Chess: Old game sees new fame

Pandemic, popular Netflix series stir interest, ire

Deborah Grigsby
Posted 2/1/22

While waiting out the coronavirus, it appears the world got ‘board.’ Who knew all it would take to reignite global interest in chess was a raging pandemic and unsupervised access to the internet? …

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Chess: Old game sees new fame

Pandemic, popular Netflix series stir interest, ire


While waiting out the coronavirus, it appears the world got ‘board.’

Who knew all it would take to reignite global interest in chess was a raging pandemic and unsupervised access to the internet?

No, seriously.

As public health orders canceled concerts and closed theaters and restaurants, we looked inward—and online—for ways to occupy time and connect with others.

We made masks.

We howled at the moon.

We binge-watched.

And “The Queen’s Gambit” was one of our favorites.

The Netflix miniseries, set in the 1950s and ‘60s, is a coming-of-age story of a fictional teenage chess prodigy based on the 1983 Walter Tevis novel of the same name.

It follows the life of orphan Elizabeth Harmon and her substance abuse struggle as she rises through the ranks to become a world chess champion.

It was a story we liked—a lot.

Within the first three weeks of its October 2020 debut, the seven-episode drama had toy stores scrambling to keep chess sets on the shelves and online buyers coming up with empty carts and backorders.

Market research firm NPD Group reported unit sales of chess sets jumped 87% in the U.S., and chess book sales rose by an astronomical 603%.

“The idea that a streaming television series can have an impact on product sales is not a new one, but we are finally able to view it through the data,” said NPD toy industry advisor Juli Lennett in a November 2020 statement. “The sales of chess books and chess sets, which had previously been flat or declining for years, turned sharply upward as the popular new series gained viewers.”

Online gaming platforms also saw dramatic increases in memberships and active users. Director of Technology at Saad Abdali said traffic to the online chess site tripled after the pandemic hit. He published a July 20, 2021 tech blog discussing how the site handled the dramatic user surge and said that in March 2020 alone, the number of daily active users rose from 280,000 to more than 1 million.

The Queen’s Gambit accepted

Tucked away in a south Denver hotel ballroom, the Denver Chess Club MLK Memorial Chess Tournament gets underway.

The room’s atmosphere is ripe with heavy sighs and a constant hum from the ventilation system.

The two-day, five-round Swiss tournament held Jan. 15-16 attracted more than 90 local players.

While 23-year-old tournament director Andrew Starr admits he is ”a little on the young side for a tournament director,” he says the turnout for the in-person event was exceptional.

Starr circles the room, observing the players—and spectators that gather to view the more exciting games.

He admits a great deal of the director’s job is reminding folks of the tournament’s strict silence policy.

”It’s expected (that spectators are) to be silent at all times,” he said. “As a tournament director, that’s my big sticking point.”

The CU grad student and Grandview High School alum said he’s pleased with the wildly popular Netflix series.

“The top thing I liked about it is that better than any other pop culture piece, it accurately represents the chess world without making it inaccessible to general audiences,” Starr said.

And that’s important.

As Starr points out, there are many elements of chess culture that the public tends to get wrong.

”I think one of the biggest misconceptions about chess players is that they’re these bizarre, quiet recluses,” he said. “I think it’s because Bobby Fischer is the most famous American chess player, and that’s how he was.”

Lauded for his stunning 1972 World Championship win against Soviet defending champion Boris Spassky, Grand Master Robert James Fischer was also known for his eccentric and often exaggerated paranoid behavior.

Fischer made numerous anti-Semitic outbursts throughout his career, and in 1992 was indicted for ignoring an executive order from President George H.W. Bush.

The order, which imposed restrictions on relations with Yugoslavia, made Fischer’s famous rematch with is Spassky illegal, based on its location in Belgrade.

In front of the world press, Fischer spat on the presidential order and said, “This is my reply.”

Colorado Chess Hall of Famer Richard “Buck” Buchanan has been a staple in the Colorado chess community for more than 40 years. He’s organized and directed countless chess tournaments and says everybody’s a little different when it comes to chess culture.

”Basically, chess players have varied personalities as would any other group that you want to meet,” Buchanan explained. “I don’t want to generalize about the culture because that’s one of the rich things about chess. It’s part of the human experience. It’s an art form. It’s a competition. It’s fun, and it’s got room in it for all kinds of creativity, discovery and excitement.”

No longer just ‘old white guys’

In the U.S., the 1950s and ‘60s were periods of drastic contrast, so say many historians—the ‘50s being the post-World War II decade of prosperity and conformity. In comparison, the ‘60s brought about change and rebellion.

The ongoing Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union played heavily into the miniseries storyline.

It was a period when men dominated the chess scene, and only a handful of female players got the opportunity to compete professionally.

“The show framed the main character as one young girl against a bunch of old Russian men,” said Starr. ”And that’s just how it was in Fischer’s day. But now, things are a little different.”

Chess is no longer just about “old white guys,” he said, adding that the game and the players are more diverse, vibrant and respectful now.

In his opinion, the game is also becoming much younger.

And he might be right.

Last year, Tanitoluwa “Tani” Adewumi, a 10-year-old Nigerian refugee living in New York, became America’s newest chess master at the tender age of 10, according to the U.S. Chess Federation, making him the 28th youngest person to achieve the status.

And at just 15, Cherry Creek High School students Neil Bhavikatti and Vedanth Sampath are among the highest-ranked players in Colorado.

“No discussion of chess culture would be complete without talking about women in chess,” Starr said. “I think that both evolving social norms and the impetus of ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ have propelled more girls into playing, which personally, I think is excellent, but there are some contentious issues regarding female chess players that may be worth talking about.”

One of those is the concept of women-only tournaments.

Starr supports the idea.

He says all-female tournaments may help break the ice and encourage more girls and women to give the game a try.

Another point of contention, Starr says, is the concept of separate titles for men and women.

“I know that as a man, I can’t speak for the opinions of all women, but I do join a sizable number of female chess players in saying that women’s titles are a little demeaning. Among other requirements, a grandmaster (GM) title requires a rating of 2500, whereas a woman grandmaster (WGM) only needs to obtain a rating of 2300. which, to me, carries the implication of women being weaker chess players,” he said. “While men have obviously had far more success in the chess world than women, I chalk this up to young boys being steered into chess and young girls being steered elsewhere.”

It’s complicated, Starr said, but the trend is women are starting to see more mainstream success in chess.

The Queen’s Gambit declined

Born in the Soviet Union in 1941, Nona Gaprindashvili would become the first woman to be awarded the grandmaster title by the World Chess Federation.

During her career and reign as Women’s World Chess Champion, which spanned 1962-1978, she successfully competed against some of the strongest male players in the world.

Many of them are Russian.

Mentioned by name in “The Queen’s Gambit,” Gaprindashvili was not pleased with the series or how it portraited her.

In fact, she was pretty hot.

In September 2021, she filed a $5 million lawsuit against Netflix, citing false light invasion of privacy and defamation per se.

The 80-year-old, now living in Tbilisi, Georgia, is seeking a trial by jury.

Her suit, filed in the U.S. District Court, Central District of California, centers around allegations that “Netflix brazenly and deliberately lied about Gaprindashvili’s achievements for the cheap and cynical purpose of ‘heightening the drama’ by making it appear that its fictional hero had managed to do what no other woman, including Gaprindashvili, had done.”

And that was face men at the highest levels of chess competition.

The internet as a game-changer

The game of chess dates back more than 1,500 years.

Often referred to as the game of kings, chess sets have taken many forms, from rudimentary carvings to elegant and ornate masterpieces crafted from gold and silver.

Now, chess, like most everything else, can be found online.

For some players, the number of resources available makes online chess attractive.

But not to everyone.

Vedanth Sampath, who participated in the Denver Chess Club’s recent in-person tournament, said he’s not a fan of online chess, primarily because of cheating or what some players call “computer doping.”

Doping is essentially using a computer program or an application to obtain an unfair advantage during play.

Not just limited to lower-rated players, grandmasters have also been snared.

Some players have even mastered monetizing chess by live-streaming their games on platforms like Twitch.

A February 2020 article by CNBC News reports 25-year old chess master Alexandra Botez “brings in over $100,000 a year as a professional chess streamer.”

Neil Bhavikatti says popular streamers help bring new players to the board, and Twitch has positively affected the game.

“The game going online brings in such an enormous amount of people to the game,” Starr said. ”It makes it a lot easier to get good very quickly.”

So will chess over-the-board become a relic of bygone days?

It’s hard to say.

When asked what chess needs to stay relevant in the future, Buchanan said, “It just needs to be played—and it seems to be doing a pretty good job.”

chess, the queen's gambit, chess in denver, elizabeth harmon, juli lennett, denver chess club, grandview high school chess club


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