Chess boom leads students to play during class


Underclassmen Austin Mei (left) and Ashwin Rajan (right) face off in a game of chess during Chess Club Monday in Room 1107. The game has been rising in popularity for a year, gaining traction among students as an in-class hobby. Sophomore International Chess Federation (FIDE) Master Austin Mei attributes it to the pandemic.”[Chess] gained a lot of attention in the pandemic, when everyone was on their computers,” Mei said. “It hooked a lot of people, and I don’t think it’s too much of a problem if you’re playing in class and learning well regardless.” (Photo: Evan Chien)

Nathan Jiang and Evan Chien

A strategy game that is anything but — with armies advancing step by step across the checkered board and pawns sacrificing themselves to protect their kings — that’s chess. It’s enjoyed by millions and is one of the most popular games out there for nearly one and a half millennia. 

Often seen as a simulation of war, chess is played by two players, each with their own battalions on opposite sides of the board. Players must outsmart and outmaneuver their opponent in order to win by checkmating the opposing king.

Chess has been on the rise for a while now, gaining a wide base of players. According to, the biggest online chess community, the number of chess players has skyrocketed since the start of the pandemic, leading to the servers struggling to keep up. The online network traffic analyzer Similarweb saw’s usage leap from a 167 million concurrent user peak to  a 276 million peak from October to December.

Sophomore Marcus Ling said he enjoys chess because it helps exercise his brain.

“It’s also very entertaining as you win some and you lose some,” Ling said. “It’s a wild ride of emotions.”

According to Ling, the spike in chess players was mostly due to the pandemic.

“When everyone was locked down, there was a massive chess boom on Twitch, where a bunch of popular streamers, who usually play Overwatch and other games, took on chess and held tournaments,” Ling said. “In fact, the servers were just down two weeks ago because there was so much activity … so many people are logging on and I don’t think there are signs of it slowing down anytime soon.”

Sophomore Austin Mei said he has been playing chess for six years, and spends roughly 20 hours every week studying chess theory to achieve his current title of International Chess Federation (FIDE) Master. The title is the third-highest a chess player can receive from FIDE. According to Mei, he likes chess because of the strategy and the widespread player-base.

“Generally, I like turn based games that require more strategy than reflexes,” Mei said. “Also, because chess is so widespread, it’s always easy to find somebody to play against. For some games that don’t have a big player base, it’s difficult to find games, but with chess, … it’s not difficult at all.”

According to Mei, the spike in popularity of chess was also heavily fueled by Netflix’s Top 10 series “The Queen’s Gambit.”

“‘The Queen’s Gambit’ was, for a time, number one on Netflix’s top trending list, so a lot of people got exposure to that,” Mei said. “Female players especially got inspired by the story of Beth Harmon, so they wanted to pick up the game as well.”

According to Mei, who also leads the popular Monday Chess Club at Paly, he hopes that club members not only enjoy chess but also learn how to display sportsmanship.

“You learn how to both respect your opponent but also be competitive with them at the same time,” Mei said. “You learn how to not throw a fit when you lose. You have to think your moves through because once again, you can never take them back when you’re playing right.”

Ling said that this trend has led to some students playing chess during certain classes.

“I have noticed that, generally, it [students playing chess] takes place during English and Chinese, two classes in which a lot of the stuff you do is either classwork that doesn’t take a lot of time or homework,” Ling said. “Overall, it’s kind of a way to pass time in a way that entertains yourself and the people around you.”

According to Mei, if you understand the material and are ahead of your classmates, playing chess in class doesn’t hurt.

“If you think you really have everything down and the class time isn’t super valuable to you, as long as you’re not bothering anyone else I wouldn’t really care,” Mei said. “If one of my classmates was playing, I don’t think most people would mind.”

Some teachers have differing opinions on the boom of chess and its presence in classes. According to English teacher Joshua Knowles-Hinrichs, no matter what class they’re in, playing games like chess that occupy such a large part of the mind will unwittingly distract students and affect information retention.

“I know it can feel productive, jumping back and forth and doing two things at once,” Knowles-Hinrichs said. “[However], studies show that it is detrimental to your retention of information. Obviously your focus suffers too, and you’re spending less time getting the classwork done.”

In the end, chess’s strategical and puzzle-like nature has contributed to its rise in popularity, along with the ease-of-access from online chess sites. It’s a fun way to spend time with your friends, just talking about it, or playing against them. The Chess Club is always looking for new members to join its massive community — and, as Ling said, what’s not to like about it? Your move.