Chess – particularly online chess – was already experiencing one of its best years in decades in 2020 as the game thrived while people spent more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, Netflix released “The Queen’s Gambit” on Oct. 23, and the brilliant series did more than take advantage of the world’s newfound interest in chess — it helped push the game to new heights.

The Queen’s Gambit
Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Beth Harmon in “The Queen’s Gambit,” the breakout Netflix series about a young woman’s journey in the chess world. (Image: Charlie Gray/Netflix)

“The Queen’s Gambit” is a seven-episode Netflix series based on a 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis.

‘Queen’s Gambit’ Achieves Worldwide Popularity, Acclaim

The series tells the story of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphan who learns chess in the 1950s and soon finds she has both a talent and a passion for the board game. Over the course of seven episodes, Harmon rises through the ranks of the chess world, making friends and battling foes while also fighting against her own inner demons.

Viewers and critics have praised the show for its unforgettable cast of characters, engaging story, and historical aesthetic. Taylor-Joy delivers a magnetic performance as Harmon, a character who shares traits with chess greats like Bobby Fischer and Judit Polgar, among others. Even weeks after its release, “The Queen’s Gambit” remains the No. 1 show on Netflix in numerous countries around the world.

Viewers don’t need to know a bishop from a rook to enjoy “The Queen’s Gambit,” and the show would hardly have reached its astounding levels of popularity if only grandmasters could understand it. But, the chess community has shown particular love for the series, which arguably presents the most accurate portrayal of the chess world ever put to screen.

Thanks to work by former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and famed chess instructor Bruce Pandolfini who both served as consultants for the show, nearly every detail of the chess scenes feel true to life. The creators based games on real-world contests, infused the show with the proper tournament atmosphere at every step of Harmon’s journey, and made sure that characters correctly use the names of chess openings and other jargon. Once again, the performances – particularly of Taylor-Joy and Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who plays American chess champion Benny Watts – are key, as they handle the pieces like experienced tournament players, even in challenging speed chess scenes.

Chess Booms as People Play, Watch, and Bet Online

The question isn’t whether “The Queen’s Gambit” will boost interest in chess, but just how big that impact will be. Already, eBay reported a 273% increase in searches for chess sets in the 10 days after the series went live.

It’s hard to imagine that interest won’t translate to watching chess. Tens of thousands watched each match of the Pogchamps online chess tournaments earlier this year, which featured Twitch streamers who were learning the game as they competed.

Similar crowds turn up in streams for the elite online events that have flourished this year, including the Speed Chess Championship and the upcoming Champions Chess Tour, with overseas bookmakers offering odds on those professional-level tournaments.

We don’t yet know if online chess will grow to the point where American sportsbooks will demand that regulators allow them to create markets the next time Magnus Carlsen faces off against Hikaru Nakamura. But, between the success of previous events, the overwhelming popularity of “The Queen’s Gambit,” and the prospect of increased COVID-19 lockdowns this winter, one thing is for sure: people will be playing, watching, and betting on a lot more chess for the foreseeable future.

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