I was once an attendee of the lunchtime chess club at my primary school, spending an adequate amount of time there to learn the rules and play a few casual matches before I gave in to the draw of joining my friends outside.
I have rarely encountered chess since then, but now find myself enthralled in the intricacies of the game due to the Netflix show The Queen's Gambit. Named after the chess opening, the mini-series follows the life of orphan Beth Harmon. Harmon has a prodigious talent for chess, which we see unfold against the setting of Cold War America.
I do not want to give away any spoilers, and have not yet finished the show myself, but from what I have seen I can recommend it to those who are well-versed in chess and those who have never played a game in their life. Indeed, The Queen’s Gambit seems to have enticed both categories of people and everyone in between.
A record-setting 62 million households chose to watch the show in its first 28 days on Netflix, making it the streaming site’s biggest scripted limited series to date. The series made the Netflix top 10 in 92 countries and ranked number one in 63 countries.
Even Magnus Carlsen, the reigning chess, rapid chess and blitz world champion, has got in on the act. The Norwegian grandmaster posted a doctored photo of himself playing a match against Harmon with the caption "I think it would be close". Russian grandmaster and former world chess champion Garry Kasparov is another to praise the authentic portrayal of chess in the show.
The popularity of The Queen's Gambit has already translated into a tangible interest in chess. Google searches for "how to play chess" have hit a nine-year peak, while sales of chess boards and books have soared. Downloads on chess mobile apps have also increased substantially. An incoming boom of new chess players seems imminent.
Perhaps the interest was already building. People have sought new hobbies during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many activities, sporting or otherwise, restricted due to health and safety measures implemented around the world. Not chess though. Even if players have been unable to sit down at a board against an opponent, the game can be easily played online.
As a result, the International Chess Federation (FIDE) ran its first Online Chess Olympiad in July and August. The governing body described the competition as its biggest online tournament to date, with teams from 163 countries participating.
The risks of hosting an event online were laid bare, however, when two Indian players lost their internet connection in the final. Both India and Russia were declared joint winners of the contest. Nonetheless, the FIDE could offer competitors and spectators a lot more than other sports could during the global health crisis. It would be fair to say chess adapted well to the pandemic.
The Queen’s Gambit has obviously caught the imagination of millions of people, whether they had picked up chess during lockdown or not. I have previously written about the importance of Netflix documentaries such as Athlete A and Icarus uncovering stories about sport’s most deplorable issues, including sexual abuse and doping. Now, through a fictional mini-series on chess, the streaming giant has again been a significant influence in the sporting world.
It will be interesting to see if and how the FIDE capitalise on this increased interest in the sport. Will it help the governing body’s campaign for the inclusion of chess in the Olympic Games?
The FIDE pushed for the faster formats of the game - rapid and blitz chess - to be included on the programme for the Paris 2024 Olympics. It was hoped the Games could be tied into centenary celebrations, as the FIDE was formed in the French capital in 1924. Its attempts were unsuccessful, however, just as it had been during its campaign to be included at Tokyo 2020.
Despite this, chess is not a stranger to multi-sport competitions. It has appeared at editions of the Asian Games and African Games. A preliminary sport programme for the 2023 European Games in the Krakow and Małopolska region, published by the Polish Olympic Committee earlier this week, also included chess.
Indeed, after its Olympic inclusion attempts were rejected, the FIDE said it would target youth and continental competitions and it seems this plan is coming to fruition. The timing of The Queen’s Gambit is very fortuitous for the governing body then.
Olympic inclusion still seems incredibly ambitious, and there will still be those who would categorise chess as an activity or game rather than a sport. But the increased popularity of chess, helped by The Queen’s Gambit, may give the FIDE additional ammunition to help chess become more established in the sporting world.