The popularity of chess is nothing new: This is one of humanity's most enduring games, with our ancestors playing some version of it since (at least) the sixth century. In that time it's gone through lulls and peaks of interest, which in the 20th century were usually sparked by world championship matches between the likes of Fischer and Spassky, or Kasparov versus Karpov.
In the 21st century the great players remain, arguably greater than ever, but the game's booming popularity in the last couple of years is probably down to the smash-hit Netflix show The Queen's Gambit, the knock-on effects of Covid lockdowns, and the simple fact that a quick game against another human being is only ever seconds away on your phone or PC.
This ongoing spike in popularity has now reached a level where Chess.com, the de facto home of the game online, is seriously struggling to cope. I play regularly on the platform and in the last couple of months it's been less reliable than usual. I've had a bunch of games in-progress drop without warning, and sometimes the service appears down completely.
The platform has now posted a statement acknowledging that it has problems, explaining why, and what it's doing now and in the future to try and mitigate them. January 20, 2023 saw ten million users on the site and, it says, traffic generally has nearly doubled since the beginning of December. "Our servers are struggling [...] we know it's super frustrating". It says it's working to make things better "but sadly there isn't (yet) a simple button we can press to resolve these issues".
Chess.com goes on to address why it thinks the popularity of the game has spiked so dramatically, to the extent that all but five days this month have set new records for active players and the Chess.com app is now #2 in the Top Free Games section of iOS in the US (and #1 in some countries). "31,700,000 games were played on January 20 alone, a site record, and we are now regularly seeing more than one million games an hour".
As for the reasons behind this growth, the site points out there's way more than one factor. It acknowledges that things like The Queen's Gambit and lockdown had a big impact, but notes other things such as: One of 2022's most popular social media posts featuring footballers Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo playing chess; last year's absolutely explosive story where world champion Magnus Carlsen accused his opponent of cheating (Chess.com drily notes this drama was fuelled by subsequent lawsuits and "ridiculous 'device' allegations", i.e. that the accused was using vibrating anal beads); the general growth of entertaining chess streamers; and Mittens.
Mittens is rapidly becoming Chess.com's own homegrown meme. It's a chess AI with a cute cat avatar that will beat your ass then say stupid things afterwards with a "meow" somewhere, and people have taken to it like they take to all cute cat things.
So lots of reasons for the general chess embiggening. What's it going to do about it? Chess.com says it invested in hardware and scaling during the Queen's Gambit boom, but now "we are experiencing scaling issues on entirely new levels". It says basically that its database just cannot handle the current volume of data, with 250,000+ new accounts being created every day and using the site's features (it should be said, Chess.com offers much more functionality than just playing chess against others).
It's spending money on more hardware and cloud infrastructure, and says it has "shipments arriving with the most powerful possible live chess and database servers this week". But it's not as easy as just more servers, bottlenecks keep appearing, and the site is "continuing to find the unscalable parts of Chess.com (both proactively and reactively) and work to make them scale more".
It goes through some of the database improvements it's making ("there is SO MUCH DATA to move around") and says it's also aiming for any future failures to be more "graceful"—with the site able to recover more quickly.
"Honestly, this sucks," says the Chess.com statement. "We know you are here to play and enjoy chess, and it's very frustrating to be looking for a game and instead get a 502 error, or have your game time out. We are not taking this lightly [and] expect to have a much better and more stable experience by later this week. Some major changes will be in place in 2-3 weeks that we hope will allow us to properly handle the next wave of chess enthusiasm."
There has never been a better time to be a Chess fan even if, for the next couple of weeks, it might be a bit of a bumpy ride on Chess.com. The internet has absolutely transformed the way the game is enjoyed, learned, played, and watched in a few short decades, alongside which various advances in AI have created a new landscape: One where the machines have won, in a sense, but are now our companions and teachers for the computer era of chess. Your move.
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Rich is a games journalist with 15 years' experience, beginning his career on Edge magazine before working for a wide range of outlets, including Ars Technica, Eurogamer, GamesRadar+, Gamespot, the Guardian, IGN, the New Statesman, Polygon, and Vice. He was the editor of Kotaku UK, the UK arm of Kotaku, for three years before joining PC Gamer. He is the author of a Brief History of Video Games, a full history of the medium, which the Midwest Book Review described as "[a] must-read for serious minded game historians and curious video game connoisseurs alike."