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On Chess: Online Chess Interest Soars Since The Start Of The Pandemic

Magnus Carlsen played Hikaru Nakamura in the virtual version of the 2020 St. Louis Rapid and Blitz.
St. Louis Chess Club
Magnus Carlsen played Hikaru Nakamura in the virtual version of the 2020 St. Louis Rapid and Blitz.

Online chess—particularly faster games including blitz and speed chess—has seen rapid growth in interest and participation because of the pandemic and the popularity of Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” series.

According to Forbes, Chess.com had 1.5 million new subscribers in the spring of 2020, compared with just 670,000 in January 2020. Daily registration numbers at Chess24.com have tripled in many countries since the beginning of the pandemic while the average number of games played daily has doubled compared to pre-pandemic.

While many sports were adversely effected as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, online chess emerged as one of the newer sports obsessions. Most elite chess players were quarantined and stuck at home due to travel restrictions making it possible for them to play in more tournaments against other elite players in multiple online tournaments simultaneously, something unheard of in regular over the board tournament play.

Clutch Chess is just one example of a genre of chess that kept the game new and exciting this past year. After the first clutch event in May 2020 with a US-only field, the St. Louis Chess Club offered a new event in June 2020 that was double the size and included an international playing field. Eight top grandmasters competed for an impressive $265,000 prize fund playing 10+5 games in a knockout format. The Clutch Chess International tournament concluded with a gripping final match between world champion Magnus Carlsen and world No. 2, Fabiano Caruana, with Carlsen claiming victory in the final round.

Another feather in the cap for online chess fans was the 2020 U.S. Chess Championship, held for the first time all online. The 2020 U.S. Chess Championships consisted of five national tournaments that were held in rapid format: U.S. Championship, U.S. Women’s Championship, U.S. Junior Championship, U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, and U.S. Senior Championship.

The U.S. Championship and U.S. Women’s Championship were both 12-player round robin events, while the U.S. Junior, U.S. Girls’ Junior, and U.S. Senior Championships were 10-player round robin events. Tournaments were played back-to-back, with players competing in 3 rounds per day starting with playoffs to follow the final round. The winners were:

● U.S. Girls’ Junior Champion: international master Carissa Yip

● U.S. Junior Champion: grandmaster John Burke

● U.S. Senior Champion: grandmaster Joel Benjamin

● U.S. Women’s Champion: grandmaster Irina Krush

● U.S. Champion: grandmaster Wesley So

YouTube reported that chess videos were watched more than 350 million times worldwide since January 2020. Some channels are gaining thousands of viewers per day.

According to data from SullyGnome, an analytics partner of livestreaming services provider StreamElements, chess is booming on Twitch as well. Chess is now one of the top 20 games streamed on Twitch, with the number of hours watched increasing from around 3 million in March 2020 to more than 8 million in May. Jennifer Shahade recently told Insider.com that chess works well on Twitch because there’s no hidden information, so you can play it in real-time or with a very short delay.

The livestreams also give viewers the opportunity to learn in a way that they wouldn't elsewhere. "Chess at a high level is played on instinct as much as intense calculations, so it's possible for titled players and champions to educate and entertain while the level of player doesn't degrade as much as one may expect," Shahade told Insider.com.

With the combination of more free time and more access through streaming services, chess players are able to compete in a way they never have before, and chess enthusiasts from across the world are now able to watch and consume chess content without interruption.

As pandemic restrictions begin to loosen and more events are held over the board again, online chess will never be the same and the game of chess will continue to find ways to grow, engage and thrive.