The potential GOAT of chess faces intriguing challenger
The World Chess Championship between Norway's Magnus Carlsen and Russia's Ian Nepomniachtchi began on Friday, 1,094 days after Carlsen won his fourth consecutive title.
Why it matters: During the long, COVID-fueled layoff, chess entered a new era, and with the championship finally here, the age-old game is ready for its close-up.
By the numbers: When the world shut down in March 2020, countless activities exploded in popularity, but few experienced bigger booms than chess.
- Chess.com, the leading online platform, had about 30 million members when the pandemic began. By February 2021, it had 57 million. Today? Nearly 76 million.
- Sales increased, too, bolstered by Netflix's mega-hit, "The Queen's Gambit." In the five weeks after its October 2020 release, sales of chess sets (87%) and books (603%) skyrocketed in the U.S.
The big picture: Most booms died down as the world opened back up, but chess has sustained its momentum by evolving in real time.
- Chess pros like five-time U.S. champion Hikaru Nakamura began streaming games on Twitch in March. By June, he had 400,000 followers; now he has 1.3 million.
- Non-chess Twitch streamers also began playing, turning chess into an esport and introducing millions more to the game.
- Carlsen himself put on a virtual tournament in April 2020 that featured more exciting, rapid- or blitz-style games, garnering 2.7 million hours of viewership across two weeks.
Between the lines: The title match — a best-of-14 duel held at Dubai's Expo 2020 — is shaping up to be an all-timer between the potential GOAT and an intriguing challenger.
- Carlsen, who plays by the book better than anyone, has held the title since 2013, when he took down then-five-time reigning champ Viswanathan Anand.
- Nepomniachtchi plays a lightning quick, aggressive style that could spell trouble for the champ. "He's not afraid of Magnus," one grandmaster told FiveThirtyEight. "I don't think he's afraid of anybody."
How to watch: Follow along on NBCSN, which is airing an hour of coverage each night as it capitalizes on the game's newfound popularity.
Editor's note: This story was originally published on Nov. 23.