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Making a move: The popularity of chess has grown during the pandemic, with games moving online

Victor Lopez, executive director of Learners Chess Academy, ponders his next move. Learners Chess Academy moved from in-person chess games and matches to a virtual program during the pandemic. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

A game that’s been around for over a millennia is seeing an uptick in popularity as more people pursue hobbies online during the COVID-19 pandemic and due to renewed attention the game has received in pop culture, most notably with the Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit.”

The show was released in October during the COVID-19 pandemic and was viewed by a record 62 million households in its first month alone. Sales of chess sets in the United States jumped 87% during that time, while chess book sales shot up more than 600%, according to the NPD Group, a marketing research company.

Another indicator came from Chess.com, which in October measured a 66% increase in players on its website compared to before the pandemic.

Yet, chess play looks different now versus how it was depicted in the show.

Instead of two opponents squaring off over the checkered chess board, most people have taken to playing chess online as part of the safety measures associated with the virus.

“It’s such an intimate game,” Victor Lopez, executive director and founder of Learners Chess Academy, said. “But, in chess, you’re sitting over a board and breathing the same airspace. I think it’s OK with masks, but better safe than sorry.”

During the pandemic, Lopez said the academy in Albuquerque switched from in-person chess games and matches to a virtual program.

In person, players get the tactile feeling of pushing a piece across the board and capturing the opponent’s pieces, Lopez said. Online, it’s just a different experience because it’s a mouse, or a touchscreen, and the game is more instantaneous.

“If you appreciate the beauty and the logic of the game, it doesn’t matter,” he said.

It was this beauty and logic that captivated chess player Willow LeTard, who first began playing chess when she was about 8 years old. She said the game was something she could give her entire focus to, and it was easy not to get distracted.

Chess left LeTard feeling fulfilled after each match and like there was room to grow with the game. This led her to found the Diamondback Chess organization and start hosting tournaments.

She said she’s definitely seen a rise in interest in the game since “The Queen’s Gambit” aired, particularly among younger kids whose parents watched the show and want to get them involved with it.

LeTard watched the show herself and felt it was an accurate representation of chess. She said very high-level chess players, such as the main character, Beth, tend to have other issues going on in their life. She brought up real-life chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer, who also struggled with mental health issues.

Chess is a game that takes up a lot of your brain, a lot of your skill and a lot of your focus, LeTard said, which was accurately depicted in the show.

Another aspect that stood out to her was Beth’s experiences as a female chess player. She said it was cool to see those issues depicted on the screen because those are issues she also experienced as a female chess player.

“I do think (the show) helps a lot, especially showing girls being smart at a young age,” she said. ‘I think that’s a really important thing.”

But even LeTard had to adjust how she and her club plays chess during COVID-19. LeTard said she’s had to cancel several of her club’s tournaments due to the pandemic. Instead, she has relied on virtual chess games to keep her going.

This is also something Jim Johnston, organizer for the Santa Fe Rooks chess club, said he’s had to do.

Johnston said he’s unsure if “The Queen’s Gambit” is going to create more chess players, but he said a lot of chess players watched the show. He recalled reading the books on which the show is based and said he enjoyed how the show brought the chess games to life.

He also said the show has brought added popularity to online chess and chess streamers, but he said he hopes those new online players will stick with it. Lopez also mentioned the movie “Queen of Katwe,” which is based on the real-life story of chess master Phiona Mutesi from Uganda.

He said the movie depicted how Mutesi learned chess in the slums of Uganda and reached international fame in the chess world for her accomplishments. He said shows such as “The Queen’s Gambit” and movies such as the “Queen of Katwe” help inspire his students.

“I think chess is important because of the intellectual and educational value it has on a developing child’s mind,” Lopez said. “I don’t really care if any of my students ever become grandmasters, but if a movie or a show like ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ inspires my students to get involved and learn the game, then great.”

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