When American Bobby Fischer won the World Chess Championship in 1972, the membership of the American Chess Federation doubled. After a dip when Fischer left chess, membership grew steadily, especially among schoolchildren. In March 2020, thousands of Americans were housebound playing chess online. The chess themed Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, which debuted in October 2020, attracted more interest. Is there a chess boom and a US-born World Chess Champion going on?
An explosion of online chess
The United States Chess Federation (US Chess) reached a record high of 97,062 members in February 2020. As of March 2020, US Chess-rated over-the-board tournaments were canceled due to restrictions on in-person meetings. While many tournaments have resumed, “chess has not yet recovered due to the lack of after-school programs as schools still struggle with COVID protocols,” said Dan Lucas, Senior Director of Strategic Communication for US Chess. As of December 2021, US Chess had 73,664 members.
In contrast, online chess has really taken off. The Lichess website has its own rating system. The database shows a jump in rated games after the pandemic started, from just over 44 million in February 2020 to over 73 million in April 2020. The Queen’s Gambit broadcast, the website registered nearly 89.5 million in December 2020. (About a third of Lichess games are not rated, and some users participate in non-playing activities, such as watching Twitch streamers or solving chess puzzles. A free site, Lichess shuns trackers so doesn’t know how many of its users are from the United States.)
The number one chess website, Chess.com, peaked at 4.3 million unique monthly new registrations around the world in December 2020. The surge of US registrants was similar, peaking at 1.5 million a month later. According to Austin Gasparini, Director of Business Development for Chess.com, “The real story is not in new registrations, but in Monthly Active Users (MAUs). Our registration rate slowed, but our new players stuck. MAUs of all countries in February 2020 were 6.1 million and were 18.1 million in December 2021, a 195% increase. US specific: 1.4 million in February 2020 and 4.6 million in December 2021, an increase of 228%.”
Stock Markets, St. Louis and the Sinquefield Effect
While online games attract more players, over-the-board games determine the title of the World Chess Championship. Historically and today, top chess players have emigrated to the United States to play across the board.
Volume was “the greatest disaster in the history of American chess,” wrote three-time American chess champion Joel Benjamin American Grandmaster: Four Decades of Chess Adventures. From the mid-1980s, many chess players emigrated from the Soviet Union to the United States. US-born players, like Benjamin, earned less prize money than before the immigrants arrived.
Two of the more famous immigrants were Boris Gulko and Anna Akhsharumova. Before they became refuse, they had lived a comfortable life as chess professionals in Moscow. After seven years as refuse — going on hunger strikes, demonstrating and often being arrested — Gulko and Akhsharumova were allowed to leave the Soviet Union in 1986. Having already won the Soviet chess championships, in general and for women (respectively), Gulko became two-time American Chess Champion and Akhsharumova became American women’s chess champions.
Immigration in the 21st century has two new impulses. First, billionaire Rex Sinquefield’s money attracts world-class chess players to St. Louis. For example, on February 26, 2021, the Saint Louis Chess Club issued a press release that the world’s sixth-highest-ranked active chess player, Grandmaster Levon Aronian, will move from Yerevan, Armenia, to St. Louis. The release continued, “The ‘Sinquefield effect’ is largely attributed to the revival of American chess over the past decade.”
Second, several US universities offer full chess scholarships. The University of Texas at Dallas chess team currently has 14 students (including 10 international students) on full-ride scholarships. Chess program director Jim Stallings said, “The students bring with them excellent academic skills, befitting the university’s reputation for mental prowess.”
Sabina Foişor and Nazi Paikidze received chess scholarships from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Foişor was from Romania and Paikidze was from Georgia (the country, not the state). They switched their federations to US Chess. Both became US Women’s Chess Champions, Foişor in 2017 and Paikidze in 2016 and 2018.
Carissa Yip, the 2021 U.S. Women’s Chess Champion, was born in Boston in 2003. Unlike the fictional Beth Harmon from The Queen’s Gambitwhose chess skills were comparable to those of the American top men, the American top women are not among the 12 players invited to the American chess championship.
Looking for Bobby Fischer
Wesley So won the US Chess Championship in 2020 and 2021. Born in the Philippines, So moved to the United States for a chess scholarship to Webster University. Together with the US-born Fabiano Caruana (4e in the world), so (8e) and Aronian (6e) are the Americans in the top 10 of FIDE (International Chess Federation) players. Caruana challenged World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen in 2018, playing 12 classic time-control games before losing the quick tiebreaker games.
An American could be the next Challenger in 2023 after Carlsen, who defeated Russia’s challenger Ian Nepomniachtchi in 2021. Caruana already has a spot in the 2022 Candidates Tournament, which determines the Challenger. Americans Aronian, So, Leinier Domínguez, Hikaru Nakamura and Sam Shankland hope to qualify for the Candidates Tournament, via two spots from the FIDE Grand Prix Series to be held between February and April 2022.
the CEO of American chess magazine, Josip Asik, thinks So is the most likely American to become the Challenger. Asik said: “Wesley So can get the world title back to the United States. The sky is the limit for this humble man from Minnesota.” If So’s impact is as great as Fischer’s, the number of over-the-board games with a US chess score could radically increase, even in that scenario, it is likely that online will become the most popular place for chess in the United States. stay.