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Son Ari, 16 left, and daughter Taleen, 14 right, enjoy a game of chess in their backyard after being turned onto the game by their mother Tamar Sahakian, right, at their Toronto home on Nov. 18, 2020.J.P. MOCZULSKI/The Globe and Mail

Tamar Sahakian had only ever played chess casually, years ago. It was something to pass the time on her phone while her children took piano lessons. She moved one piece at a time, never thinking about strategy.

But when she watched The Queen’s Gambit this month, she suddenly saw the game in a whole new light. It became a game of drama and cunning, a game of near-infinite strategic possibilities.

“I thought, this is really cool and I want my kids to learn more about it,” said Ms. Sahakian, a homemaker who lives in Toronto.

She and her two children, a 16-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter, are now taking online lessons through the Chess Institute of Canada.

Just as everyone was baking bread early in the pandemic, chess has now become our collective obsession thanks to The Queen’s Gambit. Released in late October, the Netflix show about a female chess prodigy has become, well, a game-changer.

Mastermind Toys, a company with stores across Canada, has seen interest in chess “peaking recently,” said Susan Anderson, the company’s vice-president of marketing and brand. The website Chess.com, the world’s most visited website for online chess play, has set a record for new players every day since the beginning of November. Chess schools and organizations are getting phone calls from people eager to learn the game, which they say is a perfect pastime for this winter.

“I think people will look back at this time as kind of the golden era for chess,” said Nick Barton, director of business development at Chess.com.

Because of The Queen’s Gambit, he said, people who thought of chess as a boring, intellectual exercise now see its intrigue – it has made chess cool.

It’s been a long time since anything in pop culture has had such an effect.

“You’d have to go back to appearances on late-night talk shows from Bobby Fischer when there was the entire Fischer-Spassky thing going on during the Cold War,” Mr. Barton said, referring to the early 1970s rivalry between the American and Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky.

Chess has been popular throughout the pandemic, including a peak in March when so many people were isolating indoors, Mr. Barton said. But The Queen’s Gambit has pushed interest in the game to a whole new level.

During the first week of November, more than 500, 000 people became members of Chess.com, he said. “That’s an increase of over 100, 000 over the previous high back in March.”

The demographics of those new users are a sign of the show’s influence, Mr. Barton added. More than half are between 18 and 24, and a higher proportion than usual are women taking up the game.

“We’ve never seen something be so impactful to shift demographics on our site,” he said.

Helen Walsh recently signed up her eight-year-old son, Matthew, for online lessons after watching the show. He had been playing at school prior to the pandemic, and she was reminded how much he enjoyed the game.

“He has good logical reasoning abilities and that’s why chess is a good fit for him,” said Ms. Walsh, a programming and planning manager for the Canadian Securities Administrators, who lives in Toronto. “This whole business of strategizing how things might go, the impact of certain choices you make, he loves it.”

Studies have shown playing chess has a wide range of benefits, including improving problem-solving abilities, memory and verbal skills, among others.

Such benefits are among the reasons why parents want their children to learn the game, said Marcus Wilker, director of operations at the Chess Institute of Canada, a Toronto-based organization that provides chess instruction.

The game also helps build resilience because it requires “taking risks, getting back up when you’re knocked down, realizing that you always have choices,” he said.

While these benefits might attract some people to chess, the current interest in the game is likely owing to how The Queen’s Gambit has shown its tantalizing complexity, said Gyan Awatramani, co-founder of The Vancouver Chess School.

Learning the basics, such as the names of each piece and how they move, can be done quickly, but the game has a mesmerizing depth of complexity that makes it compelling to both new and seasoned players, he said.

Here, for instance, is a mind-boggling fact: There are more possible iterations of chess games than there are atoms in the observable universe. “To play a game of chess, to learn the rules, is not that difficult, but to master it is impossible,” Mr. Awatramani said.

That helps make it a perfect game for people looking for ways to fill their time during the pandemic, he said. “It’s a nice way to keep your mind occupied and keep sharp.”


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