A New Way to Play an Old Game

How the digital world has brought new eyes to the world of chess.

Evan Merrell, Broadcast Editor

The game of chess has a long and rich history, traversing cultural barriers and advancing with each step. Originating in 6th century India, chess traveled across the Eurasian continent spreading to kingdoms far and wide. However, the game that was played back in the 12th century looks much different than the game we play today. It was originally referred to as chaturanga, translating to ‘four division’. This is in reference to the four different divisions of military in India at the time: infantry, calvary, elephant riders and chariotry. 

Many of the pieces you may recognize today, like the queen, were not present in this ancient form of the game. Move patterns and even the appearance of the physical pieces looked different. 

Like many other commodities, chess was reserved for those of power and status in many kingdoms, it was played by nobles and kings in the safety of their castles. Over the thousand year history of chess, that door has been opened for people of all economic status to enjoy the game. Chess problems, or puzzles, where one was given a starting position and challenged to discern the optimal chain of moves, were very popular in English newspapers during the 19th century. 

People in cafes across Europe would engage in friendly matches while enjoying their coffees and croissants. It was a very popular pastime during this period, but as time went on, more intriguing and intricate games arose. Card games like Uno and board games like Monopoly dominated Sunday game nights, while chessboards collected dust on the shelf. 

Chess became known as an “old game”,  one that your grandpa would make you play when all you really wanted to do was play with your new Nerf gun. 

Chess had become a thing of the past and our generation was A-Okay with that. 

But little did anyone know, our lives were about to change drastically. Covid-19 changed our world forever, forcing people into quarantine as a measure of public safety. Alas, even during a global pandemic, the world continues to spin, and people were forced to adapt to the new status quo. In an attempt to reconnect to the real world, we took to the digital world to navigate our new lives. Work and school were on the computer, and when you weren’t at a desk looking at a screen, you were glaring at your phone or watching TV in the living room. 

At this point you might be asking, how does chess play into this? Well, due to the commercial success of one show, Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, and the popularization of chess esports, a new wave of chess players were born. A lot of the popularity garnered by online chess and chess as a whole can be attributed to increased time spent online among the general public. Whether they were picking up the game again or brand new to the sport, many people began to fill their extra hours with chess live streams, online chess matches or watching Beth Harmon, the main character of ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, checkmate her opponents. Lincoln is no exception, this chess outbreak has infected the hallways of our very own, Lincoln Southeast High School.

LSE Freshman, Tobias Pfeifer, watched ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ when it was first released back in October of 2020, and since then he has been playing chess online and with friends regularly.

“I really liked the show… It was a mix of history and chess, two of my favorite subjects wrapped into one thing,” Pfeifer said. 

He was an instant fan of the show, and in the boredom of quarantine, “binged the show a few times,” Pfeifer said. Much like Pfeifer, many others around the country have viewed the show. According to Netflix, the show has been viewed by 62 million individual accounts cementing it as the platform’s most viewed limited series of all time. It has received many accolades including an IGN award, two Emmy Awards and two Golden Globe Awards. It is easy to see the impact of the show, seeing as Beth Harmon has become somewhat of a household name. 

While ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ caught the eyes of many, hooking them on the game of chess, another large contributing factor to the increase in popularity is easy access to online chess and chess content. ‘Chess.com’ is the premiere online chess platform for the entire world.  Launched in 2007, the site had seen steady growth throughout the 2010s, but saw record numbers during the release of the show. Pfeifer has had an account on the website since 2020, playing regularly and improving his rating ever since. 

“I played more online because of the whole pandemic. I played randoms most of the time, and occasionally friends,” Pfeifer said. 

Having access to the website during isolation was crucial to Pfeifer. Besides playing actual chess, Pfeifer and many others consumed a lot of chess content. Chess took over popular content creation platforms like Youtube and Twitch during the pandemic, and previously niche chess content creators garnered millions of views and followers due to the craze. A few of the most popular creators being FIDE Grandmaster Hikaru Nakamura and FIDE International Master Levy Rozman otherwise known as ‘Gotham Chess’. Presently, the two have a combined three million followers on Twitch and 5.7 million subscribers on their Youtube channels. 

“I actually started watching Gotham after ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, so I’ve known of him and his chess for a while,” Pfeifer said. The Gotham Chess Youtube channel uploads an array of chess content, mainly game analysis and chess tactic videos. His videos have amassed millions of views, influencing this new generation of players. 

“I got way better through his videos, I learned Italian, Fried Liver, Queen’s Gambit and a bit of Sicilian [popular chess openings] but I more so taught that one to myself,” Pfeifer said.

Pfeifer can attribute a lot of his game knowledge to Gotham’s videos. He was able to more easily recognize patterns on the board and create opportunities to win material because of his time spent watching and learning, all marks of a proficient chess player.

“[I] just was able to think more clearly about chess and the theory at play, and also was able to look for more checks, captures and forks,” Pfeider said. 

Obviously the digitalization of our world has sunk its teeth deep into the world of chess, increasing the accessibility and diversity of chess around the world in one fell swoop. It is truly amazing to see people on opposite sides of the world come together for a simple game of strategy. 

As technology continues to adapt and evolve, so will chess. With each step forward, chess has claimed its stake as a cultural staple, continuing to stay relevant thousands of years after its initial creation. With each new generation making their mark on the game, the introduction of chess to the digital world was just another chapter in the book. Thankfully chess is continuing to keep young minds active, whether that be on the board or on the screen. 

“Chess is very good for the younger generation, it keeps the mind open and active,” Pfeifer said. 

What will be the next plot twist in the story of chess? We may never live to see it but you can rest assured that each new generation will make chess their own, continuing the legacy of the game. 

“I want to play chess in the future. It is good for killing time. I don’t think I will go far in the world of chess, like reaching 2000 Elo or any type of rank, but I want to go far enough to beat all my friends without a sweat,” Pfeifer said.