Many Americans have turned to board games to stay engaged and keep busy during the pandemic, and chess in particular has seen a massive surge in popularity recently thanks to a wildly popular streaming series. With its quick setup, relatively simple beginner rules, wide availability of online tutorials and variety of apps for virtual play, it’s no wonder people of all ages are embracing chess while they wait for the pandemic to be in check.
Prior to its resurgence in 2020, Americans had not been so enamored of the 1500-year-old “game of kings” since the Cold War-era rise of prodigy Bobby Fischer, whose televised World Chess Championship games against Russian Boris Spassky thrilled viewers in 1972.
American interest in the game waned in the decades that followed, but then came the pandemic – and “The Queen’s Gambit.” The series, which is based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name and debuted on Netflix in October 2020, tells the story of a young woman named Beth Harmon who learned to play chess in the orphanage where she lived for years as a child and went on to compete at the highest levels of international chess in the 1960s.
As viewership of “The Queen’s Gambit” soared, so did interest in the game of skill and strategy at which Harmon so excelled. In the weeks following the series debut, toy retailer Goliath Games was shocked by triple-digit increases in chess set sales figures. Etsy reported a 215% increase in the sale of chess sets and accessories, with wooden sets the most popular by far. Sales of books about chess rose more than 600%, and the number of online players on chess.com increased fivefold.
It might seem intimidating when experienced players like those on the Netflix series – or Lombard’s own late Jim Warren, who played Bobby Fischer twice without losing during Fischer’s 1964 world tour – break out high-level, strategic moves such as the Sicilian Defense, The English Opening and, yes, the Queen’s Gambit. But experts say the basics of the game are relatively simple to learn, and beginners should not be deterred.
Those just starting out should learn how the 64-square board is set up, the basic rules, how to move the various pieces – king, queen, bishop, rook, knight and pawn – and how to checkmate. Luckily, many resources are available for people of all ages and abilities looking to get started in the game or boost their skills.
A variety of books on chess are available for checkout at the Elmhurst Public Library and Lombard’s Helen Plum Library, and children can take part in the Elmhurst Public Library’s online chess classes on the third Sunday of each month. YouTube offers a variety of chess-centered channels, and local enthusiasts can find chess sets, accessories and other items at an appropriately named Elmhurst store devoted solely to the “game of kings.”
Of course, the best way to boost one’s skills in any endeavor is to practice – and the ease of virtual play is yet another reason chess is the perfect pandemic activity. A variety of apps are available for online learning and games, and grandparents and their grandchildren can set up boards at their own homes and play via Zoom – possibly even over the course of several days.
When we can begin to gather again safely, chess enthusiasts of all ages and abilities will be able to face off across the 64-square boards in person, with local opportunities including chess tables at Elmhurst’s Marjorie Davis Park and spring chess classes for children at the Lombard Park District. It will be incredibly easy for Lexington Square residents to enjoy the game while socializing with their neighbors, as a chess club is among the many onsite recreational activities on offer at the Elmhurst and Lombard retirement communities!
Ben Franklin noted that chess develops “several very valuable qualities of the mind,” and research has shown that the game increases creativity and improves memory, problem-solving skills and concentration, among numerous cognitive benefits. So if you’re looking to make a move to a new pastime while we wait to move past the pandemic, why not get on board with chess?