One move ahead: Growth of chess soars during pandemic, especially online

The popularity of chess has soared over the past year thanks to online options available during the pandemic and the popularity of the Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit.” (Photo by Yuri Smityuk/TASS via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Jericho Hall was 6 when she first saw a chessboard.

Hall’s grandfather showed her the pieces, puzzled by the distinct figures, numbers and letters around the wooden board in her home in Texas.

“I was intrigued by it because it was nothing I had seen before,” Hall said. “I found the instruction booklet on how to play chess and forced my grandpa to teach me. He had no idea how to play at the time, but he learned how to for me. I fell in love with the game at that moment.”

When she began high school, she found her passion for chess wasn’t widely accepted.

“There were times when I stood in front of the door of the chess club room with my hand on the door handle, deciding if I should enter or not,” Hall said. “It was terrifying being the only female interested in chess at a school who saw it as a reason to bully others for it.”

Despite her fears, Hall refused to let go of the game and 24 years after she was first introduced, the graduate student studying aerospace engineering and forensic pathology at Arizona State has rekindled her passion for chess as a new member of the school’s chess club.

She is one of the many who have embraced the growth of chess in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, where virtual platforms have expanded the chess community to new heights, including in the Valley. Throw in the impact of a popular Netflix series about chess and participation in the game is booming.

Chess.com, which was co-founded by international master and Phoenix native Daniel Rensch, received 1.5 million new subscribers in April 2020, compared to 670,000 in January, according to Forbes.

Bernadette La Mazza, a director on the panel of Arizona Chess Central, has seen the growth firsthand, even if it’s from behind a computer screen.

“Chess is a community,” La Mazza said. “I love seeing the progression. It’s a community together.”

When the pandemic started early last year, Arizona Chess Central wrapped up its last in-person chess tournaments before the world as we know it came to a halt.

The state tournament in Tucson was postponed. Summer chess camp was canceled. Weekly meetings with mentors were delayed to the unforeseeable future.

Peter La Mazza, Bernadette’s 17-year-old son, is an instructor at Arizona Chess Central who admitted to the initial struggles of adapting to teaching in a virtual setting.

“I mainly taught only in person, but when I did virtually, I would basically share my screen to show the board and draw arrows, so I could show what I’m thinking,” Peter said. “It was a little more difficult to gauge the students in certain things because you can’t see their expressions, so I would have to read their tone a little bit more.”

Playing over-the-board, face-to-face chess with your opponent adds a social element to a game that requires a high level of focus and concentration.

The interaction between your opponents and your colleagues is something that chess players around the world have been missing during this time where in-person events are nowhere to be found.

The Arizona State chess club plays weekly online tournaments through Discord, which has allowed chess players to find a shared passion during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of Muaaz Wahid/ASU)

The pandemic’s impact

Matthew Brown, a freshman studying marketing at ASU, joined the school’s club in the fall through Discord, an instant messaging and digital distribution platform, after competing in high school chess tournaments with Chandler Preparatory Academy as part of the Arizona Interscholastic Association.

“Once the pandemic started, I took a break from chess,” Brown said. “A couple months in, I was like, ‘I should get back into this.’ I joined the ASU club and I got to meet plenty of new friends. It’s very nice to find it, especially with the little human interaction that we get nowadays.”

Adjusting to online platforms, such as chess.com and lichess.org, during the pandemic have enabled players to learn and understand the complex sport at an accelerated rate.

Andrew Garza, a senior studying computer science at ASU, hadn’t touched a chessboard before he began a deep dive into the game last October.

But Garza’s inspiration to play chess didn’t come from the pandemic alone.

It evolved from watching “The Queen’s Gambit,” an award-winning Netflix show that sparked the growth of chess even further.

“After watching it for the second time, I thought the show itself was really inspiring,” Garza said. “I really love seeing people succeed. When I watch a movie, I start to cry when I see people win. It was very emotionally exciting, and I enjoyed that aspect.”

Garza joined the ASU chess club during winter break. After studying several YouTube videos and reading books on openings, positionings and endgames, he quickly became a part of ASU’s Chess Collegiate League C-team along with many of his new friends in the virtual setting.

“Just from my one friend playing chess, he got me playing chess and he got my other friends playing chess,” Garza said. “It was this whole social widespread effect. It’s probably had quite a big effect on chess, especially in the pandemic and being at home. All the timing has worked out super well for chess.”

Since “The Queen’s Gambit’s” arrival, chess.com erupted with 12.2 million new members, including 3.2 million who registered after the show’s introduction in late October, according to a CNN article from December 2020.

More importantly, the role of a female chess champion in Beth Harmon sparked a movement for girls to play a game that has been mostly played by men.

“‘The Queen’s Gambit’ was a powerful movie on a woman’s successes in a male dominated sport,” said Hall, who has played with her fellow ASU chess clubmates over the last five months. “I love how the movie normalized treating her as an equal. There were hardly any mentions of her as a ‘woman player.’ She was an equal chess player.”

Not just for individuals

Bernadette watched the show a couple times with her son Peter and recognized the significance of showcasing the team aspect of the sport when many believe chess is primarily individualistic.

“I’m glad ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ approached chess the way it did because in some other shows, I don’t think they did it as well,” Bernadette said. “You can see that it’s not just that person’s game, there’s a whole bunch of people participating in this game. I thought that was really important to share.”

For most of her life, Hall didn’t think she would have a chance to play chess on a regular basis. However, with Harmon’s success as a woman, defeating grandmasters and embracing challenges along the way, Hall saw the show as an opportunity for women to step out from the shadows and into the light to play.

“I do believe more people became inspired to play chess,” Hall said. “I’m seeing more younger girls and women getting involved with chess, which is exciting. It’s no longer seen as weird or nerdy as more people are becoming intrigued by it. There’s this shift of new appreciation, which I think is great for chess.

“Growing up as a woman who is an athlete or loves chess, there were conflicting ideas on how we should present ourselves. We had to battle stereotypes that we aren’t allowed to be girly and still love chess. Beth Harmon shattered these stereotypes. The movie did give me newfound confidence as a chess player and stirred up my passion for it.”

Hall can’t wait for the day when it will finally be safe to set up a chessboard at a park and play with random strangers in Phoenix.

For now, Hall has been preparing and practicing with her coach in both a virtual and in-person setting. While in an online format, Hall has a chessboard with a notepad to review studied variations of attacks and defenses.

Arizona State graduate student Jericho Hall holds chess lessons with her coach, preparing with her notes and a unique chessboard. (Photo courtesy of Jericho Hall/ASU)

At a local academy in the Phoenix area, Hall and her coach, along with other pairs, are in a room with 10 tables and 10 complete sets of chessboards. All of the pieces and the boards are wiped clean after each session. They also wash their hands, wear masks, and keep a safe distance while playing chess.

“We met over Skype for one session, and I found it difficult to grasp new knowledge in that setting,” Hall said. “We now meet in person with COVID-19 precautions in place and it has made a huge difference. I’m a hands-on learner, so I benefit more from the in-person coaching.”

While the social interaction of playing chess in person highlights part of the experience, the benefit of learning chess through the computer has expedited the process of mastering the game, which has evolved drastically from the sixth century.

“Computers show your statistics,” Peter said. “If you’re winning more games on white, then you can look back and change something up with black. You can look through all the opening databases. You can see if your opening move works, so you can see if there is a better move. You can test yourself through seeing your history and patterns, so that definitely helps with the learning.”

Online boost

The surge of online chess has undeniably enhanced the growth of the game. Even some of the best chess players in the world stream lessons and tournaments to thousands through Twitch.

Hikaru Nakamura, a top-20 rated chess player from Sunrise, Florida, has streamed hundreds of videos on his Twitch channel since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, providing insight to high-level gameplay while sharing his background of becoming a grandmaster.

Nakamura sees Twitch and other streaming sites as a driving force for the growth of chess, even more so to get more competitive chess players involved.

“You’re going to have online events and over-the-board events, which will provide more opportunities,” Nakamura said on his Twitch stream on March 18. “I think streaming and chess is here to stay.”

Members from the ASU chess club have found watching Twitch streams, like Nakamura’s, to be helpful in understanding elements of the game that they might not have found on their own.


“He’s really fun to watch,” Garza said. “He’s playing these super-fast blitz games and then he’s just reading chat the entire time. It’s crazy how he can split his attention. He’s so consistent in his ability to win every single game and entertain thousands of people, which I think is very impressive.”

“The grandmasters can be a bit more relaxed with their reactions, so you see a bit more emotions to their plays,” Peter said. “In chess, normally you don’t have mouse slips, so when grandmasters do it, it’s a bit funnier. It’s also nice to see how many other people are watching with you, so you know you are part of a community and then you have a chat on the side where people are saying moves or talking about the game.”

Whether it be in an online setting or with friends in a safe and socially distanced manner, playing chess through the pandemic has lit a beacon of hope during a time where it has been hard on many to adapt to the new normals.

Chess has opened the eyes of many to more than just playing a game with friends and family.

They’ve also taken away meaningful messages.

“Chess does help to look forward because you can see your plan, but then you also have to pay attention to a whole bunch of other factors, which is the same in life where you might have one goal, but there might be a whole bunch of things in the way or on the side you have to keep focus on,” Peter said. “In chess, you have to do the same with all the other pieces on the board.”

“It taught me to see the world in a different way, since chess is a game of pattern and strategy,” Hall said. “I’m seeing a difference in the way I think, plan, and move throughout life. I think about my actions more and ask, ‘What kind of impact will this choice I’m about to make will have?’ because in chess, we think, ‘What will moving this piece add or take away from the game?’”

Chess teaches valuable lessons. The game suits all ages and all parties. Everyone has an equal opportunity to learn something new and hold onto it through their individual walks of life.

“If you want to get better, you have to study, and there’s a lot of studying,” Garza said. “I’ve never studied for a game like I have chess. The work you put in is what you get out of it. If you study a lot and put in a lot of time in a purposeful way in which you try to get better, it’s going to reflect, and for me, it’s reflected how far I’ve gotten.”

“Chess really helps you realize why things are happening and how things are happening,” Brown said. “You can’t go through chess without saying this is why I lost or why this move was good or bad. This is going to really help because I guarantee you’re going to find better ways to make money for companies or different things like that. That’s just a life skill in general you can apply to anything.”

As people continue to receive COVID-19 vaccines in Arizona and around the world, a return to normalcy would give chess players with a newfound passion for the sport an opportunity to do what Harmon did at the end of “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Walk through a park, sit down at a table and play a stranger with a common interest.

“It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from or who you are,” Bernadette said. “You just want to sit down and play chess, and you can now.”

Michael Gutnick My-kull Gut-nick
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Michael Gutnick is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in sports broadcast journalism and a minor in mathematics. He is a digital reporter for Cronkite Sports this spring.

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