Updated Nov 26, 2021 - Sports

The potential GOAT of chess faces intriguing challenger

Illustration of a chess board featuring two chess pieces with a start sign between them
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

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.

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