Why chess is suddenly popular again


(Google Trends / Edited by Jerry Fan)

Google Trends shows that interest in chess has rapidly climbed in the past few months.

Seemingly overnight, a black-and-white wave swept over the school, covering each laptop and phone with the iconic pattern, every board accompanied by two warring armies. Although chess has been around for over a thousand years, only recently has the game spiked in popularity among students at CVHS between December 2022 to February 2023.

Chess.com’s uptick in players has led to frequent issues with server overload. (Chess.com)

This trend that seemingly sprung out of nowhere is also part of a greater national pattern, as December 2022 marked the start of another chess resurgence. Chess.com, a popular website for playing online chess, has seen persistent 502 server errors as the website scales their infrastructure to grapple with the increased interest.

This isn’t the first spike in recent memory. According to Google Trends, chess usually sees small yearly spikes over time. However, around January 2021, chess saw another spike — about twice the size of a typical spike — off the heels of Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Besides being a national trend, this spike has also spilled over into CVHS. In a poll administered to 52 CVHS students, nearly half (25) said that they started playing chess or started noticing a lot of people playing chess between December 2022 and February 2023.

“[In] most classes, you’ll probably see someone playing chess. Hopefully not during a lesson, but there they might be,” Micah Harris, president of Chess Club, said. “I did see this a little bit last year, but nowhere near as much as now, where it’s practically every single classroom.”

Chess sees regular surges over time. (Photo courtesy of Google Trends)

For some CVHS students, they started playing simply because they wanted to play with friends.

“I think I was just peer pressured by other friends who are also playing chess and I wanted to get on board with them,” junior Pablo Pena said.

As a result, CVHS interest in chess is far more spread out, rather than being concentrated around a club.

“I would say the community at Carnegie isn’t yet like one big group,” Harris said. “It’s more like small groups here and there, with people just playing with their close friends.”

Nearly three quarters of the polled people played chess within the last week or the last week. (Jerry Fan)

Those interested usually find time between or even during class to play chess. Of the 38 students that played chess, 23 said that they played during class, with 18 people also reporting to have played during advocacy or lunch.

“I usually play chess in classes that I think are kind of tedious or monotonous,” Pena said.

Spins on the traditional game, such as four-player chess, which needs no explanation, or antichess, where the goal is to lose all pieces, have also played a role.

“Variety definitely is helping people become more interested in chess,” Harris said. “These goofy variants are a lot of fun, and a lot of [variants are] especially great games to play with friends.”

The popularity spike at CVHS may also have some overlap with the greater national trend. Recent events, such as chess player Hans Niemann’s cheating scandal or the social media post of Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi playing chess, have also added to the mix.

Indeed, content creation has been a major contributor. Livestreams on platforms such as Twitch and YouTube have increased in popularity over the past year — for example, Levy Rozman, international master, frequently uploads educational content onto his YouTube channel, GothamChess. Chessboxing events on these platforms have also garnered attention.

“A lot of the major and best chess players in the world are live streaming. I think that those people have really helped the community grow, and the scandal definitely did bring more global recognition,” Harris said.

Even in the age of video games, some people just play chess because of how unique the game is.

“I think chess is pretty special in terms of how much thinking it makes you do,” Pena said. “Compared to other video games, chess is a lot more strategy based, and it requires you to think ahead.”

Chess.com’s monthly rotation of various chess-playing bots, including the notoriously difficult Mittens bot or the plethora of bots that play in the style of certain celebrities, have also increased the popularity of chess.

“So I think it’s just a bunch of different stuff that brought chess more mainstream,” Harris said.

A Chess Club meeting underway as people enjoy the game. (Micah Harris)

Carnegie’s Chess Club, which meets in the second half of lunch on Wednesdays in room 235, is a clear indicator of the sudden relevancy of chess. Harris reported that recent attendance doubled in size, although remained relatively low, considering the amount of people that are seen playing.

“I am sure that there are going to be quite a lot of people that are only interested in chess for a little while,” Harris said. “But my hope is that a lot, at least a large fraction of the people that were a part of that’s starting to playing chess because of this boom.”