Interest in chess has exploded since Netflix's 'The Queen's Gambit' aired and the sport's leaders are very, very excited
- The release of the global Netflix hit "The Queen's Gambit" was followed by a massive surge of interest in chess, key figures in the game told Insider.
- Chess was already surging in popularity during lockdowns. But that's been "super-charged" by the show, one club manager told Insider.
- Women in particular have been inspired by Anya Taylor-Joy's portrayal of fictional chess genius Elizabeth Harmon.
- Now the International Chess Federation hopes that the boom can be sustained.
Netflix's "The Queen's Gambit" has been a huge hit, becoming the top-rated show on the platform practically everywhere.
In the series, Anya Taylor-Joy plays Elizabeth Harmon, the charismatic orphan genius who storms the male-dominated world of competitive chess. She also has a killer wardrobe and eyes the size of dinner plates.
But the breakout star of the show — maybe even more than Taylor-Joy — is the sport itself.
Taylor-Joy's poise and Netflix's portrayal of high-stakes competition have brought glamour to a sport with very little mainstream attention.
In the week when the show launched in the US, the UK and many other countries, worldwide Google searches for "chess" increased significantly:
eBay said it had a 273% increase in searches for chess sets in the 10 days following the show's release, the UK's Metro newspaper reported.
Those who make a living in the game have noticed.
"Website hits have increased dramatically, actually, off the back of it," Simon Purkis, founder of luxury games maker Purling London, told Insider of their company website.
Purling London makes artisanal chess boards that can cost thousands of dollars. But even at a more homespun level, interest is rampant, according to Leon Watson, who runs Battersea Chess Club as well as working for Chess24.com, a site that streams matches live.
"We've seen an enormous surge in interest people contacting us, wanting to get involved," he said.
Lockdowns had already fueled a growing online chess boom, he told Insider.
Worldwide, people have been seeking low-cost, distanced forms of entertainment all year. And the online game — spectating or playing — has grown massively, said Watson.
Battersea — which is London's oldest continually-running chess club — has largely moved its activities online.
"You can play a kid in Brazil on a home computer and get beaten by him or her from the safety of your home," he said.
He said "The Queen's Gambit" has super-charged that enthusiasm — especially with women.
Longing for a real-life Beth Harmon
One of the series' strengths has been foregrounding a female player, still a relative rarity in the world of competitive chess.
According to David Llada, chief marketing officer for the International Chess Federation (FIDE), women make up about 16% of any country's licensed players. This is something FIDE is trying to fix, he said.
"The chess world has been longing for its real-life Beth Harmon!" he told Insider.
And women's interest has surged at Battersea, said Watson. "We've probably had more inquiries from women in the last couple of weeks than we have had in the last five years, which is brilliant," he said.
"That's an amazing effect of 'The Queen's Gambit,' because chess has historically had a bit of a problem there."
Satisfying the fiercest of critics
The attention to detail in the series has impressed the notoriously exacting world of experienced chess players, too.
"The chess community fell in love with the series because it successfully portrays different aspects of chess in all its richness," said Llada in a statement emailed to multiple news outlets.
"The chess fraternity is a hard crowd to please because they're very concerned about these kind of accuracies about everything, because that is what the game of chess is all about," he said.
The show picks up on the intense emotional pressure of a real tournament, he said, and captured minuscule details that only seasoned players appreciate.
He compared it to how a gangster movie can lose its sheen if an actor lights a cigarette and it's "obvious" they're not really a smoker.
There's a similar mode to an experienced chess player's gestures — how they move their pieces and how they hit the game's timer. "They managed to nail that," he said.
"I mean, obviously it's not perfect, you know, nothing's perfect. There were a few things that kind of jarred," he said.
"But overall it's definitely the most realistic fictionalized portrayal of how chess is played in tournaments that I've seen," he said. "And I've seen every chess TV show or film there is."
Sustaining the rush
Llada, the FIDE official, is unsure what sort of imprint the show will have on chess participation in the long term.
He suggested the game's steep learning curve may require more investment than a TV show can fuel.
"It is too early to measure the impact of the TV series in our sport," Llada said in a statement emailed to multiple news outlets.
It's quick to learn. But to get to club level, or to be able to follow the games of Grand Masters, takes a lot more effort, he told Insider.
"It is comparable to learning the basics of how to play an instrument, or how to speak a language," he said.
Still, FIDE expects growth. The organization estimated that 30 million children are enrolled in some form of school chess program — but they think that number will reach 50 million in the next days.
"'The Queen's Gambit,' watched by millions of parents, will give a huge push forward to this trend," he said.
"Millions have realized now what a cool game it is."