Kim is just one of many students that have been fascinated by this new phenomenon that has taken over Culver City High School (CCHS) and across the world — a chess phenomenon. Whether it be during classes, nutrition, or lunch, students have been seen playing chess on real-sized boards but more commonly on their Chromebooks through the booming Chess.com server, a popular online chess website that has seen unprecedented growth since the beginning of the new year.
“I’ve definitely played chess way more in the past school year compared to any other time in my life,” Kim said.
So why has chess — an ancient, once-dying game — become so popular again?
Many believe this surging popularity has been a continuation of the initial growth of chess witnessed at the height of the pandemic in late 2020 and early 2021. With people stuck in lockdown which coincided with the release of the popular Queen’s Gambit Netflix series, many quickly turned to chess as a new hobby. With famous chess players and Youtubers now streaming their games and hosting chess tournaments on streaming services like Twitch, the popularity of this sport has now skyrocketed.
But ultimately, its sudden growth comes down to the allure of the game itself. And for many students, chess’s appeal lies in the competitive, war-like nature of this historic game, which at its core, hasn’t changed since the game was first invented nearly 1500 years ago.
“People like competition that relies on strategy,” Kim said. “It’s a challenging, fun game that feels like a true competition of wit between people.”
For other students, it’s the ability to constantly improve through learning from the thousands of new skills and strategies that has made chess an entertaining, rewarding game. Considering that chess has a rating system called “Elo” which measures the relative skill levels of players, it only adds to the competitive nature of the game and explains why many students have become incentivized to constantly play — to improve their skills and rating faster than their friends.
“Even if you’re really good at chess, you’ve just touched the surface and there are so many different things you can learn in the game,” said junior Tristan Wang, who like Kim, started playing chess in elementary school but renewed his interest in the sport amidst its rising popularity. “It takes a lot of critical thinking, strategy, and patience to be able to play well.”
These factors resulting in chess’s massive growth has also led to the renewed popularity of CCHS’s Chess Club, which has served as an informal “hangout zone” during lunch every day for many students, whether they may be chess enthusiasts, new players, or those simply there to eat and watch. And it is this duality of the game — its competitive, war-like nature but also its ability to be played informally by two friends learning the rules and strategies on the go that has made playing chess a positive experience for many.
“It’s become a kind of casual thing where you can just have conversations over,” Kim said about the dynamic at Chess Club.
For Chess Club President Ian Fogel, he believes that this sudden wave of popularity will create massive strides in chess’s influence within mainstream culture.
“I think it’ll just grow at a constant rate…and who knows, maybe it could be in the Olympics,” he said.
Fogel has been playing chess since Kindergarten when he signed up for an after-school chess program through Chess Tutors, an organization that has served up to 100,000 elementary school students across Los Angeles since its establishment in 2002. In fourth grade, he won the Grand Match Gala, an annual invitation-only tournament run by the organization.
After continuing to progress throughout middle and high school, Fogel now has an Elo rating of 2000. For context, beginners or casual players usually have a rating below 1000. 2500 or higher is considered the rating for a grandmaster. At 2000, Fogel is in the range of a so-called “expert,” as he works to not only improve his own impressive Elo, but also help his friends and peers develop their own skills and ratings.
“I was pretty happy because a lot of my friends like playing and learning [chess],” Fogel said regarding his thoughts on the sport’s sudden growth. “Since I’ve been behind it before it was popular, I was kind of at a head start and I can help others learn new things and teach people how to play.”
Encouraged by this new-found popularity, Fogel and Chess Club co-President Krystian Lesny organized a March Madness style single-elimination chess tournament that will run throughout March. While there will be a cash prize of $100 in this competitive 32-player tournament, Fogel hopes that the event will still be a fun, engaging experience for all students involved. He also hopes that the tournament will be an annual tradition that will be passed on in future years to come, which will serve as a good reminder of the ongoing chess phenomenon that could very well be a mainstay of CCHS’s student culture.
“We think it’s a good way to put chess in our school district and it’ll be a lot of fun,” Fogel said prior to the start of the tournament. “Chess is always done at a tournament level so it’s just a fun high school tradition to pass on.”