Kiwi chess clubs interest soars following the Queen's Gambit

Chess is enjoying a surge in popularity it hasn't seen for decades thanks to the twin forces of lockdown and Netflix's most popular mini-series ever: the Queen's Gambit.

Ahmad Khawaja and Utkarsh Shah have come back to chess after more than a decade, and have faced some formidable opponents at the Auckland Chess Centre.

"I only played the two, and against two guys whose combined age is still probably half my age," Khawaja told Newshub.

"I was able to get back to it pretty easily but then I got smashed by a seven year old kid!' laughs Shah.

Their returns to chess were inspired, like many others, by the Queen's Gambit.

Depicting the rise of a chess prodigy, 62 million households worldwide watched the Netflix show in its first month. 

"I played a lot when I was in high school competitively, and it just kind of gave me that creative juice again, I just wanted to start playing again," says Khawaja.

Shah agrees.

"It kind of reminds you how you used to play the game, so it brings back those memories."

New Zealand Chess Federation Vice President Paul Spiller says chess has been on the rise since lockdown, but the Netflix show has increased its profile even further.

"The events that we have had have been very well supported, so the numbers have been up reasonably significantly," he says.

He says the show's authenticity is part of the appeal.

"Generally chess players are quite picky about movies or stories involving chess because quite often they get it wrong," he says.

Auckland Chess Centre says usually one new person joins every four weeks - now it's four, every week. 

It's prompted coach Wayne McDougall to put on extra sessions on Friday nights.

"There's something for everyone at all levels, it's great to have people's interest restored," he says.

McDougall also coaches chess at schools, and has seen a particular new interest from girls, perhaps inspired by the Queen's Gambit protagonist Beth Harmon.

"I think they're being encouraged by their parents and the word getting out, and the promos that appear - because I hope the young ones aren't watching it on TV!" he says, referencing the show's R-rated themes.

And while much of the world has had to be content with locked-down online matches, Kiwis can play face to face.

"The rest of the chess world is very envious, they can't believe how lucky we are," says McDougall.

The thirst for games has seen demand for chess sets on Trade Me skyrocket. At one point, 14-thousand people a week were searching for boards.

"We've seen a 131% increase in purchases for chess sets and boards on-site, that's when compared to the same time last year," says Trade Me spokesperson Millie Silvester.

Spiller has some advice for anyone hoping to pick it up:

"The good thing about chess is nobody's perfect. So even if you make a mistake, chances are your opponent will make another one. So you can quite often capitalise on that as well."

Although if you make your first mistake on your second move, that's easier said than done.