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.
Another driver may be Mittens, a big-eyed, deceptively sweet-looking cat bot that began clawing its way through the competition on Chess.com this year. Introduced as a seemingly simple opponent, Mittens turned out to be far more masterful at the game, and has frustrated even a chess grandmaster.
All of this raises questions about the culture and future of the game. Chess.com launched its PogChamps event in 2020, which streamed matches between internet personalities with little experience (Rainn Wilson took on rapper Logic, who came dressed as Wilson’s iconic Dwight Schrute). Many tuned in, excited by the sillier version of the game. But it left the old guard wondering whether the game would pivot to chase profit by throwing less experienced, but popular, players into the limelight, rather than putting all focus on the game’s most serious competitors.
Still, this new growth, not tied to any one event, is shattering past records. In 2020, Chess.com said it saw its number of daily users grow from 1.3 million in March to 3 million by November. Today’s rates triple that high. Now, Chess.com says it is working on rapid updates to scale the site and allow millions to play. Josh Levine, Chess.com’s chief technology officer, says the site is working to separate how it stores data and upgrading hardware to handle the traffic. The site should work better by the end of the week, and be fully updated in the next two to three weeks. “Ultimately this massive love for chess will leave us stronger, and I’m excited about how many people are enjoying the world’s greatest game,” Levine says.
No one knows whether Mittens and #ChessTok are just another short blip in the chess world, exciting new players briefly, or whether they can sustain long-term enthusiasm for the game. But they’re proof that it’s never too late for an old fad to take over the new internet.