Can't Find A Chess Set? You Can Thank 'The Queen's Gambit' For That

Nov 20, 2020
Originally published on November 20, 2020 7:18 am

Who could've predicted chess sets might become as difficult to find as toilet paper during the early weeks of the pandemic? Not Gerrick Johnson. The toy analyst with BMO Capital Markets found himself stymied while searching for a particular Cardinal chess set a few weeks ago.

"It was sold out everywhere I went," he says.

Sales of chess sets have skyrocketed, says Mary Higbe, director of marketing at Goliath Games. The company sells six different kinds of chess sets, including those familiar red-boxed Pressman sets you've probably seen in the toy aisle at Walmart.

"Our October sales for chess were up 178% over the same period last year," Higbe says. That's a big increase. But something else unexpected happened at the end of the month. Now, she says, "our chess sales are up 1,048%."

Every so often a game comes along that captures the popular imagination. In November 2020, that game is chess. The reason? A Netflix period drama that debuted in late October.

"Ever since The Queen's Gambit launched, our chess sales have increased triple digits," marvels Elizabeth LoVecchio, vice-president of marketing at Spin Master. The huge toy company has a division of classic games — such as chess, checkers and backgammon — that owns about 70% of the market share in the United States.

LoVecchio says sales of these games started spiking back when people first hunkered down last spring and played games with people in their bubbles to keep themselves entertained. But what's happening with chess sales since The Queen's Gambit is "unprecedented — and we anticipate our sales rising further," she adds.

Chess sets sales are rising in the secondary market as well. eBay registered a 215% increase in chess set and accessory sales since The Queen's Gambit hit Netflix, with shoppers seeking out wooden chess sets nine times more than plastic, electronic or glass ones, according to an eBay spokesperson. Toy analyst Gerrick Johnson now warns that demand will outstrip supply.

"Six months ago, a year ago, these retailers weren't saying, let's load up on chess sets," he notes. "Good luck finding a chess set this holiday!"

Both LoVecchio and Higbe agree a chess shortage may be added to 2020's woes.

"Oh, for sure. I believe it," Higbe says.

Chess has long been alluring, even dramatic. But The Queen's Gambit makes it seem accessible, Higbe adds. And that just adds to the appeal of a game that's both eminently affordable and pleasingly different every time you play it.

"You have to have patience. You have to really think about strategy. You have to plan ahead," she says.

Valuable skills for playing chess — and getting through the dark few months before us.

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Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) destroys an opponent (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) in the Netflix chess drama, The Queen's Gambit.
Phil Bray / Netflix

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

There are fears we might be facing a national shortage of chess sets. You heard that right. We know every year around the holidays, there's always a new game that comes along, captures the popular imagination. And then it breaks people's hearts by selling out. Chess - obviously not so new, but a Netflix show is giving it new life. Here's NPR's Neda Ulaby.

NEDA ULABY, BYLINE: First toilet paper, then yeast, now chess.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) That's check.

ULABY: "The Queen's Gambit" is about a red-headed chess prodigy who swaggers through tournaments cruelly annihilating her opponents.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I don't have to use the queen.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Move.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I'll just cover it with a bishop.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Move.

MARY HIGBE: Our chess sales for the past couple of weeks have been, honestly, through the roof.

ULABY: Mary Higbe directs marketing at Goliath, an enormous games company that makes those red-boxed Pressmen sets you see in the toy aisles at Walmart.

HIGBE: Our chess sales are up 1,048%.

ULABY: One-thousand-forty-eight percent compared to this time last year. Could this be an anomaly? Let's check with another big toy company.

ELIZABETH LOVECCHIO: Ever since "Queen's Gambit" launched, our chess sales have increased triple digits.

ULABY: That's Elizabeth LoVecchio, VP of games and puzzle marketing for Spin Master. Its exact sales numbers are secret, she says. But Spin Master is a major supplier of classic games such as backgammon, checkers and chess.

LOVECCHIO: We have about 70% market share in the U.S.

ULABY: Game sales were up anyway, LoVecchio says. People have been hunkering down and buying games they thought they had but didn't. Still, no one anticipated the chess supply chain getting disrupted by a Netflix drama.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Knight in three. First check is with the queen.

ULABY: Leading to predictions from toy analyst Gerrick Johnson. He works for BMO Capital Markets.

GERRICK JOHNSON: Six months ago, a year ago, these retailers weren't saying, hey, let's load up on chess sets. So they're going to be in very short supply. Good luck finding a chess set this holiday.

ULABY: Could Johnson be overstating a coming chess crisis?

LOVECCHIO: No, I do not think he's overstating that.

ULABY: That's Elizabeth LoVecchio. And the other toy executive?

HIGBE: Oh, for sure. I believe it.

ULABY: Mary Higbe says chess has always been alluring. But "The Queen's Gambit" makes it seem accessible. Plus, she says, chess is affordable. It's a game that's different every time you play it.

HIGBE: You have to have patience. You have to really think about strategy. You have to plan ahead.

ULABY: Skills both for chess and for the dark few months before us.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.