Trending in 2023 is one of the world’s oldest games played on a 17-year-old website: Chess.com. The site, which lets people take lessons, solve puzzles, and match up against computers or other players, broke its own record with 7 million active members in a single day on December 31. Last Friday, that number jumped to 10 million. The enthusiasm is overloading the site’s servers.
The progress shows no sign of slowing. Spurred by new interest in the game thanks to a recent scandal and TikTok trends, traffic has “nearly doubled” since early December, according to Chess.com’s blog. All but five days in January have set new sitewide records for active users. And the Chess.com app has risen on the popular game section of Apple’s App Store.
It’s a bigger boom than when the Covid-19 pandemic pushed people into their homes and onto their screens. And it’s more hype than when The Queen’s Gambit lured watchers to grab their rooks. “Honestly, this sucks,” Chess.com said in a Monday evening post. “It’s never been a more exciting time to be a chess fan, but that’s also why it’s such a frustrating time to have service outages.”
The website, beloved by novice, amateur, and professional players, is surging with a new cohort of chess enthusiasts, and they’re driven by a sudden push to make chess cool, a viral cheating saga, and a surge in short-form video that makes the game digestible for anyone.
“December and January have been terrifyingly huge, in terms of chess analytics,” says Levy Rozman, a chess master who makes content on Twitch and YouTube as GothamChess. “It’s taking the growth of basically the entire past year, and getting it in a month.”
Unlike during the pandemic or The Queen’s Gambit, there’s no one factor driving chess intrigue. But interest began ticking up as the game made headlines in the fall of 2022, when world champion Magnus Carlsen accused his opponent Hans Moke Niemann of cheating. A review by Chess.com found that Niemann may have cheated more than 100 times in online games. This revelation accompanied an extremely bizarre theory about how Niemann may have used a sex toy to give him hints about the best moves in the match. Soon, people outside of the traditional chess world started tuning in.
Then, in November, soccer greats Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi broke the internet when they each posted a photo of the two of them squaring off in chess as part of an ad campaign for Louis Vuitton. In December, more than 10 million people watched a video from ChessBase India on YouTube of Carlsen playing in the World Blitz Chess Championship.
Rozman began posting shorter videos on TikTok and YouTube that same month, and says he has seen his subscriber base grow by hundreds of thousands of users. #ChessTok on TikTok has more than 2 billion views. These shorter clips, coupled with the powerful algorithms on the video-sharing platform, may be sucking new viewers in who wouldn’t have sat through a 30-minute long chess explanation. “It seems like we’re sort of demystifying chess,” Rozman says. “And there’s much more appeal. It’s not this dreary, elitist game.”