Chess, a game that can be traced back at least 1,500 years, is suddenly one of the coolest games topping wish lists this holiday season and retailers are struggling to keep it in stock.
The game’s popularity can be explained by two big factors: People are spending more time at home during the pandemic, and the popularity of “The Queen’s Gambit,” a Netflix show that follows fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon.
After the show premiered in October, sales of chess sets spiked by 87 percent in the United States, while book sales about the game rose 603 percent, according to market research firm NPD Group. The sudden gains come after flat and negative growth in those categories, according to the report.
“As Covid-19 hit, board games became more popular, and I’ve consistently commented in my reports that the basics will do well, chess being one of them,” said Gerrick Johnson, an analyst at BMO Capital Markets who covers the toy industry. “But again, no one knew chess would explode. Now it’s kind of too late. Retailers can increase orders and the makers can ship what they have from the warehouses, but they won’t be able to make more and satisfy demand until next year.”
Jeff Myers has operated The Chess Store, an online retailer devoted to the game, since 1999. He said he’s never experienced demand like he’s seeing in 2020.
“Me and my wife watched ‘The Queen’s Gambit' together and thought, ‘Wow this is a great show’ and we wondered if it would help the business,” Myers said. “From the day we watched it until now, business has really picked up.”
The Chess Store’s November sales are three times as much compared to the same period last year. Myers also said the average order size is “way up,” with more customers choosing to purchase higher-end chess sets.
With demand surging and the coronavirus also complicating his supply chain, Myers said it’s been difficult to keep certain items in stock.
“Because of Covid-19, we have seen a big hit to our suppliers overseas. In India, where I get my quality wood sets, they’ve been locked down. Our inventories are way down because our suppliers aren’t able to operate or are greatly reduced,” Myers told NBC News. “Our supplier in Spain has been able to work for the most part, but our delivery was about 60 days late. And another supplier was supposed to be here a month ago.”
Mark Kurtzman, owner of The Chess Exchange in New York City, said he’s been busy fielding phone calls from parents interested in getting chess lessons for their kids. Before the pandemic, he used to run tournaments for kids every month. While those are canceled, his network of 22 instructors are still teaching online and through socially distant, masked lessons in person.
“A number of parents have called me and said they watched the show and wanted to get their daughters involved in chess,” Kurtzman said. “People are excited because it’s a cool series. I saw it and thought it was great.”
While demand is high in 2020, everyone who spoke with NBC News said they believe there’s only a limited period of time for them to enjoy the surge in business.
“I think we have a year window here where we’ll see business doing well and interest will be there,” Myers said. “As more people watch the series over the next few months to a year, over time the business will do well, but I’m sure it will start to fizzle and sales will eventually return to a little better or what they normally are.”