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It only takes half an episode to know The Queen’s Gambit is TV at its binging best. After a couple of hours watching Beth Harmon, a troubled orphan turned chess prodigy with addiction issues, rise through the ranks of the Sixties and Seventies pro circuit, it’s safe to assume the show and its brilliant lead Anya Taylor Joy will be regulars come awards season. Every time she and her strong eyeliner game sit down to a match, it can basically only end one of three ways. Maybe a good percentage of viewers even figured out the series’ endgame.
But we guarantee no one—not Netflix, not the board game companies, not the World Chess Federation or its real-life champions—could have seen Queen B’s next move coming. She and the show became cultural phenomena and in the process, breathed massive new life into a 1,500-year-old game.
According to Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit became the streaming service’s biggest limited scripted series, when 62 million households watched in its first 28 days of availability. It was the Number One show in 63 countries; the namesake book it’s based on landed on The New York Times bestseller list 37 years after its release; it even made Barack Obama’s Best of 2020 TV list and Haim referenced it in their reimagining of “Christmas Wrapping.”
“What makes chess special, and what makes this show special, are the elements of inner turmoil and highly-stylized imperfection,” says Nick Barton, the director of business development at Chess.com, a site which offers chess news, lessons and rules, puzzles, socializing, and online gameplay including against Beth-bots. “There are no perfect chess games just as there are no perfect people, and there’s an obscure comfort viewers find in that.”
But more than carving out its place in the pop-culture pantheon, it turned viewers into players…in droves. Chess.com, which was already benefitting from a pandemic-powered boost like sourdough bread making, RV vacations, and Animal Crossing, gained 5.3 million members, 30 percent of which are women (an all-time site high), since TQG’s debut. As of December 16, the site says 120,000 people are joining each day, and between October and December, there’s been a 1,000% increase in members studying the titular strategy in the openings database. Its sister site, ChessKid, is also seeing a similar percentage of growth.
“People are using the pandemic to accumulate new skills and chess fast tracks that self-improvement,” Barton says. “Over the course of a 10-minute game, you’re engaging in pattern recognition, calculation, creativity, and overcoming fear,” he continues, adding, “If the show came out in 2019, it would have been enjoyed by millions, no doubt, but the amplification effect that the show brought to an already historic year for chess has had an outsize effect.”
The site isn’t the only one feeling the love during lockdown, especially after the queen hit the scene. Google searches about chess have doubled, while “how to play chess” queries hit a nine-year high. The newfound popularity has also sent sales of the best chess sets, books on chess, and other related items through the roof. According to the marketing research company NPD Group, set sales went up 87% in the US, and book purchases grew a whopping 603% in the three weeks after the miniseries landed. For years, NPD says that sales of both had been flat-lining or declining. Etsy saw a 364% increase in buyers on the prowl for chess paraphernalia compared to the same time last year. Over at eBay, chess set and accessory sales leaped 215%.
This leads us to our list of the best and coolest boards and pieces on the market. Because whether you’re an unrated woodpusher jonesing for that first checkmate or a burgeoning Bobby Fischer, you can’t do Queen or “King Sh*t” without a chess set. That is, unless you can compete on the ceiling with your mind.
For The Basic B(eth)
Pressman’s oldie but goodie in the familiar red box looks a lot like the set Beth learned to play on in the basement with Mr. Shaibel and later coveted at Ben Synder’s. This set contains 84 muted squares on durable folding cardboard with 32 Staunton pieces. It’s a good choice for those new to the game, destructive youngsters, and folks who tend to hobby hop as it requires fairly little monetary investment.
For Budding Wunderkinds
Did you find yourself glancing over at your small children while watching and weighing their prodigy potential? If you think they’ve got game, it’s best to start them early, and No Stress Chess is a perfect teaching tool.
For one, the board is double-sided. Start on the side with labeled squares that instruct initial chessmen positions. Once you get the hang of it, flip it over and use the standard board. There’s a deck of action cards that depict pieces and how they move. The card drawn decides which piece you play on that turn, which fosters faster gameplay and allows newbies to learn while playing instead of front-loading rule memorization (Which to be honest turns a lot of people off the game of kings from go, including, full disclosure, this writer). You don’t have to be a minor to find this version a major help — visual learners and intimidated grown-ups can greatly benefit as well.
For Van Life
This portable chess board is also good for camping, trailers, apartment dwellers, backpackers, and tiny homes. In fact, the Pendleton Roll-Up Chess and Checkers set works well in any situation where space and storage are at a premium. The reason is in the name—it rolls up into an 11×3-inch tube. The small wooden chips, imprinted with a symbol denoting if it’s a rook, knight, or otherwise, are contained in a zippered pouch and you get two games for the size of one. The print, patterned after iconic Pendleton blankets beloved by outdoorsy folk, also looks a lot cuter on a shelf than a box.
For the Beach
Thanks to a convenient storage tote, plastic pieces, and a waterproof board that shakes clean, you can and should take this ultra-portable bad (bishop) boy to the backyard, the beach, the lake, or the playground. Heck, set 4Fun Jumbo Chess and Checkers up in a park and pretend you’re in Europe because lord knows when we all might be allowed off the continent again. This is also good for playrooms and kids with jammy hands. (How do they always manage to get sticky?) We also love that the checkers become the bases for the chess pieces.
For Those Also in Need of Home Decor
This handsome wood set from Uncommon Goods doubles as unique wall art. Made of birch and oak in Alabama, it comes in two sizes and is meant to be played vertically. Pieces fit like pegs so they stay put. A special marker flags the last turn if you need to drag out the dogfight for days like if you’ve challenged a roommate who works a different shift.
For Hipsters and Nomads
Just because you’ve decided to take up chess doesn’t mean you have to forfeit your hipster status. Besides, everybody who is anybody knows that chess is cool again thanks to Beth and the gang. This portable bourbon and navy leather set with a low profile won’t cramp your jet-set lifestyle and easily slips into a backpack while you bike to your co-working space. The hand-poured and hand-painted resin pieces, which can also be used for checkers, store in their own slots when not in use. Earn even more street cred by bragging about how your purchase invested in a small Rhode Island company, Crisloid, and a revitalized Detroit legacy company, Shinola. Add a sleek matching leather journal to jot down new offensive strategies and keep notations in check.
For Architecture Buffs
A round of the King Of The Hill variant, or should we say King Of Murray Hill, can have added meaning when playing with pieces shaped like emblematic Big Apple buildings like brownstones (the pawns), the Guggenheim, and One World Trade. Not surprisingly, Benny’s dilapidated and bare bones underground hovel didn’t make the cut when London-based architects Ian Flood and Chris Prosser were choosing which landmarks to represent in acrylic and metal.
For Nostalgic Nerds
The gang’s all here, from the jumpy Italian brother plumbers to Princess Peach and Bowser, for epic showdowns between good and evil (or at least all the things that could kill you in the Eighties Nintendo classic Super Mario Bros.) Character figurines are hand-painted and the set comes in a collectible tin.
For Modern Art Aficionados
Admire Paul Mophy and Magnus Carlsen as much as Mondrian, Munch, or Man Ray? Then invest in an eye-pleasing set that could easily qualify for an exhibit at MoMA. Urban Outfitters sells an acrylic version with a transparent board that doubles as a storage container. Smooth geometric shapes in blue and purple ombré hues stand-in for the royal family and its court.
If you have slightly more means to allocate to building your collection, look to Tizo Design’s lucite work of art in 50 shades of gray, black, and clear. The 17×17-inch conversation starter is available through Bloomingdale’s.
For Early Adopters
Ready Player One? You always got next, no matter the time of day, when you buy Square Off’s Kingdom Chess Set, an AI-enabled electric rosewood chessboard. Tech bros will marvel as the self-proclaimed “world’s smartest” board makes its own moves using robotics and sensors. Sharpen your skills through 20 levels of difficulty. The rechargeable battery has enough juice for at least 15 matches. And if you do ever feel like trying your luck against an actual human, the website and mobile app can connect to competitors around the world. Hopefully, it works out better for you than when Skynet became self-aware or Matthew Broderick hacked into that military supercomputer to start a game of global thermonuclear war.
For the Plane
If you’re anything like us, you’re already daydreaming about and planning a badass bucket-list vacation for once we’re all allowed to fly the friendly skies and roam about the country freely and without fear. It inevitably will include a long flight and layovers camped out in a lounge. To help whittle away the hours or keep rugrats entertained — and more importantly, quiet — there’s the Pressman 6-In-1 Travel Magnetic Games.
Turn the knob to reveal boards for Checkers, Chess, Backgammon, Parcheesi, Chinese Checkers, and Snakes and Ladders. The compact unit comes with the pieces you’ll need for each title, dice, and instructions, all of which conveniently tuck inside of it when idle. The pieces are also magnetic so they won’t move should you encounter turbulence. If pieces should fall into the abyss between or under the seats, the price is right to be able to cut your losses and bid it bon voyage as you deplane.
For a Grandmaster Flash
With sets like these, you don’t have to pick substance over style or forsake form for function. They are the polar opposite of the plain Pressmans that kicked off this list. These boards and pieces are, well, showpieces meant to impress and if you have the heart of a champion and the bank account of a big spender, your endgame should include hitting add to cart.
Ralph Lauren’s “Fowler” set is made by hand and features leather squares, suede lining, and markers made of polished nickel and gold-plated brass.
The brand also offers the “Sutton,” a board and storage case inspired by his Black Label apparel and accessories. It is crafted out of walnut wood and carbon-fiber leather made at an Italian tannery.
Go king hunting on the fancy Aerin set fit for royalty. Streamlined pieces cast in zinc and finished in gleaming black and gold plating store in an equally dazzling shagreen (a material made out of the skins of farmed Asian stingrays) box with brass accents.