beth bot, adding Harmon’s personality to a custom version of the company’s computer engine. Developers also split the bot into seven versions, from the character as an 8-year-old beginner to a 22-year-old champion. Combined, the bots have played close to 500,000 games each day since being released last week.
Barton said the computer options are valuable to beginners not yet comfortable with playing human opponents, and the numbers have borne that out, with the 8-year-old version being the most popular. “We try to make chess easy,” Barton said. “Chess is so damn hard. There’s a reason why people give it up.”
When it’s not creative computers keeping people around, it’s online personalities. Twitch users spent a total of around 2 million hours watching chess in February, 4 million in April, and 8 million by May. Then June and July each saw over 17 million hours, with waves of viewers tuning in to watch Chess.com’s online amateur chess tournament, PogChamps, which was announced in May and began in June. Year-over-year, the Amazon-owned platform has seen a 150% increase in hours watched of chess.
Viewership leveled off after the summer’s biggest spikes, but Twitch says it saw another relative increase this fall attributable to The Queen’s Gambit. Over the last several weeks, the streaming site has seen a weekly increase in hours watched, average daily audience viewership and broadcasting activities—though the numbers aren’t as high as in June or July. On YouTube, a breakdown of one of Harmon’s games from chess YouTuber agadmator has over 2.3 million views.
“The media has never paid chess the attention it deserves. It has been proven once again that, when given the opportunity to be in the spotlight, this sport never fails to enchant a global audience. It has happened before, and it is happening again thanks to The Queen’s Gambit—a masterpiece that has become the phenomenon of the year, and is already having for us an impact comparable to the dispute of a World Championship,” a spokesperson for the International Chess Federation told Sportico. “The chess community fell in love with the series because it successfully portrays different aspects of chess in all its richness: It is easy enough to be fun to play, but also complex enough to pose a challenge. It is intensively competitive, but full of interesting, creative, and colorful characters.”
Many of the newcomers are realizing that chess has changed since it was last in the spotlight. “For a long time, chess has been represented by an elite mindset and maybe even a slightly older demographic,” Barton said. “Now people go to Twitch or YouTube and see young people dancing and drinking and playing chess—it just blows their mind.” It sounds like Harmon would fit in with the chessfluencer set. She might even subscribe to chessbrah.
“If we send over a fruit basket to Netflix and they create a second season,” Barton said, “that’d be helpful.”