The checkmate thrill: The craze for chess during the lockdown

Do you know what was the ultimate mic drop comeback of 2020? 

It was the feeling of saying “checkmate”. 

The Economist reported that traffic on chess.com, the leading chess website, has more than doubled during the first half of the lockdown. You can log in at any moment and find players ready to battle around a game of chess.  One of the most interesting and distinguishing parts was not knowing your opponent. The online chess game does not give your opponent a personality. There is no form of secondary intimidation that is at place which according to a lot of chess players is sort of discouraging. Moreover, apart from ticking the accessibility aspect, online chess does not require you to pay any money (in most cases). The only thing that an individual would be putting at stake in a game is their time. Let’s be honest that was one thing that we had in abundance especially during the lockdown (yes, I am generalising). 

The beauty of chess lies in the permutation and combination of all the possible moves that can potentially happen. A 64-square board, with just 16 pieces each and a zillion possible moves, isn’t that so interesting? 

“The past, like the future, is indefinite and exists only as a spectrum of possibilities.” Stephen Hawking

What does Viswanathan Anand have to say?

“Certainly chess is one sport that has benefited during the lockdown, cruel as it sounds. Actually, we can build on that and grow the sport,” five-time world champion Viswanathan Anand said to PTI hopefully. However, he strongly does hope that the traditional board won’t be replaced by technological intervention in the game. 

While he stated that the current situation has made tournaments unpredictable in terms of access, various organisations abroad have chosen to go forward with their tournaments offline. 

“I found that normally when you go to a tournament, there are triggers which help make you serious, make you concentrate. You walk to the tournament hall, you meet other players at the hotel.

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“All these things are triggers that a tournament is going to happen. When it comes to playing online, you are sitting at home and suddenly the arbiter says start and you begin playing, I do miss playing across the board…”

Anand would soon mentor R Praggnanandhaa (15), Nihal Sarin (16), Raunak Sadhwani (15), D Gukesh (14), and R Vaishali (19) through the WestBridge-Anand Chess Academy. However, he likes to call himself a guide rather than a mentor. 

In his conversation he also talked about the increasing popularity of chess through the Netflix-show ‘The Queen’s Gambit’. 

“…it is the biggest series on Netflix and that tells you quite something. Maybe it was the fact that people were sitting at home and somehow they were waiting for something like this. I don’t know but it has driven a boom in chess. (Actually) the boom had started much before but definitely, this has made it much bigger,” Anand said.

The Queen’s Gambit

You must be living under the rock if you don’t know about this particular show. It is a Netflix series about  a troubled chess prodigy named Beth Harmon and how she navigates in the male-dominated world of chess tournaments. This show has been considered a hit. According to Netflix, 62 million households watched at least some of the show. 

The effect the show has shown is massive and cannot be done away with easily. Some people & publications have pointed out saying that it brought “sexy” back to the game. I am not sure how demeaning that is but I would rather replace it with some different word. 

One of the most interesting things that were reported was the growing interest of particularly women and young girls in chess post the show. According to leading chess playing site chess.com, registrations of female players are up by 15 percent compared to the composition of players who were joining the site before the series began. There has been a surge in the demand for chess classes. Most chess playing platforms already have a tutorial section but a need for a more formal and systematic approach has also been noted. The inquiries have increased by 50 percent and most of which are coming from women. 

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How can we miss YouTube? 

Giving you two minutes to stare and Aw. 

If you are a regular at the Indian YouTube vlogging space, you might have come across Samay Raina’s different initiatives around chess. Samay Raina is a Comicstaan famed Indian stand-up artist who during this year joined the chess vlogging space. There were initiatives like Indian Chess League, Chess for Charity, and more where he got celebrities on board and really pushed chess for the Indian audience. Raina raised quite a sum from his March-created YouTube channel and used it for a wide range of causes like Delhi’s waste pickers, background dancers in movies, the welfare of stray dogs, the Amphan cyclone, the Assam floods, and more.

“I began by streaming PUBG with my friend Tanmay [Bhat] on his channel. I then set up my own channel, did a couple of PUBG streams, touched around 15K subscribers but realised I wasn’t enjoying it. So I asked myself, ‘What do I really love?’ The answer was chess.” Raina said to ESPN. 

Did you know?

A similar chess wave was seen in 1972 because of the chess prodigy, Bobby Fishcher. In his eight US Chess Championships, Fischer lost only three games. In 1972,  Fishcher beat Boris Spassky, a Russian, to become world champion. This led to a whole generation of chess enthusiasts and the craze kept getting crazier.

It would be interesting to see how this lockdown craze of chess plays out to be considering places are now re-opening and there are things that might possibly replace chess if played only as a medium of entertainment. 

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