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Chess is surging in popularity among all ages. Here's why


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

John Yang: In our weekend, spotlight is a centuries old game that's enjoying new popularity with young people. It's chess after the 2020 Netflix drama The Queen's Gambit, the game sides biggest boon in the United States since American Bobby Fischer won the 1972 World Chess Championship.

Chess Club memberships are soaring and earlier this year servers overloaded when it had the most active users ever. The renewed interest has created demand for other online content. Levy Rozman is one of those providing. His YouTube channel Gotham Chess has the most subscribers of any YouTube channel and his new book "How to Win at Chess, The Ultimate Guide for Beginners and Beyond" is out this fall Levy, you are an international Master?

Levy Rozman: Yes.

John Yang: All right. What does that mean?

Levy Rozman: International master is the second highest title you can have in the chess world. And I guess internationally for lack of a better word. The title above mine is Grandmaster which is the title that everyone aspires to.

I stopped at an international master because I frankly never even thought I would get it. So when I got it, it was a huge adrenaline dump for me. And I was very happily going back to my university studies.

John Yang: How did you get involved in chess? Or how did you start playing chess? And what was the appeal?

Levy Rozman: Both sides of my family moms and dads are from the former Soviet Union. So it's ingrained there in the culture for sure. And there's a very funny story. My parents were trying to sign me up for after school classes when I was five. My mom said chess, my dad said art. He's too crazy for chess. And it turns out that my mom was actually right because I was I became completely obsessed with the game but I ran from art class. I would hide in the playground tubes. I played my first tournament when I was seven, and I just played ever since.

John Yang: What do you think accounts for the popularity in the United States? Now we talked a little bit about the Queen's Gambit, but it's still becoming more and more popular.

Levy Rozman: Yeah. So I would say, first of all, how much time do we have? We've had three big booms, right, then 2020 Queen's Gambit happened. And right around that time, I had decided to make content full time. So that meant YouTube videos, some live streaming, but it wasn't a big deal until Queen's Gambit came.

My view count on YouTube went from about 70,000 in a 48 hour window to a million. And that just kept happening because somebody would watch the Queen's Gambit trailer. And on the sidebar, it would say how to play the Queen's Gambit by Gotham chess, a video that I made with a little potato of a webcam never thought much of, but it just blew up.

Then in 2022, we had the cheating scandal, which you can make a story on its own about. And now it's skewed to the younger audience through short form content. So I'm talking about TikTok, YouTube shorts, Instagram reels, bite size chess content. Now you can just scroll on your phone and you learn something about chess in 30 seconds. And then you can try it against the friend.

So the entire culture and generation of chess has completely changed. I used to be embarrassed bringing chess trophies to school, I would get made fun of that's not a thing anymore. On the airport coming here, a group of seventh graders recognize me. And I've never seen kids that excited.

John Yang: Most people say it is among the big boom is in middle school and high school.

Levy Rozman: Yeah.

John Yang: Why that age group? Why do you think that is?

Levy Rozman: Definitely recently that that has been the age group. But over the last few years, it's been people who learned it in childhood, didn't play it for 3040 years, and they're now playing it again, reconnecting with a relative with a father, grandfather, grandmother. I mean, it goes across generations.

The young audience really enjoys that, I think because, first of all, they enjoy a gaming period. There's something different about chess. It's not just a one on one game where you mash a controller or learn some, you know, little trick. There has never been a better time to learn the game, whether online or print. It used to be really hard to access this information. You could watch something for 60 seconds, go and try it and you're like, I'm the -- I'm the smart one in the front group now, at least until the next person learned something.

John Yang: You're talking about playing online. I've seen people, I know people who if they're the top chess players in the same room, and there's a board set up, they'd rather play on their phone against each other than sit down and play the game. Why do you think that is?

Levy Rozman: Well, I suppose it's also just a microcosm of general society, if you will. I mean, we're just a bit too comfortable on our phones nowadays. I got to tell you, I enjoy playing speed games, way more on my phone than I do live at parties or in tournaments. It's like three minute games, one minute games. I'm a monster on my phone. Put me in front of a person, there's psychology, there's nerves, you don't see the squares the same way you do.

I mean, the last three years, you likely got into chess online, you didn't get into chess at your local club. So people are having a little bit of a tough time moving that skill to IRL, but it's still very popular a lot of chess clubs at pubs, libraries, schools, so we'll get there.

John Yang: IRL in real life.

Levy Rozman: Yes, yes, in real life. Apologies. Creator terminology. You have to mash everything into acronyms.

John Yang: A lot of pro athletes are talking about playing just Joe Burrow, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback and went to the Super Bowl keeps a chessboard by his locker. He says it helps him read defenses on the on the football field. Are there other things that help if you learn to play chess that you can take IRL, in real life?

Levy Rozman: I think it's mildly overblown. But yes, I would say more than one on one endeavors like boxing, because you have to prepare for the opposition. Your opponent has tendencies positions. They like to get to whether they use the left or the right, Southpaw orthodox. But the same goes for football formations, I would imagine. I don't know a huge amount about football specifically. But basketball, how do you break down a defense? And a lot of athletes do like chess and for good reason. Because it does get your brain thinking in a much more if this than this, well, then I'll do this. But what if they do that kind of a way? But I would say the short answer is yes. There's a lot of overlap between athletics and kind of this forward thinking and chess.

John Yang: Your book is subtitled The Ultimate Guide for Beginners and Beyond. Who do you think would most benefit from the book a beginner or someone who's sort of trying to move up to the next level?

Levy Rozman: Over the last few years, I've been asked this question probably 1,000 times, which is do you have a chess book recommendation? OK, there's all this YouTube, all this online. I just want to book give me a good book.

There is no good one answer. There doesn't have to be one answer. There's could be two or three. But I decided to write this book. So you could read it 15 minutes before bed while laying on the couch while relaxing. You don't need a physical board to guide you along.

But the book guides you by the arm through all things chess, and I think it's a really refreshing read because a lot of chess books that were purchased by people like myself included are hard to finish you need the board, you need hours of practice, they skip from one diagram to the second and six moves happened.

And if you're not at that level, it's very difficult to read. So, just like chess has had a revolution in online and digital content. This was my idea with the book. I'm not dumbing down the subject. I think I'm just making it a bit more refreshing.

John Yang: Levy Rozman, thank you very much.

Levy Rozman: Thank you.

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