Pandemic and Netflix show push chess into popularity

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When Chris Van Lent, a student at Community High School, first started playing chess online, he only wanted to pass the time during the pandemic. He figured it would just be something he did for a few days, and then he would get bored of it and move on.

“I was just looking for something to do,” he said. “I really thought that when I started playing chess I was going to play for a week or a week and a half and it would be a short phase, but I’ve been playing for almost 11 months and I’ve played in three over-the- board tournaments.” Over the board means playing chess face-to-face with an actual chess board, rather than playing online as many people do.

Van Lent is not alone in his new hobby. The New York Times reported that according to Director of Business Development Nick Barton, around the start of the pandemic in April 2020, 1.5 million new people joined, compared with 670,000 new members in January of the same year. Google Trends, which scores search terms by peak search popularity out of 100, shows that in January 2020, the term “” was at a 31/100 score, whereas a year later in January 2021, it peaked at a 100/100.

Notably, Van Lent has noticed this shift at his school, too. “I didn’t really expect it but there has been a change,” he said. “My school got a chess club over the pandemic and I’ve seen a lot of people playing for fun.”

Another significant reason for this steep growth in chess is the popularity of the Netflix show, “The Queen’s Gambit.” Ray Garrison, treasurer of the Michigan Chess Association and owner of Arbor Chess, an Ann Arbor business that gives chess lessons and camps, says that the show had a significant influence on the growth of chess.

“(‘The Queen’s Gambit’) definitely increased the interest in chess, there’s no doubt about that,” he said, citing an increase in adult students since the release of the show.

According to the New York Times, chess set sales grew around 125% after the release of “The Queen’s Gambit.” CNN reported that in the three weeks following the release, sales of books about chess leaped 603%. CNN also reported that in the month and a half following the show’s release, received an influx of 3.2 million new members.

Michigan Chess Association president Jeff Aldrich says he saw a big increase in participation in the 2021 Michigan Chess Open. “We probably had at least 35 to 40 people who were brand new to chess. In a typical year we usually have like two to five,” he said. 

Aldrich believes “The Queen’s Gambit” could have brought back people who had played previously. “Maybe they played a little bit when they were kids,” he said. A lot of the participants in the reserve section, which is the second tier of the Open, were unrated players who performed well, he noted, when in a typical year it’s rare to find an unrated player in this section at all. “You’re not just going to walk in and be at that level without some sort of background,” he said. 

Younger people also felt the pull, in part thanks to the new series of online chess tournaments between popular Twitch streamers and celebrities that started in May 2020, called “PogChamps.” Strong chess players like Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura, five-time U.S. Chess Champion and Twitch streamer himself, gives lessons to different participants on stream on how to play, as well as different strategies and openings before they compete in the tournament. Now with four different tournaments played between people like Twitch streamer “xQc,” actor Rainn Wilson, and rapper Logic, the series has been a very successful way to help popularize chess. 

Writing for ChessTech on PogChamps, International Chess Federation Chief Marketing and Communications Officer David Llada affirmed this. “This initiative probably awakes a curiosity about chess in two or three million people, one million of them may become occasional players, and maybe around 250,000 will turn into hardcore fans,” he writes.

The pandemic forced people to find things to do on their own, and riding on the tide of the popularity of “The Queen’s Gambit,” released in October 2020, and PogChamps in May 2020, chess swooped in and took over.

Pioneer student Matthew Kim was another person drawn in by the game. “I probably started playing around February,” he recalls. “My friends started playing it, I had free time, and I was looking for a new strategic game to play.”

Kim only plays competitively on the internet, and says he has no plans of playing over-the-board in the future. The vast majority of chess’s growth has taken place online, on sites like, where Kim plays, and Lichess, the preferred site of Van Lent.

“Online chess is absolutely where the boon occurred,” said Garrison of the Michigan Chess Association. “If people were interested in chess, they had to go online.”

When Van Lent first opened Lichess, he “was just looking for something to do.” But for him, along with many others who were drawn to chess while searching for a hobby during the pandemic, watching “The Queen’s Gambit,” or another reason, chess grew into something much bigger than ever anticipated.