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How A Netflix Show Caused A Worldwide Shortage Of Chess Sets

Chess has been played for 1,500 years, but since a certain Netflix show emerged last year, the game has reached explosive levels of popularity.

There’s no doubt that we have The Queen’s Gambit to thank for putting chess back on the map – but there are other factors that are causing chess retailers to buckle under the strain of newfound demand.

When it debuted in late October 2020, The Queen’s Gambit quickly became a monster hit in an already bumper period for Netflix. In a year that was dominated by bread-baking, TikTok dances and tiger botherers, along came a show based around chess – that amazingly, enthralled players and laypeople alike.

The show was universally applauded for its performances, the most notable being from Anya Taylor-Joy who played the celebrated antagonist Beth Harmon – an orphaned chess prodigy striving to reach the top in a male-dominated world.

Oh, and all the time battling a pretty severe drug and alcohol habit.

The unique thing about a show focused on a past-time people devote their lives to, is that it won the approval of the chess community. Players of all levels praised the attention to detail and realism put into the characters and the moves – Woman Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade said that the series “completely nailed the chess accuracy.”

The aftermath of The Queen’s Gambit

The Regency Chess Company has been selling fine chess sets for over a decade – it’s a market we know very well. It’s a fairly small industry but it sees stable and consistent demand.

But, as you can see in the graph below, sales in late 2020 went nuclear.

Of course, it’s not just us. eBay.com reported a 215% increase in sales of chess sets and accessories since the show debuted.

eBay and Regency Chess aside, the surge has proved devastating for smaller, less established retailers, many of whom have crumbled under the pressure of so much unexpected demand.

Although we were swamped between November and January, we managed to clear the backlog within 4 weeks. 

Out Of Stock

Fast forward to today (end of May), and things are looking much healthier –  but stocks of some of our chess sets are still low.

Is all this due entirely to The Queen’s Gambit?

Other notable factors: Lockdown

Even before The Queen’s Gambit hit our screens, 2020 saw a spike in demand for chess sets, board games, jigsaw puzzles, etc. as the world did all it could to stay entertained during the lockdowns prompted by the perceived COVID-19 pandemic.

The streaming platform Twitch noted a renewed interest in chess during the first few months of the pandemic. Data from Sully Gnome, a Twitch analytics site, showed that between March and August 2020, people watched 41.2 million hours of chess – 4 times as many hours as the previous six months.

International supply

India is the leading producer of fine, hand-carved chess pieces. And as you can imagine, the painstaking work involved in hand carving chessmen is anything but quick.

 

In a bid to compensate for the lengthy production and shipping times, The Regency Chess Company and other retailers will order large numbers of chess sets so that we have healthy levels of stock at all times. Ready for anything…or so we thought!

 

As soon as The Queen’s Gambit struck a chord with latent chess players, our stockpile soon dwindled until we were left with nothing but a long list of backorders.

And, as India solidifies its reputation as skilled craftspeople of chess pieces, more and more retailers are placing orders with Indian manufacturers. Further expanding those lead times – as well as prices.

What about chess boards?

One of the world’s most respected makers of chess boards is a Spanish company called Rechapados Ferrer. As a result of the global chess boom, the Barcelona-based company is operating around the clock and has been forced to suspend sales to new clients while introducing a strict ration policy to existing ones.

Can we also blame Brexit?

Although it seems like the fashionable thing to do, we can say that situations arising from Brexit have been problematic for UK-based chess retailers like Regency Chess Company.

The start of 2021 saw mountains of new red tape and a non-existent, six-month ‘grace period’ which meant widespread confusion and of course, HUGE delays on imports coming in from Europe.

Back in January 2021, DB Schenker, one of the world’s largest shipping firms, suspended all road freight services from Europe to the UK for 3 weeks in response to the “enormous bureaucratic regulations”.

Despite the massive stress this put on UK businesses, the storm eventually passed and the goods began to flow nicely once again.

Other factors

It’s also worth mentioning the rising cost of importing in general which has a knock on effect on global demand. For example, container imports have gone up by a factor of at least 4 which has proved too much for smaller businesses.

Where are we at now?

As I write this, summer is around the corner and lockdowns are easing in the UK and Europe. But, the demand for fine chess sets is still very much thriving.

Despite working our socks off, everyone at Regency Chess is enjoying the renewed interest in our favourite game and think it will last for a few years to come.

And if they decide to do a second series, we’ll be ready for that spike in demand!

One last thing…

We want to thank our customers who’ve been incredibly understanding and patient with us during this extraordinary time for chess.

Now, anything else worth watching on Netflix?

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