When I saw The Queen’s Gambit for the first time, it was obvious that Netflix had struck gold. What I never expected was how the show would lead to a chess explosion.
While Netflix’s focus might merely be to create profitable content, the company is inadvertently sparking trends. The folks at Netflix are becoming the gatekeepers of culture and have somehow made a seemingly boring sport cool.
As a bookseller, it’s not the first time I’ve seen Netflix cause massive stirs in esoteric pop culture which leads to merchandise flying off the shelves. In 2019, the company brought The Witcher to mainstream audiences, a property I already loved due to the video game. Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher novels ran out-of-print for a while thanks to the show adaptation. Now, I’m noticing Bridgerton captivating massive audiences and seeing shortages of Julia Quinn’s The Duke and I. Although Walter Tevis’s novel The Queen’s Gambit has seen a surge in sales as well, everyone’s favorite, hyper-cerebral board game—chess—has benefitted the most.
Since the show’s debut, online playing sites like Chess.com and Lichess.org have seen an enormous rise in traffic. Business Insider reported in the wake of The Queen’s Gambit, “More than 100,000 new members registered for Chess.com each day, [which is roughly] five times higher than average.” Yet, the big retailers have seen unexpected sales in chess merchandise too, with standbys like Amazon and eBay experiencing spikes in chessboard sales. It’s no surprise that at Barnes & Noble, we brought out the chess tables filled with chess-related appurtenances to meet consumer demand. To think this is all due to a little show about chess. It’s clear that Netflix put a lot of effort and passion into depicting professional chess with nuance and accuracy—but what is less transparent is how the show has compelled audiences to be empowered by its chess-playing heroes.
What astounds me is that the real Beth Harmons of the world are getting some attention. It’s not just chess paraphernalia that’s selling—it’s the personalities of the real chess brainiacs. Streamers and YouTubers with channels dedicated solely to chess have grown substantially in viewer and subscriber counts due to The Queen’s Gambit. Alexandria Botez, an American-Canadian master chess player, has almost reached 240k subscribers in this sudden boom. She, along with her sister Andrea, have always been ardent chess advocates, but now the show has given them a way to reach a broader audience. Now they find themselves creating content focusing the accuracy of the game’s portrayal in the show, on empathizing with the struggles of Beth Harmon. They’ve even played matches with the popular Beth Harmon bot—a chess AI supposedly mimicking the exact skill level of the various stages in Harmon’s life. Then, there are chess channels, like YouTuber Agadmator’s; he has covered the show’s matches in-depth, going as far as recreating and analyzing the final battle between Beth Harmon and the Russian.
The popularity of the show has certainly boosted some of these YouTubers’ stardom, but it has also directed eyes to the real champions. People are no longer perceiving chess as a boring sport played exclusively by septuagenarians; now people are being captivated by the real prodigies of our time. We’ve seen Twitch streamers and Esports players do their thing—why not watch the masters and grandmasters play chess? There are undoubtedly stories out there as impressive and riveting as Beth Harmon’s.
Take, for example, Hikaru Nakamura, who became a grandmaster when he was 15 years old and is now the five-time U.S. Champion. Or current World Champion Magnus Carlsen, a Norwegian Grandmaster child prodigy. Like Harmon, these players have dedicated their lives to the game. The Champions Chess Tour will be broadcast on sports channels alongside tennis and football thanks to the game’s renewed popularity. It’s nice to see the real geniuses getting noticed, and it’s surprising that a show on Netflix is arguably why.
My thoughts on this boom are characterized by boyish glee—the glorification of nerds in pop culture is entering a new, particularly weird epoch. I’ve seen many young kids buy Tevis’s novel, and it makes me happy that this story has empowered them. After all, there are much worse things these aspiring kings could get into than a game of chess.