So I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed something pretty interesting over the past few months.
Everyone's playing chess – especially teenagers.
I’ve talked to my friends (from many different schools) and they all report a sudden surge in the popularity of chess. These teenagers play chess during lunch, during their bus rides – even during class. Chess terminology has entered these teenagers’ vocabulary – “Ah shoot I blundered!!” and “Hahaha he didn't notice my fork!” are common phrases that you’ll actually hear. This is not a joke – I legitimately hear "OMG I'm blundering so hard" all the time¹.
So what exactly is going on here? Why is chess so trendy?
I’m going to break this article into three parts:
- How did we get here? • Analysis on the causes that have made chess popular.
- What’s happening now • Commentary on the current state of chess, especially among teens.
- Why you should continue playing chess • If you only read one section, you should read this one.
1. How did we get here?
So in 2020 and 2021, COVID happened. That meant people had to stay inside for a long time. Since they had to stay inside, they couldn't really go to Chick-Fil-A or trampoline parks or shopping malls, so they had to find other things to do. So they looked on the internet, and by some miracle, they discovered the wonderful game of chess.
Alright, so that's not a perfect explanation. Let me try to break down some of the contributing causes that made chess so popular:
The Queen's Gambit
This 7-episode Netflix show was pretty awesome, and the show's 62 million viewers seem to agree. The Queen's Gambit was also released in October 2020 – right in the middle of the pandemic – so it's not surprising that it contributed hugely to the rise of chess in popular culture.
Also known as Levy Rosman, the popular chess YouTuber and streamer has seen ridiculous increases in both his reach and his following. Take a look at this graph:
And that's not even taking into account his growth in 2023. He's now at a whopping 3.37M+ subscribers and has over 1B total views on YouTube. If you asked a bunch of random people on the street to name one chess player, I bet most of them would say GothamChess.
You've probably heard of this guy. The WSJ alone has at least 10 articles covering the whole Carlsen–Niemann controversy. The whole deal: Hans Niemann, this relatively obscure American chess grandmaster, beat Magnus Carlsen (the current world champion) in a classical chess game on September 4, 2022.
I'm not going to make this article 40 minutes long by explaining everything, but a whole lot's happened since then. But the only thing you really need to know is that this controversy got huge media coverage. NPR, the Guardian, WSJ, Forbes, Time, and many others all released articles covering the Carlsen-Niemann controversy.
And of course, all that media attention only led to the general population's increased interest in chess.
Those aren't the only causes, but they seem to be the most prominent. And the simultaneous jumps of the Queen's Gambit, COVID, GothamChess, and Hans Niemann have caused the popularity of chess to skyrocket, like a small child being quadruple-bounced on a trampoline.
2. What's happening now
Now I don't go to a large public school, but I have a lot of friends who do. And according to them, chess has taken their school by storm.
And the data agrees – chess.com, the most popular chess website in the world, saw its number of registered members skyrocket throughout COVID times. A few months ago, people couldn't play on chess.com because their servers were overloaded from the massive increase in website traffic.
So chess has definitely become much more popular. But why is chess so popular among these teens? A few hypotheses I have:
Teenagers, if nothing else, love to compare themselves to other teenagers, because it makes them feel oh-so-validated. Trust me – I'm a teenager. Grades, height, athleticism, intelligence, and attractiveness are all things teenagers love to rank. It's only natural that chess, with its built-in ranking capability (chess ratings), can quickly (but unfortunately) become just another thing to compare.
Teenagers are also especially good at imitating their peers (think 'Monkey See, Monkey Do'). It only takes a few dedicated chess players at a school for chess to spread like wildfire – especially once the teenagers realize chess is actually so fun.
Chess is also just really fun – and it feels awesome to win an almost entirely skill-based game. Don't believe me? Just go play a game of chess on chess.com or lichess.org. If you want to watch some chess entertainment, check out GothamChess or GM Hikaru Nakamura.
3. Why you should continue playing chess
If you've started to play chess, awesome! Here are a few reasons why you should keep playing chess (or start playing chess):
There's a 2012 study showing that students who played chess showed more achievement in meta-cognitive abilities, and mathematical problem-solving capabilities than other students who didn't play chess.
The study selected:
- 86 school-boy students to play chess, and
- 94 school-boy students to NOT play chess and instead participate in normal school activities.
After 6 months, they gave the students math exams. What did they find?
Kazemi et al. found that the mean of the math scores of the chess player students was MORE than the non-chess player students, at a 99% confidence level. What's the explanation? The researchers said:
- "Chess may help us find original and imaginative solutions to accomplish a plan."
- "Chess is very influential, since it is self-motivating."
- "Chess is an activity of boundless potential for the mind."
So if you want better math grades, maybe play more chess!
In a game of chess, you only have so long to play all of your moves. If you spend too much time focusing on the opening, for example, you'll run low on time in the endgame and make mistakes.
Additionally, you want to spend a good amount of time on the most dangerous chess positions. And typically, if you run out of time, you just lose, regardless of whether you're one move away from checkmating your opponent.
Time management matters in real life, too! Chess helps reinforce the concept that you shouldn't spend too much time focusing on things that won't actually matter that much. So the next time you find yourself scrolling on TikTok, you'll take a moment to reflect about whether you're really spending your time wisely.
If you'd like to read a more in-depth article on this point, you can do so here!
Every move you make matters – especially when it comes to chess. You can play 29 consecutive amazing moves, and throw away the game by making 1 bad move. You'll lose a ton of chess games if you're careless and make decisions too quickly.
Chess teaches you to avoid your largest blunders – and helps you make the right decisions. As one of my friends suggested: it's good that teenage boys are playing chess, because they'll actually stop, think about, and make a good decision on how they are going to flirt with girls².
If you'd like, you can read a related article on this point.
Conclusion & Endnotes
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¹ I hear this in some weird contexts, too. My friend says this unironically once he loses several points in a row in ping pong.
² Thanks to Sloane Price for suggesting this (hilarious) insight. Also, thanks to Adrian Sola and Kate Liemandt for contributing edits.