Chess on the move
Culture | Popular show boosts interest and demand for the board
by Sharon Dierberger
Posted 12/01/20, 03:10 pm
House of Staunton, one of the largest wholesalers of chess sets in the United States, warns customers who visit its website, “Due to unprecedented demand, it may take extra time to ship your order.” Chess USA, a major online chess retailer with a store in New York, has a similar message in a red banner on its site: “We’re experiencing a large number of orders. … Please allow a few extra days for processing.”
Quentin Turner, president of Chess USA, said between online and store sales, the company can barely keep up with demand. It’s about 580 orders behind with sales up between 30 percent and 40 percent from last year. And it’s not just because the pandemic has people hunkering down and entertaining themselves at home.
Ever since the Netflix limited miniseries The Queen’s Gambit premiered Oct. 23, chess set and book sales have skyrocketed. Chess set sales in the United States rose by 87 percent, and chess book sales surged 603 percent, reported NPD, a U.S. market research firm.
Netflix says 62 million households have tuned in to The Queen’s Gambit, based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis about a child chess prodigy, making it the streaming platform’s most successful limited scripted series ever. (Caveat: Those viewership numbers have not been independently verified.) The number of new chess players on chess.com has increased five-fold since the show’s airing.
The Queen’s Gambit follows fictional Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she learns to play chess from the janitor at her Kentucky orphanage and grows to master the male-dominated game while battling addiction. In reality, Jewish Christian Irina Krush is the only American female to become a chess grandmaster.
Noelle Kendrick, director of business development at The House of Staunton, said sales are up about 125 percent from last year.
“We are out of stock for the $100 to $300 wooden sets, although now even the plastic set sales are increasing again,” Kendrick said. Chess tournaments typically use the inexpensive plastic games, which are normally the biggest sellers. Since COVID-19 led to the cancellation of in-person tournaments, fewer plastic sets have sold this year—until the recent uptick. The now bestselling traditional wooden sets resemble those seen in the miniseries.
The online marketplace eBay said chess set sales were already up 60 percent over last year due to more people spending time at home. Since The Queen’s Gambit premiered, set sales have soared 215 percent, and accessory sales for clocks, timers, and score pads have increased dramatically. Nine times more wooden chess sets have sold than all other types.
Kendrick said her company’s chess equipment—more than 6,000 products from all over the world— ranges in price from $10 board sets to $12,000-$14,000 chess pieces made from mammoth tusk ivory. She explained the combination of the pandemic, the holidays, and The Queen’s Gambit made a trifecta, boosting sales across the board, but the miniseries was the main driving force.
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Sharon is a correspondent and reviewer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate. She has served as a university teacher, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, businesswoman, and Division 1 athlete. She resides in Stillwater, Minnesota, with her husband, Bill.