Chess.com witnessed 2X more traffic this year for the first time.
Vijith K, an MBBS student from Mumbai resumed playing chess online during the pandemic-induced lockdowns in 2020. Earlier, he used to participate in and win chess tournaments during school days, but later with the busy academic schedule his interest in the game declined.
“My mother insisted me to play chess during my childhood. However, I was not able to play the game once I joined college. But now, since the lockdown, I have started playing the game again, especially online.”
One of the largest websites among chess players and chess geeks, Chess.com announced in January 2023 that traffic on their website has nearly doubled and their servers are struggling to accommodate such an inflow.
On December 31, 2022 they had seven million active members on Chess.com in a single day for the first time. By January 20, 2023, they had ten million active members.
Vijith’s mother, a physician by profession taught her kids to play chess from the age of five. She said that around 85 per cent of the human brain will be developed by the age of seven.
“Chess is different from other sports as it helps in the personality formation of an individual. The game allows us to develop our concentration, increase our intelligence quotient (IQ), and the mindset to accept failure,” she said.
Experts say that India has been the front-runner in the number of chess players and participation in chess tournaments since its inception.. With Sayantan Das from West Bengal becoming Grand Master, India now has a total of 81 Grandmasters (GMs). Other than this India currently has 124 International Masters, 18 Woman Grandmasters, and 42 Woman International Masters.
Aravind Shastry, Secretary of the Karnataka State Chess Association said that chess is a game you can play online or offline seamlessly without any limitations. The Chess Olympiad that happened in India helped in attracting more people to the game.
“We are conducting various events and tournaments within the state. Every week, we receive more than 1000 entries. In 1988, when I started playing chess, the average number of entries was below 100 and this is a significant increase,” Shastry said.
As per Chess.com, this surge, especially after the pandemic, is due to multiple reasons. The pandemic-induced lockdowns, Pogchamps tournaments, a series of amateur chess tournaments hosted by Chess.com, the Netflix show Queen’s Gambit, and the viral photo of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo just before the 2022 FIFA World Cup are some of those reason.
Another area that witnessed the surge is online streaming. In 2022 , various chess streamers together were able to generate over 20 million hours of watch time among their audience. Of this, an American GM, Hikaru Nakamura from his channel, GM Hikaru has garnered around 12 and a half million hours.
Pogchamps, had 63,000 people watching at a time, making it the top viewed chess stream ever. Influencers like Mr. Beast, Pokimane, xQc, Ludwig, and MoistCritikal had participarted in Pogchamps 3—the third edition. This event has helped the Chess category on Twitch— an American live video streaming service— to reach 3,76,000 concurrent viewers.
The physical sale of chessboards and chess sets have also witnessed a boom after the pandemic. Chess sets saw an 87 percent increase in sales. Meanwhile, Chess-related book sales increased by 603 percent in 2021, after the lockdown.
Murtaza, who used to run a hardware shop, switched his business to selling chess and board games after the pandemic due to less demand for hardware items. He opened SHPAZZ Space Mart, a chess and board games shop in Bangalore after the pandemic and said that he is happy with his business and will be opening a new store in JP Nagar.
The dark side
Despite the surge and mass adoption, chess has also witnessed cheating scandals globally. More than half a million accounts have been closed by Chess.com for cheating. The website also shows that they close 800 accounts every day for using chess engines to analyse game position and an additional 120 closures per day for sandbagging, an intentional act to reduce rating so that the player can qualify for a lower rating class competition in future, different manipulations, and other types of violation.
The cheating controversy in chess emerged again globally during the Sinqufield Cup in September 2022, when the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen accused his opponent— an American GM Hans Niemann— of cheating in the game and dropped out of the tournament. An investigation was conducted by Chess.com and it found that Niemann cheated in more than 100 games by likely receiving illegal assistance.
Shastry said that with the growth of technologies, there are higher chances of players cheating and he cannot help this, especially online. “Even in our state selection tournaments, we have expert committees to scrutinise the game. Apart from that, we cannot help much.”
Vedant Goswami, an International Chess Federation (FIDE) Master and instructor at the Bangalore Chess Academy for more than 20 years said that during lockdown people were stuck in their homes and started playing chess. Now they want to experience the real competitive arena of the game. So, more people are considering chess as a profession.
There were hardly any students for their online coaching section before the pandemic. But once the lockdowns were enforced, the number went up to over 200. However, he noted that more people are coming back again to offline chess once the restrictions of the lockdowns were lifted.
Indian GM ViswanathanAnand said to Outlook India, “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.”