The kids’ gambit: how young players fell in love with chess during COVID
Chess tournament organizers saw a demographic shift during the pandemic
By Thea Catipon
Vancouver’s chess scene is making room for an unprecedented number of young players flooding local tournaments.
The influx has dramatically changed the landscape of chess in Vancouver — with the number of tournaments ballooning from only a handful in the province annually to almost weekly events in Vancouver alone.
“[There were] probably eight tournaments a year in the whole province,” said Paul Leblanc, an organizer of the B.C. Open Chess Championship. “Now you can play almost every week. They’re springing up everywhere.”
According to some enthusiasts, the rise in popularity of chess, particularly among young people, boomed during the pandemic when people isolating at home turned to online activities, and Netflix released its blockbuster series The Queen’s Gambit.
Indeed, in June 2020, Chess.com, the most popular chess platform in North America, had 35 million users. By December 2022, that number had almost tripled to 100 million users. In a public statement last January, Chess.com said its system had crashed due to high user traffic.
“As silly as it sounds, a Netflix show can have a huge influence on chess and popular culture,” said Vancity Chess CEO and founder Tyler Sanderson. “A lot of people that come to our tournaments and meetups got started because of The Queen’s Gambit.”
The rising popularity of chess among young people led to the creation in 2021 of Sanderson’s group, which organizes events and live tournaments.
Sanderson said most players at Vancity Chess tournaments are 18 to 25 years old and added, “It’s kind of a rite of passage in chess to get destroyed by a kid in a tournament.”
Brian McLaren, who has been active in the competitive chess scene for more than 50 years, compared his days as a new player to those approaching the game today. In the past, he said, it was almost impossible to find books and instructors. Today, there are hundreds of thousands of chess books and “any junior can Skype with the grandmaster and get chess lessons. It’s quite common now.”
McLaren said artificial intelligence tools are also powerful aids for players as they provide feedback and encourage progress.
UBC student Isaac Trenton, founder of the chess coaching platform Focus Chess, said he was impressed by newer players at tournaments and this kind of rapid improvement was rarer in the past.
“Someone who should have been a beginner was playing maybe the first 15 to 17 moves like perfectly,” Trenton said, though he warned that while technology makes it easier to improve chess skills, it also limits players’ creativity.
First time over the board
Christian Vermette, 26, said he and his friends participated in the Grand Pacific Open, one of B.C.’s largest chess tournaments, for the first time in February.
Before the pandemic, he said, he knew how to move the pieces but he had never been interested in the game. So, he studied chess strategy on a YouTube channel called GothamChess, a popular chess YouTuber with 3.3 million followers. “His videos are very instructional but also a little bit funny.” He also learned from in-person competition.
“I remember I had an opponent who destroyed me and he was just, like, a kid,” said Vermette. The atmosphere at the tournament was friendly, and after the match, he chatted with the kid’s coach.
“[The kid’s coach] helped me learn some more chess things. I thought that was cool,” he said.