By Don Steinberg 

"The Queen's Gambit," Netflix's fictional drama about a female chess prodigy, has pulled off an unlikely gambit of its own: It's prompted one of the biggest surges in the popularity of chess among Americans since the days of Bobby Fischer's dominance in the 1970s.

The show has become Netflix's most widely viewed scripted limited series, with 62 million households tuning in during the first 28 days after its Oct. 23 debut, the streaming company said. (Netflix now counts two minutes of watching as a view.) The impact is clear: Google search queries for chess doubled from October to November. Participation in online chess sites is soaring and it is getting harder to buy some chess sets.

"We're setting a new record, for most new members in a single day, almost every day of November," said Rick Barton, director of business development at Chess.com, a site for chess education and online play. That influx of more than 100,000 members daily is mostly beginners, Mr. Barton said. The newcomers have been mostly in the 18-to-24 demographic (as high as 60%), and slightly more female than usual, at 25% of new members compared with 22% among the site's base of 46 million members. During the spring, pandemic lockdowns gave a bump to chess sites, he said. "The Queen's Gambit" built on that to create a pop-culture sensation.

Jeff Myers, owner of online retailer thechessstore.com, said his sales this month are triple November's last year. Demand is running up against a Covid-related supply slowdown, he said, and his inventory is dwindling. "We source our best quality Staunton wood chess pieces from India, and India has really been locked down. They haven't been able to harvest trees for the sets, and carving factories for the pieces have been closed," Mr. Myers said. His domestic supply of chess boards also has been disrupted: "The boards I have coming from New York won't last until Christmas at the rate we are selling."

Netflix's seven-episode series is based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis. Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, is a red-headed Kentucky orphan in the 1960s who sees chessboard patterns in her head at age 8. The world opens to Beth as she advances from local curiosity to world champion, all while struggling with substance abuse.

The show feels like a cousin of Amazon's " The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel," sharing its swanky mid-century set designs and fashions, international travel and a strong-willed protagonist in a male-dominated field. Its impact, though, has been more like that of " Stranger Things," another Netflix series that is credited with spurring a revival of the game Dungeons & Dragons.

What is the secret for injecting chess into the mainstream?

"We had a running joke when we were making it, that we were putting the sexy back in chess," said Bill Horberg, the executive producer of the series. "We even had T-shirts printed up for the crew that said, 'Sex, drugs and rook and roll.' "

The chess prodigy "is the perfect character for our time," said Bruce Pandolfini, a chess expert who consulted on the novel and the Netflix series. "Beth is a tremendous survivor."

Imad Khachan, owner of the Chess Forum in New York City's Greenwich Village, realized early this month that the show had become a phenomenon. Working in the store after midnight, "I heard the voice of a young woman as she walked by," Mr. Khachan recalled. "She said 'Queen's Gambit!' Usually passersby just yell 'Chess!' Or, if we are open, invariably someone walks in to ask 'Can I play Bobby Fischer?' "

Getting on the Board

Want to join the chess craze? Here are resources:

PLAY

Chess.com has created a Beth Harmon chess bot that beginners and experts can play against. Novices can take on Beth at age 8; experts can challenge versions of Beth up to grandmaster level.

Lichess.org, which recently reached 100,000 simultaneous players online, is a free site where one can take on global opponents at the same level of expertise. It offers puzzles for mastering tactics and variants like Antichess and Crazyhouse.

BUY

Stores like New York's Chess Forum are open and also offer online shopping. Your Move Chess and Games, of North Massapequa, N.Y., bills itself as America's largest chess store. The U.S. Chess Federation, the World Chess Hall of Fame's Q Boutique, and Thechess store.com offer entry-level and luxury equipment. Shoppers can find handcrafted sets on Etsy and vintage ones on eBay. And Beth Harmon T-shirts are for sale all over the web.

WATCH and LEARN

The chess masters who share expertise on YouTube and Twitch can be entertaining and educational, and they have created a video subgenre analyzing matches played in "The Queen's Gambit," which are based on real ones. Antonio Radic, known online as agadmator, attracted 2.2 million views for his analysis of the final episode's Beth Harmon-Vasily Borgov championship match, based on a 1993 one between Ukrainian Vassily Ivanchuk and American Patrick Wolff. Other video teachers worth checking out include soft-spoken International Master Eric Rosen, the trash-talking grandmasters at Chess Brah, and sisters Alexandra and Andrea Botez, who beat up on the boys as much as Beth Harmon does.

VISIT

The World Chess Hall of Fame in St. Louis physically and virtually offers exhibits, including one on the real pioneering women of chess. The Hall plans to include Beth Harmon in a coming exhibit on chess prodigies.

Write to Don Steinberg at don.steinberg@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 25, 2020 12:23 ET (17:23 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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