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New BBC series: Chess Masters, Has Chess Become Cool Again?

Has Chess Become Cool?

When a pop star includes passing references to chess in some of their songs, it’s not usually a big deal; after all, the game and its terminology have offered a rich vein of metaphors for songwriters to exploit over the years, making terms such as ‘checkmate’ or ‘pawn’ commonplace in the lyrics of modern music. If the pop star is the cultural phenomenon that is Taylor Swift, however, with a legion of fans avidly deciphering the precise meaning of each of her words, and she has also commissioned a giant chess board to form a centrepiece on the set of her record-breaking world tour, maybe it’s time to take notice. Chess is back in vogue and this time it’s cool.

The Quens Gambit effect


Of course, this is not altogether surprising. The 2020 Netflix miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit, which follows the exploits of fictional grandmaster, Beth Harmon, clocked up an enormous 64 million account viewers in its first month of airing, and, with its sumptuous mid-century aesthetic, made chess both sexy and popular. As any chess retailer will tell you, this led to dramatically increased sales, as demand multiplied by as much as a factor of ten in just a few weeks, following the release of the show.

BBC revamp old chess TV show

So, it is against a backdrop of greatly increased interest in the game that the BBC has announced the revival of its chess show – a programme that last aired on the channel in 1983 under the title, The Master Game, and which will now be known as Chess Masters. The new show will involve participants from a wide range of backgrounds and age groups competing in a series of rapid chess games, with the winner being crowned ‘Chess Master’.

The original series was known for its innovative (for the time) use of graphics and commentary, so it is expected that Chess Masters will build on this legacy to create an accessible and engaging format. Full details are currently scarce, but the show has the support of the English Chess Federation and its Director of International Chess and External Relations, Malcolm Pein, and will air in 2025.

Taylor Swift fans hanging onto every word she sings, even words she doesn’t…

Image: Billboard via Getty Images

Interestingly, Pein was the subject of a Twitter based wind-up initiated by chess streamer WCM Tallulah Roberts, who, in a tweet, jokingly appended some chess moves to the lyrics of a recent Taylor Swift song, together with the line, ‘omg I can’t believe these are real lyrics from the new Taylor Swift album’. Pein referenced this information in the press release for the show without realising the joke, leading to swathes of people trawling in vain through Tortured Poets Department lyrics (actual chess references are, in fact, present in previous Swift songs and in her current tour aesthetics, as mentioned above).

Commissioning editors in the television industry are keen to spot a trend, and rarely put their necks on the line creating a show without first having a firm grasp of potential audience numbers. Two metrics that will have caught their attention are the number of people viewing Twitch chess streams (an average of 16,000 viewers per day in 2021), and the number of downloads of chess apps, with the app having been the most popular free game on the IOS app store in February 2023. Celebrity endorsements of chess in recent months from the likes of Lily Cole, Madonna and Anthony Joshua will have further elevated its profile within popular culture.

Chess back on our screens

It seems, then, that chess is heading towards a position within society that it last attained during the 1970s, when Bobby Fischer became embedded in the popular consciousness, thanks to his famous battle against Boris Spassky at the height of the Cold War.

It may be pertinent, at this point, to ask whether this is an unreservedly positive development for current players and fans of the game. Popularity is often lauded as a beneficial quality, but it is not without its downsides. In the six months immediately following the release of The Queen’s Gambit, for example, demand for chess sets, pieces and boards greatly outstripped supply, leaving many enthusiasts either struggling to locate the exact items they wished to purchase, or having to join long waiting lists.

Will this cause another surge in chess set sales?

It must be remembered, however, that the Queen’s Gambit demand-side spike was not wholly a consequence of the success of the show; increased disposable income that resulted from lockdown restrictions in 2020 was also a major factor. As such, the current upwards movement of interest in the game feels much more organic and manageable from a retailer’s perspective. It is unlikely that a repeat of 2020 is on the cards, even with celebrity endorsements of the game and chess-related TV shows being made.

For many years a range of chess players, from amateurs to international grandmasters, have been decrying the lack of coverage of chess in the mainstream media; perhaps now is the moment when it can take centre stage.

Published by julian

Julian Deverell is the owner and founder of the Regency Chess Company. He set the business up in 2005 and established the Regency Chess brand in 2008. He's still heavily involved in the day to day running of the business and also has involvement with some other e commerce projects that are not chess related.

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