Four weeks after its release in October 2020, Netflix announced The Queen’s Gambit – a series that follows the life of an orphan chess prodigy, Elizabeth Harmon – had been watched by 62 million households, becoming the platform’s biggest scripted limited series to date.
Almost a year on and three national lockdowns later, interest in the board game is still growing.
Many chess sets and pieces sold by high-end supplier Regency Chess are currently out of stock on its website, with a message simply stating: “Sold Out due to The Queen’s Gambit”.
Additionally, the English Chess Federation told The Times that the number of active players in its online clubs increased from 2,800 in February 2020 to 6,000 in August.
Malcolm Pein, founder of The London Chess Centre told The Independent that its sales of chess sets and boards increased so much that he had struggled to get supplies.
“There’s been an unprecedented amount of interest. Sales went up two and a half times last Christmas compared with the previous year and it’s still going now,” he said, adding that current sales are still at a higher level than they were two years ago.
The London Chess Centre has also seen an increase in the number of women customers. While Pein credits both the lockdowns of the last 18 months and The Queen’s Gambit for the boom, he said the Netflix series is “directly the reason” that more women are taking an interest in the game.
“One of the biggest problems chess had was its demographic, that girls tend to quit chess at primary school to a far greater degree than boys.
“The nicest thing about the Netflix series is that it presented a female role model who succeeded amongst all the men,” Pein said.
He explained that this “changed the culture” of chess. “Here was an interesting, feisty, smart independent woman and she played chess. Now participation of women is much higher,” he added.
Another marker of the interest in chess over the past year is the increased participation in chess tournaments.
In July, education charity Chess in Schools and Communities, which teaches chess in schools across the UK, held a chess festival in London’s Trafalgar Square.
Pein, who is also chief executive at the charity, was amazed to see that 6,000 people turned up. “Apart from those organising the festival, all of them were completely new to me,” he said.
He was also surprised to find that many of the players were very skilled.
“What was really interesting is that there were lots of players who were actually pretty good.
“They had never played in a tournament, never played in a club, but had become really good at chess during the lockdowns. It’s quite remarkable,” he said.