While many Americans were confined to their homes during the pandemic, they turned to chess to occupy their minds. A glimpse at the Google Trends history for the word “chess” shows a parabolic move in October 2020, right around the time the hit series “The Queen’s Gambit” was released. According to Netflix, a then record 62 million households watched the series — about a troubled young woman’s journey to Chess stardom — in its first 28 days. Not since an American became world champion in 1972 had there been such a surge of interest in chess.
This July will mark 50 years since the 1972 World Chess Championship match between the enigmatic Brooklynite Bobby Fischer and the Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky, which took place in Reykjavik, Iceland, at the height of the Cold War. The live broadcast of the games on PBS, presented by Shelby Lyman, captivated audiences and made Bobby Fischer a household name synonymous with chess. What followed was an unprecedented explosion of interest in the game. The Marshall Chess Club — a New York-based historic club founded in 1915 — saw membership double after the Fischer match, said Bill Slater, a former director of the club, in a 1973 interview with The New York Times. “We have around 800 members, as opposed to 400 before the big match. The hysteria may have waned, but the boom continues.”
Asa Hoffmann, an International Chess Federation — or FIDE master —, was both a player and a board member of the Manhattan and Marshall chess clubs during the 1970s. He described the influx of new players as a boon, saying, “The Fischer Boom helped me because the prize funds were bigger and there were more opponents to beat.” However, Mr. Hoffman was quick to note that the surge in interest was due to the media as much as it was to Mr. Fischer himself. “The Shelby Lyman show was just as much responsible for the Fischer boom as Fischer was himself because it captured everyone’s imagination.” Shelby Lyman was a chess master tapped by PBS to cover the match as a way to fill airtime during the slow summer months. The show became an unexpected success.
Mr. Hoffmann suggested that the real-time coverage of the event, together with the unscripted moments in the show, gave it a compelling quality that audiences found riveting. “It wasn’t rehearsed, there was a lot of stumbling and bumbling. It was a great show.”
Half a century later, we find ourselves on the crest of a new wave of interest in chess.
“Covid lockdowns created an environment where people stayed home and indoors, and they started to look for things to do,” said Erik Allebest, CEO of Chess.com. “Puzzle sales went through the roof. So did board games. In fact, all gaming surged, both online and offline. Chess, the granddaddy of all games, garnered a lot of attention.”
From October 2020 to April 2022, Chess.com saw their number of monthly active users double from roughly 8 million to nearly 17 million.
Just as the 1970s boom was amplified by Shelby Lyman’s television show, the “pandemic boom” was boosted by the appearance of “The Queen’s Gambit.” “That hit at the perfect time, like a double-jump on a trampoline that boosted chess high into the zeitgeist,” Mr. Best of all said. “Everyone loved Beth Harmon (well, or loved Anya Taylor-Joy), and the show was a huge success. I guess having Anya visualizing chess moves on the ceiling made everyone intrigued and people started searching for where to play chess online.”
PogChamps, a recurring chess tournament for Twitch streamers sponsored by Chess.com, first ran in May 2020 gaining an impressive peak concurrent viewership of over 165,000 viewers, according to escharts.com. The competition became even more popular after “The Queen’s Gambit” ran; PogChamps 3, airing in February 2021, reached over 375,000 concurrent viewers.
As people are stepping away from their screens, interest in chess shows no signs of slowing down. The pandemic closed the Marshall Chess Club in 2020, but when it reopened, it set a new record for the highest number of active members ever in its 107-year history, recently crossing the 1,000-member mark.
Dr. Frank Brady, who wrote two books on Bobby Fischer including The New York Times best seller “Endgame,” was one of the few people other than the arbiters to observe Game 3 played backstage between Mr. Fischer and Mr. Spassky in 1972. As a chess journalist and longtime member of the Board of the Marshall Chess Club, I asked him for his opinion of the Fischer boom and how it compares to the surge of interest in chess today.
“There’s no question that the pandemic helped promote interest in chess. Chess is an absorbing and wonderful game. You can be by yourself and play over games, try to solve problems and learn by doing that.” But, he insisted, the Fischer boom was unique. “When Fischer stood on that stage in Laugardalsholl and Euwe gave him a plaque as world champion, it was a tremendous moment of American pride. I was sitting in the second or third row and I was so moved by Bobby’s accomplishment. It was like something that he did for America.”
After Mr. Fischer refused a rematch and disappeared out of the public spotlight — reappearing to win an unofficial world championship rematch against Spassky in 1992 — interest in chess waned almost as suddenly as it had surged. “There were record numbers of chess sets sold, members in clubs, participants in tournaments, but then he quit,” Mr. Hoffmann said, referring to Mr. Fischer. The question that remains is whether this recent boom will dissipate the way that interest in chess faded once Mr. Fischer declined to defend his title, or if the rekindled passion for the game ignited out of the boredom of the pandemic will persist in a digital age.