For years, its subscriber base and profits rose gradually and steadily. Then the pandemic struck.
“You could track it by country,” said Mr. Allebest. “India locked down, registrations from India went through the roof. Italy locked down, registrations went through the roof. Literally our team went to 24/7, white knuckling to scale our service.”
A few months after the Covid influx to chess began, Netflix released “The Queen’s Gambit,” a fictional account of a young woman’s journey from orphanage to global chess supremacy. It would become a cultural touchstone and the most-watched show on the streaming service in more than 60 countries.
“It was like someone poured gasoline on the same fire,” Mr. Allebest said.
Chess players became social media stars. Hikaru Nakamura, one of the defendants in the defamation case, has 1.5 million Twitch followers, a feat he’s achieved through celestial play — he’s currently ranked fifth in the world — and iron man verbosity. In June, he signed with Misfits Gaming Group, an e-sports and entertainment company that is dreaming up shows to sell to places like CNN and Netflix.
Today, chess tournaments have pretty high production values — swooshing graphics, on-scene interviews, play-by-play commentators seated at newscaster desks. The model is based on coverage of professional sports games, with a big difference: There’s no action, at least not in the conventional sense. The game has hardly changed in 1,500 years. It’s still hour upon hour of two people staring at a board and cogitating. If a sentence like, “He blundered queen d8, queen d3!” doesn’t quicken your pulse, there isn’t much to watch.
If it does, these games are thrilling, cerebral contests that have elegance, aggression, subterfuge, brilliance and suspense — “Game of Thrones” boiled down to its regicidal essence. Unlike the HBO show, this one never stops. There are now tournaments nearly every weekend, all around the world.
Graduating into the class of aspiring professionals playing these tournaments didn’t cause Mr. Niemann to grow up and behave. He pounded his fist when he lost a game in Dubai and dropped F-bombs in a postgame interview in Miami, complaining about a technical failure. He looked opponents in the eyes a little too long, another no-no.
Some chess watchers were delighted. A norm-busting rascal, at long last.
“I was like, this is what we need in chess,” said Levy Rozman, the face and voice of Gotham Chess, a popular YouTube channel. “We don’t have a Conor McGregor,” he added, referring to the mixed martial arts champion known for altercations and arrests.