Queen’s Gambit accepted: Hit show sparks chess frenzy

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA (AFP) – Hit miniseries The Queen’s Gambit has led to a surge of interest in chess, with one popular website registering millions of new players and academies reporting unprecedented demand.

Netflix said the show, which follows the turbulent career of a fictional female child prodigy in the 1950s and 1960s, has become its most-watched ever and is currently the number-one ranked programme in 63 countries. Gaming site Chess.com said the series had prompted a wave of interest – already piqued by the pandemic and top-flight chess players appearing on the Twitch gaming platform – with new daily registrations up 400 per cent.

“Since the release of The Queen’s Gambit we have seen roughly 2.5 million new members join,” the website’s Nick Barton told AFP.

“Nearly each day of November we’ve set a new company record for the most members joining.” Worldwide, Google reported searches for “chess” are at their highest level in 14 years.

It is just the latest burst of popularity for a game that is believed to have originated in India in the 7th Century and was played – and occasionally banned – by medieval European kings, before becoming more established in the late 1800s.

People play chess on a giant chess board at Hyde Park in Sydney. PHOTO: AFP

In modern times, chess had a resurgence during the Cold War.

That period forms the backdrop for The Queen’s Gambit, and the story of a youthful American taking on a wily Soviet grandmaster is inspiring another generation of players.

“There has been a massive surge in adults interested,” according to chess master and Sydney Academy of Chess Director Brett Tindall, who called it “unprecedented”.

Tindall told AFP he has fielded calls from 40-50 adults looking for lessons in the last few weeks, and when carrying academy-branded kit he reported being stopped in the street and asked his opinion about the series.

On school visits, normally ambivalent teachers have gone out of their way to approach him, and some students are tuning in too – even though the series features heavy alcohol and drug abuse.

“I was at a school this morning, and few kids were talking about it, and I was like: ‘guys, I don’t think you’re really meant to be watching this show’,” he said.

Chess.com’s Barton said the show’s focus on female lead Beth Harmon – played by Anya Taylor-Joy – had prompted more women to register than usual.

They were now also spending more time on the site than men.

“These shows really help to increase the curiosity value and newcomers are attracted to the game,” Secretary of the All India Chess Federation Vijay Deshpande told AFP.

“We have a lot of good chess players in the country and the number has grown during the lockdown. Young people are hooked to technology and they were attracted to online chess.”

Grandmaster and former US champion Jennifer Shahade has said she “loved” the show and had been inundated with people asking her for lessons or tips.

“I’m honestly just blown away by all the positive attention chess is getting right now. People get us in a way they haven’t before,” she said on a recent podcast.

“Chess is something people need right now – the introspection, the delightful escape into a smaller world of 64 squares,” she said.