Chess has always been a part of Henry Lien’s life. He’s played it since he was 5 years old or so, his tiny hands just big enough to hold the pieces. He grew up in a part of the Bay Area, Marin, which is known for producing a few excellent chess players, so his schools always had a good chess team and coaches. Lien even created a nonprofit around it, ChessPals, through which he teaches the game at local schools. No one would ever call chess a niche; it’s an old game with a ton of history, played by millions across the world. But in high school, it’s typically contained to its own circles, played in chess clubs. And that’s why Lien was shocked when he showed up at school one day in January and saw chess everywhere.
“I have no idea what happened in January, but since then I’ve seen probably 90% or 80% of our school playing chess,” Lien told Polygon. “It used to be probably 20%.”
And it’s not only Lien’s high school. Nationwide, people are playing a lot more chess — usually online or in apps. Both middle and high school kids are playing chess on their phones in the hallways between classes, sneaking moves in when their instruments are down during orchestra practice. Students at one school even turned the winter formal into a makeshift chess tournament.
“I heard some cheering down one of the hallways off the main dance area,” Hunter Nedland, a South Dakota-based biology teacher, told Polygon. “I figured some mischief was going on. I was surprised to find a group of freshmen sitting with their laptops and phones in the middle of some very heated chess games.” Nedland said upperclassmen have started calling chess the “weird freshman thing,” due to the ubiquity of the game with younger students — but noted that it’s spread across all grades, too. Most teachers said it’s a lot of male students, but that female students partake, too.
These schools reflect an increased interest in chess that began in 2020, credited in part to Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. Chess hadn’t seen this level of popularity since the 1972 World Chess Championship, according to the New York Times. That was the first chess boom. Since then it’s grown even more popular, and in January, chess hit middle and high school students. The abrupt boost in popularity caused Chess.com, the most popular chess app, to crumble, forcing the company to upgrade its servers significantly. By late January, Chess.com had 10 million active members, it said; in April, it hit around 12 million per day. That’s in contrast to its usership before the pandemic, which was fewer than 2 million active players.
Chess’s popularity isn’t necessarily sudden, given that data — it’s been growing steadily since 2020. But the new growth among teens certainly does seem sudden, according to the teens, teachers, and chess experts that Polygon spoke to over the past week. Schools that don’t have chess clubs are rushing to start them. Teachers are confused but pleased to see a wholesome new hobby. Administrators are struggling with how chess is disrupting classrooms at times, and are blaming it for attention issues and drama in classrooms and hallways. Can you ban chess? Some schools have reportedly had to.
Levy Rozman, a popular chess content creator who goes by GothamChess online, told Polygon his YouTube channel peaked in January — he got 25 to 30% of his lifetime views during that time. Even now, months later, traffic has declined, but it’s still 10 times higher than the first chess boom, when The Queen’s Gambit came out in 2020.
“All kids across all high schools [and middle schools] in the U.S. are playing chess and screaming out chess memes,” Rozman told Polygon. “What a time to be alive. I don’t remember anything like this even in 2019 when I was just a chess teacher.”
There’s no easy answer for how chess has spread among preteens and teens. The general popularity of the game following The Queen’s Gambit is absolutely part of it. Chess’s anal bead controversy may have given chess a boost, too: A cheating scandal involving Hans Niemann and Magnus Carlsen, not actually involving anal beads, thrust chess into the spotlight. Last year, Carlsen accused Niemann of cheating in a chess tournament. Niemann responded the following month with a lawsuit against Carlsen and Chess.com. But the cheating scandal made headlines highlighting the anal bead controversy above anything, a theory that originated as a joke in Twitch chat and on a chess meme Reddit thread. That’s where a commenter suggested Niemann used anal beads to cheat against Carlsen. A Reddit thread expanded on that, joking that Carlsen is the originator of the trick — a supercomputer embedded in anal beads — that was later stolen by Niemann. Though the theory is totally unverified, it still took the scandal over the edge and into viral notoriety.
And then there’s chess’s growing popularity on Twitch and YouTube. Popular streamer Ludwig Ahgren hosted a $1.6 million chessboxing event — an event that combines chess and boxing, of course — that reached millions of viewers. Normal chess is popular on Twitch, too. Esports teams have signed some chess players, like Hikaru Nakamura to Misfits and Alexandra and Andrea Botez to Envy. On YouTube, Rozman has 3.5 million subscribers, and his videos frequently go viral on TikTok. Rozman told Polygon that once he started posting short-form content, like TikToks and Instagram Reels, in late November and early December 2022, his channel popularity skyrocketed even more.
“People like Levy Rozman started to catch the interest of the junior high, high school, college-age dynamic,” Chess.com CEO Erik Allebest said. “And once that happens, there’s more TikToks, more memes, and then kids are downloading the app. And then when a couple of kids in school are playing it, everybody’s playing it. It really snowballed.”
It’s all these little things and perhaps a few others, like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo playing chess in a Louis Vuitton campaign and Carlsen showing up to a chess match late with 30 seconds to go but still winning, that created the perfect storm of chess. Chess content, called #ChessTok, is carving out its own spot on TikTok, bringing it to even more people. Now everyone’s playing chess — look down a school hallway and you’ll see students playing chess against each other on their phones. In some cases, it’s one of the few games that are allowed past school firewalls, teachers told Polygon, which plays a part in its ubiquity, too.
But are the kids good at chess? Not really. Lien said other kids sometimes approach him to analyze their strategies. “People are always trying new things, and so they’ll come to me and say, ‘Is this good?’ and sometimes I have to tell them it’s not,” he laughed. Rozman told Polygon that chess’s new growth is opening doors for the game — you can be a low-level chess player and still be entertaining to watch. Maybe that’s why you’re entertaining. “The young audience […] doesn’t have as serious and uptight of a relationship with chess as historically thought was necessary,” he said.
A viral post on Tumblr described another creative strategy that claims students have invented “the evil advisor gambit.”
“He gets a third person to give out constant terrible advice to both teams hoping that his opponent falls for it straight-up or that his opponent thinks HE fell for it and will act accordingly thus worsening their own strategy,” the Tumblr user wrote. “He has won every game he has been able to pull off a coordinated evil advisor gambit in. This is [a] chess innovation never before seen in its 700 years on earth.”
Another unconfirmed viral post, this time on Reddit, suggested that chess was banned at one school because it’s caused bad behavior — including bad-mannered chess play and so-called “roaming chess gangs” that disrupt lunchroom matches.
On the whole, teachers largely welcome chess. Most of the teachers Polygon spoke to let their students play chess between assignments and enjoyed seeing them trying out a new game. Sometimes teachers play against students, too. Chess is a classic game that’s a lesson in strategy and problem solving. It can teach patience, reasoning, and creative thinking — all good skills to have.
The chess world welcomes news players generally, too. Lien is glad to see new players flocking to ChessPal classes, bringing the venture to new schools and areas. The face of chess is also changing because of this craze. Chess has been long seen as a men’s game, something The Queen’s Gambit highlighted. More women and girls are playing chess thanks to the show, too. Rozman told Polygon he’s seen an increase in the number of women watching his content — he’s now got a 94/6 split between men and women. It’s not huge numbers, but it’s 4% more than before the chess boom. “One of my videos, [on] how to play chess, the ultimate beginner’s video, that video in some months is 75/25 [men/women],” Rozman said. “That’s a historic percentage between male and female [players].”
The thing is, chess is a little intimidating. There’s so much strategy to learn and catch up on. We see chess as a game for especially smart people, not normies. That’s no longer the case. You’ll see kids of all ages and genders whispering “en passant” to each other passing by in the hallways.
Teens are dismantling the mental barriers to entry and unabashedly being bad at the game. “Everyone plays bad chess, except for the very top players,” Allebest said. “Why not celebrate that? It’s how we all play.”
Update: This story has been updated to clarify details of the anal bead cheating theory.