If you’re itching to play chess after binging Netflix’s hit “The Queen’s Gambit,” join the crowd.
Twitch and YouTube have turned chess into a viewable sport, and its geniuses into online sensations. Twitch, for the uninitiated, is a livestreaming platform for gamers and other content streamers, with some 17.5 million daily viewers. Creators share their screen with fans so that fans can watch them live.
“There has been a huge increase in the popularity of chess since the pandemic started, largely thanks to the hard work of chess streamers on Twitch and YouTube,” said Harvard Chess Club board member James Toliver, 19. Toliver is a chess expert, a title given by the United States Chess Federation to players rated just below master.
Other sites like chess.com allow players anywhere to play each other from their own homes: “The ability to play online chess with people a world away is one of the driving forces behind the recent chess boom,” said Toliver.
Nick Barton, director of business development at chess.com, said the site has seen substantial growth during the pandemic. Since March 1, “the site has onboarded roughly 11.1 million new members — an increase of 6.54 million since this time last year,” he said.
It would seem “The Queen’s Gambit,” which hit Netflix Oct. 23, is also having an impact.
Chess.com, Barton said, has ”set a new record for most new members in a single day nearly every single day of November.”
Toliver, a sophomore, says he binged the series the day it came out.
“It didn’t disappoint,” he said. “Most shows involving chess do not bother to accurately depict the game. ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is different.”
Directed by Scott Frank, the series’ “portrayal of chess is so accurate that it is often possible for viewers versed in the game to predict Beth’s moves,” Toliver says.
Perhaps not since 1993′s “Searching for Bobby Fischer” has chess-on-screen been this buzzy.
Harvard Chess Club President Ella Papanek, a chess expert, said she “definitely noticed a rise in the game’s popularity at the beginning of quarantine.”
The Harvard senior hasn’t yet watched the Netflix series but plans to when the semester ends. “Chess usually doesn’t get much press, so this is certainly unique.”
“I ran more camps this summer than I’ve ever run. You can attribute that to” the pandemic, said Krasik, who learned chess as a boy in St. Petersburg, Russia, and continued to study after his family immigrated to Boston when he was 12.
“[T]witching is all the rage nowadays, and top players are making a good living streaming their matches,” said Krasik. Among other honors, he won the 2016 Boston Chess Congress Blitz Championship, and has seen some of his students become masters.
Toliver is a fan of Twitchers/YouTube sensations grandmaster Daniel Naroditsky and grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura. “The latter, a multiple US Chess Champion, is probably most responsible for the recent boom in chess popularity,” he says.
Popular Twitchers can make money off ad revenue, subscriptions to their channels, or donations, Toliver explained.
A little while ago, he said, "if you wanted to make a living with chess, you had to be in the top 20 in the world, or teach. Now you see people who can survive off chess and all they’re doing is streaming.”
“The best way to learn quickly is to hire a coach, and play a lot — online or in person,” says Krasik. Players looking for a game might try lichess.org, which is free, he said.
New England Chess School offers online classes in various levels for kids, Krasik said. Adults might hire a private coach, or take to the web.
“Chess has never been more accessible to novice players than it is now,” says Toliver, who learned the game from his grandmother at age 8. “Online resources like chess.com and chess YouTube channels are great ways to start learning.”
He suggests Chess.com’s “How to Play Chess” series, and their “Everything You Need to Know About Chess” series. He also recommends Naroditsky’s YouTube, or John Bartholomew’s YouTube “Chess Fundamentals” series.
In the Netflix series and the novel, the main character is the only, or one of very few, women in the room — a girl breaking the glass ceiling of the boys’ club.
“I’ve often been the only female playing in a tournament, but it’s never bothered me,” says Ella Papanek, 21, who learned to play chess at 8. “One of the great things about chess is that the results speak for themselves.”