Rediscovering chess

How I turned back to a childhood passion during the pandemic

Krish Dev, Opinion Editor


My first experience with chess was in first grade, when I went to a chess club after school for the first time. My mom signed me up as she thought it would be fun, and she was absolutely right. The teachers were nice and explained the game well — I learned quickly and made many friends in the club, so I chose to continue going most school weeks until the end of fifth grade. I went to a chess camp one summer and I even got a magnetic board to play on the airplane and on road trips. Chess was one of my favorite pastimes as it made me strategize and plan to defeat my opponents.

Chess has been popular for more than a millennium. It’s a simple game to pick up, as I did in a few weeks in the club, but it’s also challenging to master. It is played by people of all backgrounds and ages, from first graders to centenarians. There are only 64 squares and six unique pieces, yet there are over 121 million possible games after only three moves. Chess requires long-term planning, strategizing and problem-solving. An estimated 600 million globally play chess regularly, more than one in ten adults. 

I never really studied chess, so I relied on my intuition and prior experience to do well. The giant chess book I received as a present years ago still lies on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I went to a few tournaments and did well, but I could not compete with those who did study without putting the time and effort into chess as they did.

I had the highest rating and won most of my games when I played in the club for fun, but I would place average in official tournaments. Once middle school rolled around, I tried to join the middle school chess club, but it wasn’t the same. All the people I played with in elementary school weren’t there. The club was not as organized as in elementary school; it had much fewer members and I felt like an outsider there. I eventually lost my desire to play, moving on from chess as it became more of a chore rather than a fun pastime.

Five years passed, and chess had rarely crossed my mind, though I still enjoyed playing other board games for fun. Then, during the early days of the pandemic, chess had a surge in popularity, which can be accredited to chess gaining viewers on Twitch, a popular live streaming service. From February to June of 2020, chess was streamed from around 17,000 hours per month on Twitch to more than 65,000 hours per month, a 282% increase.

One of GMHikaru’s Twitch streams.

One streamer who is a prime example of Twitch’s growth is Grandmaster Hikaru Nakumara, an American chess player and a five-time United States champion. He had 2,000 followers in March of 2020, but his follower count increased as the pandemic continued. As of the publishing date, he has grown more than 900,000  followers. His laid-back personality and elegant explanations of the game made chess captivating even to casual viewers. He brought me back into chess and made me remember the days I went to chess club in elementary school.

Poster for the Netflix Limited Series, The Queen’s Gambit.

One other factor that added to chess’s growth was the critically acclaimed “The Queen’s Gambit,” a six-hour fictional drama on Netflix about Beth Harmon, an orphan who became a chess prodigy and rose to the top of the chess world. The miniseries was at the top 10 of Netflix for weeks and has an 8.6/10 IMDb rating and a 97% Rotten Tomatoes score. I watched the whole show over a weekend after seeing these raving reviews, and I was desperate to play chess just as I did as a young child after watching it. I went on and played a couple of games for fun, which was as great as I remembered it was. To me, chess has the perfect balance between simplicity and complexity, between being stressful and enjoyable. Luck is not a significant factor in chess unlike most board games, which means those who win usually deserve their victory.

For me, rekindling my love for chess has been a personal escape during these difficult times when stress is at an all-time high. This perennial board game’s recent resurgence has come at the perfect time. Although I know I will eventually move on from chess, these past few months have been just as enjoyable as the first time I played the game.