Like the best set traps in the now famed Sicilian Defence, Netflix has given us perhaps the resurgence that no one saw coming. Chess is in vogue.
There’s no need to read that again, it’s a phrase that will be repeated throughout this coming feature: chess, thanks to the roaring success of Netflix’s latest original series, The Queen’s Gambit, a fictionalised telling of the story of real life chess champion Beth Harmon, is seriously cool.
That’s not just anecdotal. Just this month, the streaming platform confirmed that the series had become its biggest show of 2020, ruling its top ten selection for 22 days straight, and re-awakening the world’s love affair with the 1,500 year old hobby.
The knock-on effect of what has been called a ‘masterpiece’ even by the International Chess Federation itself has been truly global. The Queen’s Gambit, the novel upon which the Netflix series is based, has entered the New York Times Bestsellers list, 37 years after its release, while Google search queries for Chess have more than doubled, just as those for ‘how to play chess’ have hit a nine year peak.
Meanwhile, the ecommerce giant, eBay has revealed that it has seen a staggering 273 per cent surge in searches for chess sets in the ten days following the release of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix, marking that as an average of one every six seconds.
In fact, it’s according to David Llada, the chief marketing and communications officer for the International Chess Federation that, not since the 1972 duel between former World Chess Champions, Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky, or the matches between the Russian chess grandmaster, Garry Kasparov and the IBM supercomputer, Deep Blue in the ‘90s, has chess whipped up such an international frenzy.
“The Queen’s Gambit has done us a huge favour,” Llada tells ToyNews. “It has proven once and again that, when given the opportunity to be in the spotlight, this sport never fails to enchant a global audience.”
And global, that audience really is. Over the course of 2020, chess has become a popular eSport on Twitch, hitting as many as 140,000 viewers at a time, while from here to the US, manufacturers and board game companies are seeing a sales boom and “an unprecedented increase in demand,” by as much, in some cases, as ten fold.
“I have personally talked to several chess manufacturers, online stores, and publishers,” continues Llada. “November is usually the peak time for them, because they ship orders to resellers for the Christmas season. In alternate years, November is more busy that usual because of the coincidence with the World Championship match.
“But they are all experiencing an unprecedented increase in demand.”
One such company to have seen this surge in interest in the gaming hobby-sport hybrid, is Goliath Games, who wholly attributes its 178 per cent year over year increase in sales of chess sets to The Queen’s Gambit.
“We can point to the sales in the first two weeks of November being up 1048 per cent from the same period in 2019 as a direct reflection of the popularity of the show,” says Mary Higbe, Goliath Games’ director of marketing.
But has it been the success of the Netflix series alone that has given rise to the current wave of interest in chess? It’s true, The Queen’s Gambit has – with its ‘60s period wardrobe and aesthetic – quite literally put chess in Vogue, but even for the platform that, let’s not forget, facilitated the Geek renaissance of Dungeons & Dragons when it launched Stranger Things in July 2016 was pre-empted by a growth even more organic.
In June this year, chess Twitch viewership reached a peak of almost 160,000 viewers in one day. Online chess has been marked as one of Twitch’s fastest growing categories, with a total of over 50 million hours watched in the last year. Meanwhile, Hikaru Nakamura, the number one chess streamer on Twitch, boasting over one million viewer hours, recently signed with the eSports giant TSM, hinting at vast opportunities for chess among younger audiences engaging with the game across a multitude of platforms.
It was perhaps through the rise of chess as an eSport on Twitch that Netflix has managed to capture a mood, and, just as it did when it introduced us to the nostalgia of the ‘80s-set science fiction series of four years ago, has unmasked the hidden glamour of a hobby too often locked behind the gates of ‘specialism’?
“Shows like Strangers Things and The Queen’s Gambit have made D&D and chess more accessible in that some of the secrecy around them is dispelled by characters on popular shows,” continues Higbe.
“They also address the aspirational aspect. You’re seeing everyday people getting into a hobby that could be considered both challenging and niche, and there’s an allure to that. The mystery around these kind of hobbies is being taken down.”
What this means, of course, is that the construct of the typical chess player is quickly being eroded. Suddenly chess is no longer your straight-laced glass of milk.
“It is nerdy, but also cool and fashionable. It is intensively competitive, but full of interesting, creative, and colourful characters,” says The International Chess Federation’s Llada.
No, chess is no glass of milk at all. Suddenly, chess is a Long Island Iced Tea. So where does that leave you?
“Retailers should consider that, at this time, there is not a ‘typical’ chess fan. There is a major opportunity right now for retailers to showcase chess sets at a variety of price points,” says Goliath’s Higbe. “Shoppers can remember this, too – you can play a great game of chess with a $15 set.
“Retailers also have the opportunity to really promote family time with chess; it’s a time to encourage families to try something new together and to learn a new skill together.”
The numbers certainly don’t lie that the world is waking up to chess, a game rooted in almost two millennia of global cultural history, and one that hasn’t been tampered with since the introduction of the two-square opening pawn move only 740 years ago. Yet, as a global hobby, we won’t know just what impact The Queen’s Gambit and this current wave of interest will have on the scene for some time.
The pandemic has put a lid on the hobby’s tournaments for the time being, and the truth of it is that memberships to clubs and federations around the world are actually losing numbers thanks to the disruption caused by restrictions to indoor gatherings.
“It will take some time before we can properly measure the actual impact of the series in the chess world. Will it increase participation in tournaments? Will more kids join chess in school programmes?” asks Llada.
“For now, all we can do is monitor the growth of online platforms like Chess.com, Lichess.org and Chess24, and their numbers are rocketing.”