In the summer of 1972, a world in the grip of the Cold War found its attention drawn to an unlikely face-off between the superpowers: the World Chess Championship match between Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union and America’s own Bobby Fischer. Over 21 games played in Reykjavik, Iceland, the cantankerous and unpredictable Fischer came from behind and trounced his Communist opponent, snaring a title that the Soviets had held for over three decades.
In the days that followed, excited Americans did what excited Americans usually do: They went out and spent money. Retailers rejoiced as chess sets and boards became hot commodities.
Now, nearly half a century later, it’s all happening again. This time, the reason is the triumph of another American underdog, and a woman at that (albeit a fictional one).
Elizabeth Harmon is a Kentucky orphan with substance abuse issues who takes to chess and rises to the top of a competitive field dominated by men. That’s the premise of Netflix’s seven-part original series The Queen’s Gambit, which, since its Oct. 23 debut, has not only been a boon for the platform, but for chess itself—at least, if sales are any indicator.
According to Profitero, an ecommerce performance analytics firm, Amazon searches for “chess set” have risen by 857%, with sets moving steadily up the best-seller rankings in both America and the U.K. One item in particular, a $28.99 starter wooden set made by Chess Armory, broke into the top 100 list for toys. (At press time, the set is sold out until Jan. 6 of next year.)
The Netflix series has, logically enough, also been a boon for books about chess—specifically, Modern Chess Openings, the volume that the orphanage’s custodian William Shaibel gives to Beth. As practitioners of the game of kings know, Openings is an actual monograph, now in its 15th edition. In the weeks following the series’ debut, according to Profitero, its sales had risen by 5,000%, keeping pace with perennial category favorite Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess. (Fischer, incidentally, later became a recluse better known for his anti-American and antisemitic rants than anything else, but nobody every disputed his genius for the game.)
It’s important to note that sales of chess sets were rising well before the Netflix series came along—by some 25% this year, according to data from NPD Group—but that increase stemmed from the weeks of boredom bought on by the pandemic’s lockdown period. So The Queen’s Gambit appears to have supercharged a trend that the coronavirus started, though both have roots in the same conditions: Americans stuck at home are watching more Netflix—and playing more chess.
“I believe this trend is the result of a confluence of being home, holiday season and the popularity of the series,” said Profitero president Sarah Hofstetter. “Without it, these products wouldn’t have hit these kinds of heights.”
Profitero’s findings are in step with retail data from NPD, which shows that sales of chess sets rose by 87% overall in the weeks since the Netflix series debuted. “The idea that a streaming television series can have an impact on product sales is not a new one,” NPD’s toy industry adviser Juli Lennett said in a statement. “But we are finally able to view it through the data. The sales of chess books and chess sets, which had previously been flat or declining for years, turned sharply upward as the popular new series gained viewers.”
But Hofstetter pointed out that the current boom is notable in another respect. Unlike the way that, say, The Mandalorian triggered sales of Baby Yoda dolls, The Queen’s Gambit is engendering a cerebral activity—one that’s as easily facilitated by pulling dad’s old chess set from the hall closet as by buying a new one on Amazon.