When ordered to quarantine last March, Daniel Murphy suddenly had a lot of time on his hands. A theater major whose shows were nixed due to the coronavirus pandemic, Murphy sought to fill a void normally occupied by rehearsals.
“I had time to learn and explore and try new things,” Murphy said. Yet, the outgoing junior initially struggled to find motivation in the new socially distant world.
He would spend hours on YouTube searching for inspiration. Then, one day, it struck like a lightning bolt: a video of grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura playing chess.
“It seemed like something to stimulate my brain,” Murphy said.
Some spent the early months of the stay-at-home order baking. Murphy dedicated himself to watching Nakamura’s live streams and absorbing online chess content from other popular YouTube creators like the Botez sisters (BotezLive), Levi Rozman (GothamChess) and Antonio Radić (Agadmator’s chess channel).
What started as a way to kill time became Murphy’s addiction. “There were days when I’d spend three or four hours watching chess videos, studying and playing on Chess.com,” he said.
Since March, Chess.com, a social network and chess server website, has added on average nearly 2 million new members each month. And, over that time, it has hired approximately 120 employees, Chess.com VP of Business Operations Nick Barton told Annenberg Media.
The online chess boom started when quarantine compelled people like Murphy to look for new hobbies that were both digital and social. It ignited when Netflix released “The Queen’s Gambit” in October. The miniseries about a troubled genius turned chess champion quickly became Netflix’s most-watched limited series of all-time. The show garnered over 62 million views in its first month on the platform, according to Netflix.
Since the show aired, Chess.com has added more than 11 million users. Membership growth continues to accelerate, according to Chess.com data attained by Annenberg Media.
Jack Peters advises the USC Chess Club and teaches the university’s only class on chess, SLL 199, Chess and Critical Thinking. He says enrollment typically fluctuates, but it’s up this semester.
“I suspect ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is partly responsible,” Peters said.
Peters, an International Master (the second most difficult chess title to attain), has been a full-time chess professional since the 1970s, earning a living by playing in chess tournaments, writing a weekly chess column in the Los Angeles Times and teaching. He says the current upswing in chess reminds him of the game’s spike in popularity in 1972 after Bobby Fischer became the first American to win the World Chess Championship, a symbolic Cold War victory. (Ironically, USC’s chess class is housed in the Slavic Languages and Literatures department.)
During what Peters calls the “1972 Fisher Boom,” he says the US Chess Federation membership more than tripled in just a few months. Subsequently, American interest in chess stalled then blundered. “Membership dropped after Fischer announced his retirement, but it did not drop all the way back to where it had been,” Peters said.
The USC chess professor expects online chess to follow a similar trend. “Some percentage of people who play online chess will stick with it, some will advance to become tournament players and a lot of them will just go on to something else,” he said.
But for Murphy, chess is more significant than a quarantine hobby. He joined the USC Chess Club the first week of the fall semester.
“Suddenly, I had made a bunch of great friends and got to play in events I never would have imagined a couple months ago,” Murphy said.
The club plays weekly intramural tournaments on Chess.com and hosts a simultaneous Zoom chat where members sometimes talk strategy and more often talk smack.
In addition, the club represents USC in tournaments such as the Kasparov Chess Foundation University Cup, which over Super Bowl weekend hosted 125 teams from four different continents - online, of course.
The club also plays weekend team matches versus universities including rival UCLA.
“Two years ago, maybe five regular members would show up to our meetings,” said USC Chess Club President Veronika Zilajeva, a junior majoring in civil engineering. “Now, at least 10 members show up consistently and sometimes we get up to 20 playing in our weekly tournaments.”
Zilajeva says it remains to be seen whether the club can sustain growth after the pandemic. She guesses that some members are showing up to meetings because they have a lot more free time these days.
As for Murphy, he plans to remain part of the club when things “go back to normal.” Nevertheless, he expects to be a less active member.
“I probably won’t be able to commit as much time to chess as I do now,” he said. “But if the time permitted and there were a tournament nearby, I’d be so down to go play.”