I’ve been a professional chess player and coach for over 10 years now. I founded the Queen’s Gambit Chess Institute (yes, the same name as the popular netflix mini series) during my freshman year of highschool and have spent most of my life in the chess nonprofit community. In March 2020, I received more inquiries than ever before from families and individuals looking to learn chess, join a class, and become fluent in the game.
The inquiries went like this: “We are stuck at home like everyone else, and we are looking for something to do,” or “I found an old chess board in my basement while doing some COVID spring cleaning, and I realized I never learned how to play.” Others said their kids’ after-school activities were cancelled and learning chess seemed like “a good distraction” because “the benefits of learning are better than staring at a video game all day.” The most common inquiry? “Can you teach my kids chess? They seem so frustrated lately, and I think the game would be good for them.”
Chess was at the top of the list for games to play during the pandemic, but why? Why did a pandemic make people want to learn chess? Of course, Beth Harmon and her Queens Gambit, had some influence, but chess must mean something to people if they want to take it a step further. Chess has changed my life, providing me with a career I love and a profession I’m passionate about. Were people finally getting it? Chess is not just a game. It’s a lifestyle.
Chess is a game of problem-solving. How do we get our pieces to specific squares to attack our opponent? How do we balance developing our pieces while trying to create a plan to trap and check the king? It is a game full of questions and one where we must balance all of the different circumstances on the chess board just like navigating life.
For the past year, we have lived in a world where only scientists have been able to provide answers. Everyday people like myself can’t be a part of the discussions on vaccines or COVID-19 prevention, so we look for other ways to solve problems. In my view, chess provides us with problems and the need to find solutions. Perhaps the desire to make an impact during a time of uncertainty is why chess is so compelling?
Chess is an entirely different world on 64 squares. I don’t view the game as a distraction but rather a world that we can control. COVID-19 taught me that people want to help their community, but they just don’t know how. People want to be a part of the solution, strategizing on how to make an impact. Most importantly, people want to feel needed.
Every non-chess player knows the benefits of the game. It teaches people how to think, but more importantly, how to jungle many thoughts happening simultaneously. Everyone wants to be a chess player, maybe not in the Beth Harmon way but to master strategy.
The reason chess players and coaches were so excited to see the rise of interest in chess in late 2020 was because people finally understand what we love about the game. We have control, even just for a few minutes, over our world and can enact change.