Stella Schwartz, 16, hopped on the chess bandwagon this year after hearing about the game from her older brother, Hugh, a high school senior in San Francisco. Alex Post, a freshman at the University of Colorado, started playing in February, after some chess videos appeared in his TikTok feed; he then got his whole fraternity playing.
Many other teenagers and young adults said that they, too, have recently developed a regular chess habit. By all accounts — from players, parents, teachers, website metrics — the game's popularity has exploded.
Since early November, the number of daily active users to Chess.com, a website and app where visitors can get chess news, learn the game and play against one another and computer opponents, has jumped from 5.4 million to more than 11 million, rising sharply after the beginning of the year.
The biggest growth has come from players 13 to 17 years old — 549,000 visited Chess.com in January and February, more than twice as many as in the two previous months, according to the company. The second-fastest age group in the same period was 18- to 24-year-olds.
"It's everyone, every single day," Stella Schwartz said. "I've seen people play at parties."
Casual observers, as well as newly avid chess players, often attribute the trend to pandemic lockdown and boredom, or perhaps to the popularity of the 2020 Netflix miniseries "The Queen's Gambit." But quietly a grandmaster plan also was unfolding, carefully crafted by Chess.com to broaden the appeal of the game and turn millennials and Generation Z into chess-playing pawns. Were they playing chess, or was chess playing them?
"Everything was targeted right at high school, college and junior high," said Erik Allebest, CEO of Chess.com.
The strategy "was very much deliberate," he said: to erase the perception of chess as a grueling, geeky battle of wits and to package it instead on social media as a less intimidating game. The strategy, simply, was to rebrand it as good old-fashioned fun.
"When I was a kid, chess was for nerds," Allebest said. "We started selling the enjoyment of chess and community more than just the top players and news of top players."
The matches offered on Chess.com also play to impatience. Timed games can be played at various lengths: 10 minutes, three minutes or even one minute. Still too long? Enjoy a 30-second match.
Sometimes, Allebest said, it's just about sport for sport's sake, "not about getting better."
Soon, before anyone quite knew what had happened, it was game over, and chess had won. "It happened in a really short period of time," Allebest said of the game's online growth.
Chess.com hired college students to manage its social media presence. The students were encouraged to be irreverent and funny and to create memes, Allebest said.
The site's Instagram account features short, offbeat videos, including the regular appearance of a bearded man in a puffy green pawn costume, who at one point trips over an electrical cord. Joker takes pawn.
Before long, an array of online chess personalities had emerged.
Levy Rozman, 27, is an international master and a lively, charismatic commentator better known as GothamChess; Allebest described him as a "chess prophet spokesperson for 14- to 25-year-olds." Grandmaster GMHikaru has 1.91 million YouTube followers.
Alexandra Botez, 28, another chess celebrity on Twitch and YouTube, earned a particular claim to fame: Once, while streaming a match, she blundered into losing her queen and reacted with an endearing, bemused shock that made the gaffe seem cool. To accidentally lose your queen is now known as the Botez Gambit.
The website allows users to play against other people of their own skill level or against computer programs of various levels, including AI opponents that have names and personalities and can be outspoken.
Fabigi, described as a "hardworking Italian American plumber," is an advanced beginner. Boshi, portrayed as a long-haired human with a reptile body, plays at the beginner level and is "everyone's favorite dinosaur sidekick," according to a Chess.com description.
But the mother of all the bots, introduced only for the month of January, was Mittens, an anime-esque tabby cat with big green eyes that look a little sad.
Programmed at a grandmaster level, Mittens was a stone-cold killer with a mean streak. Mittens played slowly, appearing to give the opponent a chance while muttering obnoxious taunts. ("Meow, I am Mittens, destroyer of kings.")
In January, 40 million games were played against Mittens, which Slate described in a headline at the time as "the evil cat bot destroying players' souls."
While some advocates laud chess as a brain builder, whether it offers anything more than other online games do is unclear, said Michael Rich, an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and the founder of the Digital Wellness Lab, which studies the health aspects of technology use. It all depends, he said, on whether someone is playing to learn, or just for quick digital thrills.
Schwartz, the high school sophomore in San Francisco, said that she believes that chess does benefit her brain. "Chess is a smart game," she said.
Her mother, Emily Stegner-Schwartz, agreed. "I'd rather she play chess than, what's that game, Jewel Crusher or Candy Land," she said, referring to the game Candy Crush.