Chess gains popularity in SJS community


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As the pandemic caused a world-wide shutdown of many competitive sports, chess gained a huge following in the virtual world. Several St. John’s students are part of this “pandemic chess boom.”

Arjun Maitra

With the timer counting down, junior Alex Miao swiped the screen, placing his queen on H5 with 0.01 seconds left. 


Cheers erupted as Miao’s friends celebrated the win. Miao is one of many St. John’s students who recently started playing online chess during their free time.  

As the pandemic caused a world-wide shutdown of many competitive sports, chess gained a huge following in the virtual world. The 2020 Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit” added to its skyrocketing popularity as over 62 million households watched Beth Harmon’s, main character of the Netflix sensation, journey to becoming the greatest chess player in the world. 

The popularity of online chess continued to grow even as the pandemic waned.’s monthly active users doubled from roughly 8 million to nearly 17 million during October 2020 to April 2022. High-profile content creators such as Youtuber Levy Rozman (GothamChess) and the reigning World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen added to the glamor of chess through social media.

Miao started playing chess when he was 8 years old, attending weekly lessons and tournaments at Panda Chess Academy. His parents thought the game would challenge his  critical thinking and problem-solving abilities.

 Miao appreciates how the quick learning curve in chess makes the game accessible to beginners.

“You are given a clearly defined set of rules, and you can immediately start playing the game,” Miao said.

Several St. John’s students are part of the “pandemic chess boom.” Some are returning players like Miao, while others, like Senior Brantley Payne, picked up the game during the pandemic.

Payne started playing chess after noticing similarities with the puzzle game, Minesweeper. Both games require the players to strategize and make scenario-based decisions.

“I needed a new challenge after playing Minesweeper throughout 9th grade,” Payne said. “Chess seemed like the next logical choice.”

To Payne, chess presents ways to improve pattern and spatial recognition.

“After playing many games, similar positions develop in many situations, and you get to apply what you’ve learned previously,” Payne said.

Payne is a member of the student-run Chess club and enjoys talking with experienced players who better understand the nuanced aspects of the game.

“I like dissecting chess puzzles with other club members,” Payne said. “It is fun to figure out the solutions together, especially when I learn new tactics from them.”

Celebrity live streams of games catapulted chess as a dominating e-sport in the gaming community. Miao believes that the new-found popularity of Chess is here to stay.

“Social media content creators like GothamChess are doing a great job mixing high-level and fun chess content,” Miao said. “They make the games engaging by explaining the process behind each decision.”

Payne hopes chess’s popularity continues to be an opportunity for St. John’s students to compete and connect with each other. 

“Last weekend, I had a really nice checkmate in six moves that I immediately texted to my group chat,” Payne said. “It’s just really fun talking about chess.”