Fabiano Caruana, the top-ranked chess player in the U.S. who became a grandmaster at the age of 14, says he has seen a higher level of interest to sponsor or partner with him for upcoming brand campaigns since the TV show debuted. Intel, which has a long history of involvement in the game, recently announced that the company will be Caruana’s exclusive technology sponsor through the 2021 Candidates Tournament and 2021 Championship Tournament. As part of the sponsorship, Intel is funding Caruana’s technology needs and the chess star will participate in marketing, including wearing Intel’s logo at all events and tournaments. Caruana also just signed a deal with an undisclosed company for a new brand campaign soon to be revealed.
Along with “The Queen’s Gambit,” Caruana credits the surge in online chess players over the past year for the game’s lift in popularity. While a lot of chess sites and players have been building the game’s online presence over the past decade or so, the pandemic brought in-person chess tournaments to a standstill and accelerated the demand.
“It all kind of came together this year for chess to take off in an online world,” says Caruana. “People started to get interested because they were exposed to this mainstream show. When I meet people for the first time, and they find out I’m a chess player, their first questions are often about the show. Have I seen it and want I think about it?” Yes, he says, he finally saw the show and enjoyed it.
Chess.com, one of the major online chess platforms where anyone can sign up to play chess virtually, has seen a massive increase in members since the pandemic began and continues to reel in new members since Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” charmed the game for newbies. Last March, at the beginning of the pandemic, Chess.com saw 1.5 million visitors a day. A year later, it's seeing more than 5 million visitors a day. It has 57 million registered users, up from 20 million in 2017. To capitalize on the newfound interest, Chess.com worked with Netflix to create game engines that simulated prodigy Beth Harmon’s gameplay. On top of that, the site put together a review of the show’s chess terms, history and even the mistakes that slipped through.
Mike Klein, director of content at Chess.com and chief chess officer of the company’s kids-focused ChessKid.com site, points to a number of partnerships the site has seen since the Netflix drama captured audiences. The band Phish organized an online chess game where onlookers could vote on the moves while webcasting one of Phish’s shows at Madison Square Garden. Belt and wallet maker Grip6 sponsored its PogChamps tournament where YouTube star MrBeast, Twitch streamer Pokimane and Rainn Wilson, best known as Dwight Schrute in NBC’s “The Office,” battled in an online game of chess.
Chess is also popping up in a number of non-digital experiential campaigns. In Lexington, Kentucky, the hometown of the show’s protagonist, the city’s tourism booster VisitLEX designed a period-appropriate room, dubbed “The Beth Harmon Room,” complete with a ceiling chessboard from Harmon’s hallucinations, in the city’s 21c Museum Hotel to lure fans to the “chess capitol of the United States,” where VisitLEX has also devised a guide for chess tourists who want to visit some of the same sites from the show. In December, Kimpton Hotels started to offer “Queen’s Gambit”-inspired cocktails and chessboard lending program.
Micael Lonergan, strategy analyst at brand experience agency Siegel+Gale, says despite the new demand around playing chess, it’s still not an avenue for every brand, which could be why we haven’t yet seen a Pepsi-sponsored Grandmaster tribute or branded luxury chess boards. “Much like chess itself, 'The Queen's Gambit' trend is somewhat niche, there is a small space for effective execution and not everyone is equipped to deliver,” she says. “It is the brands that can authentically offer escapist experiences that are rightly positioned to capitalize on crazes like this one.”
Nevertheless, several brands have managed to ride the upswing of chess’ popularity with campaigns that reference or revolve around the game, according to TV analytics platform iSpot.tv. Chanel, for instance, started and stopped its “Chess” spot featuring Keira Knightley before “The Queen’s Gambit” aired and then resumed the campaign from December to January. The spot has received 682 million impressions from TV.
Hennessy also launched a campaign about the first Black grandmaster, Maurice Ashley, a month-and-a-half before the show started and has continued running it. Three spots have generated more than 300 million impressions from TV. Michelob Ultra’s Super Bowl campaign, “Happy,” features Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis playing chess because it’s one of his passions outside of the basketball court, according to a brand spokesperson. That ad has generated 85 million impressions from TV.