ince its arrival on Netflix last month, The Queen’s Gambit has attracted a staggering 62 million viewers – making it the streaming service’s most-watched scripted limited series.
But the drama – which tells the fictional story of chess prodigy Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) – has not just captured people’s attention.
Online chess playing sites, retailers and grandmasters say the show, based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, has sparked a huge boom in people playing the game in the US and around the world.
International grandmaster Maurice Ashley said in the last month he had been inundated with messages from people – particularly women – asking him whether he has seen it and enthusing about the game.
“The frenzy around it is crazy … All of a sudden it’s an incredible awareness and excitement around the game and a lot of the same people are now taking up chess and starting to play. So it’s really had a pretty surprising, wonderful, electrifying effect on the fanbase, particularly of non-players.”
Ashley, who was the first African American grandmaster, believes the awareness the Netflix show has brought to the game in the US could compete with – or even exceed – that of when the American Bobby Fischer defeated Russian Boris Spassky for the world championship in 1972, which inspired Tevis’s novel.
“That time period in terms of the American consciousness for real serious chess was probably more so than now. But in terms of actual numbers, given the growth in population and given the ubiquity of something like Netflix … this awareness probably competes very well, and may even surpass, that time.”
Despite the pandemic preventing much play between members of different households, chess board sales are soaring.
The online retailer eBay said US sales of chess sets have soared by 60% since last year as more people spend time at home. And since the release of The Queen’s Gambit, sales of chess sets and accessories shot up by nearly 215%. Wooden chess sets are the most popular and vintage sets are also in demand. Sales of chess clocks and timers have risen 45% since last month and score pads by 300%.
Chess.com has seen a stratospheric rise in players since the release of The Queen’s Gambit on 23 October, breaking records for the site. Spokesman Nick Barton said they had seen a “surge in brand new players”. New members in the US have gone up from around 6,000 a day between 1 and 22 October to over 30,000 on recent days this month.
They even have a Beth Harmon bot which he predicted by the end of the month will have been played against by more than 100,000 American players.
The US Chess Federation saw its highest membership figures since the beginning of the pandemic in the middle of this month and hundreds of women have signed up for beginners’ classes.
Jennifer Shahade, women’s program director of the US Chess Federation and two-time US women’s chess champion, said there had been a “global boom in interest” since the launch of the show – especially among girls and women, who are the smallest demographic of chess players.
“I notice a lot of them are coming back into the game and getting that confidence because the show depicts a woman who is able to find herself through the game, so I think that’s very appealing. And also the sense of community.”
Fans can tune in to watch their favourite players compete online while chatting to others in forums, which Shahade said had become “much more welcoming” as a result of better moderation, and listening to commentary. Many professionals share content on Twitch and YouTube.
The show, along with the pandemic – which has also contributed to a rise in interest in the game – have created a perfect storm.
Shahade said: “With a lot of people spending more time at home and indoors during the pandemic, at once giving them more time for chess and also creating a need for new hobbies and also introspection and a space where you can be totally absorbed in the 64 squares.
“Like Beth says in The Queen’s Gambit, this is a totally new world that you can control. Because things do feel much out of our control right now.”
But will it last if and when life returns to a closer semblance of normal?After the pandemic, Shahade predicted the return of in-person tournaments, such as those featured in the show, will only add to the game’s appeal.
“People are going to learn the basics of chess during this time and then when things open up more and there’s big tournaments, a lot of people will go to it, yeah.”