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Chess Sets Fly Off Shelf After Airing Of 'Queen's Gambit'

A mini series on Netflix starring the actress Anya Taylor Joy has unexpectedly caused a nationwide crush of sales of chess sets.

A popular Netflix miniseries has helped game merchants in central Illinois.

"The Queen's Gambit" is about a chess prodigy who comes of age in the Cold War era of the 1950s and 60s.  The protagonist, Beth Harmon, overcomes loss, addiction, and a sexist environment to beat the best players in the world.

Jamie Mathy owns Red Raccoon Games in downtown Bloomington. Mathy said he had not heard of the show when the chess set boom began.

"I didn't even know what was happening. All of a sudden, chess sets, which we hadn't sold in months, just started disappearing off the shelf. All the chess sets were actually picked up and we can't even get those starter sets in," said Mathy.

A table top view of chess boards at a tournament.
Credit Charlie Schlenker / WGLT
Entry level chess sets are sold out in Bloomington following the popularity of the mini series "The Queen's Gambit."

Mathy said he sold several dozen sets in two weeks. He still has some at higher price points, though even there restock supply is problematic. Some nicer wooden boards come from Turkey or India and the pandemic has disrupted shipments, he said.

"We have sold more chess sets in two months than in the last three years," he said.

And Mathy said he is still getting inquiries. Some customers looking for the pieces have said they are returning to the game because of the show.

They haven't actually played a game of chess in three or four years and they got it out for the first time. It was actually a mom who was commenting her 5th grader now has taken an interest and he can beat her on a regular basis. It's kind of frustrating so she has to up her game," said Mathy.

Movies and merchandise often go hand in hand. TV shows typically do not, though there are periodic surprises. Mathy said the last time a TV hit prompted sales was several years ago when the show "Stranger Things" came onto the pop culture scene. He said people sought out "Dungeons and Dragons" merchandise when that show peaked.

"We sold a ton of 'Dungeons and Dragons' sets and dice to parents who remember playing when they were kids in the 1980s and are now adults and want to teach their kids," said Mathy.

Mathy said he wishes these cultural moments were predictable, but they are not. And sometimes a planned merchandising event goes wrong. Mathy said he had stocked up on products that go with the new movie "Dune," from the book by science fiction author Frank Herbert. The pandemic delayed release of the movie, but the merchandise had already shipped.

"We are purveyors of geek culture, I guess is a fun way to say it," said Mathy. "The games have still sold well because geeks are still geeks and we love it."

The book, "The Queen's Gambit," on which the show is based, is by Walter Tevis, who also wrote "The Man Who Fell To Earth" and "The Hustler," both of which became movies. The latter starred Paul Newman.

The title of both the book and the Netflix show come from a particular chess opening.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.