Halifax (Nova Scotia) Public Libraries (HPL) has had active chess clubs since at least 1991. But interest in chess has waxed and waned with pop culture trends, staffers say.
In 2001 it was the Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone film, which culminates with its heroes playing a giant, magical game of high-stakes chess, says HPL Librarian Alison Creech. In 2020, during the first year of the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders, the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit put the spotlight back on the familiar black-and-ivory checkered board with a lustrous adaptation of the 1983 book of the same name. CNN reports that 3.2 million users joined the online platform chess.com after the show’s debut, as players either took up or revisited the game while stuck at home.
Libraries have made the most of chess’s surging popularity by starting their own chess clubs and helping existing in-person clubs transition online. Along the way, players from multiple generations have found common ground and grown their love for the game—and maybe even checked out a book or two to read up on strategies.
The chess club at Vineyard Haven (Mass.) Public Library (VHPL) welcomes players of all skill levels, sometimes putting a seasoned 80-year-old across the table from an 8-year-old newbie. Anne McDonough, the VHPL adult program coordinator who oversees the chess club, which began in July 2021, says games can get loud and animated but are “not cutthroat.” She also says the club’s older players will often explain their moves and guide their younger opponents on what to do next. “It happens every single week,” she says. “There’s somebody who sits down in front of one of our more experienced chess players and says either ‘I haven’t played in a long time’ or ‘I’m just learning.’” Some younger members will “graduate” and return as volunteer coaches or tournament supervisors.
“People who love chess also want to spread their love of chess to other people,” Creech says. And the library is a perfect place to share it: Though some members of HPL’s chess club aren’t regular library users, they on occasion venture into the stacks in search of chess-related books and media. “We had a full load of chess books and they would go out,” Creech says.
Over the board and through the screen
Though many think of traditional chess as a face-to-face activity (“over the board,” in chess terminology), virtual chess clubs are also gaining traction. When the pandemic hit, Evan Annis, coordinator of the chess club at Camden (Maine) Public Library (CPL), took to lichess.org, a free and open source website where users play chess online. Annis created a specific group just for his club members to set up matches; they are able to chat in-game on the website or in a separate Discord server that Annis also manages.
Going virtual has had its pros and cons, as libraries have seen with all sorts of programs. Annis’s club, which originated in person in 2018, has lost several original members since shifting online. Before the pandemic, it had many senior members; Annis guesses the virtual environment may have turned them off. However, the format has attracted a few new members, mostly younger people.
Online chess tournaments, such as PogChamps on Twitch, started popping up early in the pandemic and have allowed gamers to broadcast their experiences. The intersection of a traditional game like chess with a massive, modern platform like Twitch sparked youth interest—a reflection of the game’s suitability for online gameplay, Creech says. Communities have also formed around players researching, sharing, and discussing strategies on online forums and pages.
One of the attractions of starting a chess club is the low (or, for libraries like HPL, nonexistent) start-up cost. “Everybody has a chess set in a closet,” McDonough says. She recommends that library workers who are starting their own chess clubs or gathering materials for a club seek community donations: “The chess sets will come out of the woodwork.”
She also says to open the club up to all ages and skill levels. One of her focuses in the VHPL chess club is to get more women involved in playing chess; according to Slate, only about 8% of ranked US players in 2019 were women, as tracked by the International Chess Federation.
Annis says any chess club’s first priority should be having fun—the revelry in Annis’s prepandemic in-person club even attracted nonmember patrons who were passing by. And until the pandemic loosens its grip and in-person play becomes safe again, he says, a good online platform can keep members connected.