Why Is Chess So Popular?

Chess Guides / By Andrew Hercules
Chess Queen

64 squares with more permutations than atoms in the universe. 64 squares is an entire world of itself. Chess provides structure, simplicity, and nuance to a world which desperately needs it.

Chess’s popularity is absolutely booming! You don’t even need to know the rules of chess to appreciate the cultural significance of the game at the current moment.

Since March of 2020 the website chess.com has gained over 12.2 million users and has recently reached over 50 million users total.

To understand why chess has become so popular in the recent year, we must understand what made it popular in the past.

Bobby Fischer Vs Spassky – The 1970’s Game That Ignited The Chess World

The conflict between Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky was not just a chess game. The World Chess Championship held in Iceland became a front in the cold war. It was the intellectual battle between democracy and communism.

It was the conflict, the narrative story, which led to the excitement and pressure on those games of chess. While chess for chess’s sake isn’t appealing to the masses, chess with a setting of conflict adds more weight and meaning to the game. 

Additionally players like Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov were large egocentric personalities that dominated mainstream media.

Fisher was undoubtedly unstable, a self-destructive genius even going on to say some remarkably anti-semitic statements as a Jewish man himself. But what conflict doesn’t make the media money? Fisher’s statements and actions as well as the drama surrounding the matches in Iceland created a story for the world to watch.

How The Internet Allowed Chess To Explode In Popularity

After the narrative had dried up towards the end of the cold war, chess lost its mass appeal.  New York Times published 241 articles that dealt specifically with chess in 1972. That number decreased to 148 in 1995 and to 28 in 2011.

But then the perfect storm for chess came in from the east. In March of 2020, we saw the majority of the world confined to their homes. Being at home funneled just about the entire world solely on the internet, ignoring the dystopian ramifications of the entire world communicating through the internet instead of in person.

The internet allowed chess to explode in popularity. No longer was chess a boring game you played with your grandpa. It was an easy to pick up sport that has one of the highest skill ceilings in any game. 

With the lack of traditional sports being played especially on American televisions, chess became an easy way to fulfill many competitive appetites.

Like I mentioned earlier, since the pandemic started in March 2020 chess.com has gained over 12 and a half million users more than one-fourth of their entire user base.

The pandemic promoted self-improvement and chess is a great way of bettering your mind and your life. Instead of mindlessly scrolling down Instagram and Twitter, chess is intellectually challenging. And for the population which is sick and tired of politicized social media, chess could be a wonderful escape.

Rather than the cold war being the backdrop for chess, the pandemic has taken its place promoting a broader self-improvement setting for learning and following chess.

The other ingredient for wide chess appeal is the strong professional egos like Fisher and Kasparov. Fortunately there’s an even more wide array of personalities in chess now from the world champion Magnus Carlsen to blitz champion Hikaru Nakamura, to internet personalities like Critical and Mr. Beast and even to traditional celebrities like the rapper Logic.

The professionals now have platforms to speak directly to the chess audience and adds a face and a story to each game being played.

The eruption in popularity is due to streamers and youtubers who give the average chess fan an inside look into the mind of a grandmaster.

Related Post: Will Chess Ever Die?

Netflix Queen’s Gambit – A Cultural Phenomenon For Chess Fans

It’s fairly likely that you’ve already seen the Queen’s Gambit. In the first month alone 62 million households had seen the show. If you haven’t seen it you should.

Spoiler alert: It’s about an orphaned Kentucky girl who becomes a chess champion while battling drugs and her perception as a girl. The impact of the show is genuinely astonishing. In the first three weeks after its debut, sales of chess went up by 87 percent in the U.S and sales of books about chess leaped 603 percent.

Nick Barton, director of business development and chess.com says the show has been a cultural phenomenon for chess fans. Many of its viewers can relate to its themes of addiction, loss, personal conflict and overcoming adversity.

To me, the motifs of the show align perfectly with the outside climate of the world right now. The pandemic has caused adversity for everyone dealing with loss addiction and personal conflict. I think chess is a medium for which people can fight back against the challenges of today’s world and become a better, stronger and more developed human being.

The show also displays a strong female protagonist who constantly fights and succeeds against her dismissive male counterparts.

The Hungarian grandmaster Judith Polgar believes the show will change the dynamic of the traditional chess player. Polgar says that it can grow the game’s promotion for girls immensely and that girls who are talented will be more likely to reach their potential.

Related Post: Why Is Chess Separated By Gender?

Final Verdict

We’ve seen that there are certain ingredients to making chess popular especially in the United States. Although in different ways, it requires a cultural setting which makes the game more interesting like the cold war or the pandemic.

Additionally you need media attention driven by strong personalities. Magnus Carlson, Hikaru Nakamura and hundreds of other chess streamers are the new Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov.

Additionally The Queen’s Gambit is the most successful limited time series on Netflix of all time. It has driven chess memberships and sales through the roof while igniting passion for the game for all walks of life.

Chess has seen a resurgence that it hasn’t seen since the 1970s. It’s unclear how long it will last but presumably for some time to come. It has already made its mark on the younger generation and hopefully will inspire the growth of the game in future years.

Anecdotally, the beginning of the pandemic sparked my interest in chess which allowed me to create this blog. When I lost interest a few months later, the Queen’s Gambit solidified it in my brain.

I now love playing chess and blogging about topics that will help my readers understand the game better 🙂

While I’m not great, it’s still a wonderful exercise in using my brain instead of the instant gratification of social media.

Andrew Hercules

Hercules Chess, launched in 2020, is a website that teaches you about chess. We started as a chess blog and became a chess training platform in early 2022.

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