Membership in the seven-decade-old Arlington Chess Club has increased by more than 40% since prior to the pandemic.
The club has seen an influx of new members since coming back to in-person play in August at Mt. Olivet United Methodist Church, near Ballston, president Adam Chrisney told ARLnow. The club has been around since the 1950s, which likely makes it the oldest chess club in the D.C. area.
There are now nearly 225 members of the Arlington Chess Club, a 40% increase since early 2020, according to Chrisney. During the regularly-scheduled Friday night meet-ups at the church, 30 to 35 people on average show up. That number, though, has reached 60 a few times recently.
At the club’s monthly weekend tournaments, held at the Marriott Residence Inn in Ballston, participation is up “at least 20%” since those also returned in late summer.
The increased numbers mirror national trends, with chess’s popularity reaching heights not seen in 50 years.
Chrisney believes the renewed interest is related to two factors: folks increasingly taking up chess online, but then seeking out in-person play opportunities, and the streaming success of The Queen’s Gambit.
In the early days of the pandemic, people were sitting at home with not much to do. So, they went online to get their chess fix.
“Online chess was an activity that saw a huge amount of participation,” Chrisney said. “And I think people, once they got out [more], realize there were face-to-face opportunities to play chess.”
The Queen’s Gambit, meanwhile, which reached its zenith of popularity in the pandemic’s early days. The Netflix hit demonstrated that chess could be “sexy and cool,” Chrisney said.
The Arlington Chess Club was founded in 1954 by Col. John D. Mattheson, per the club’s website. It’s believed to be the oldest continuous club in the region and widely considered the strongest in terms of standard of play.
“The club has also produced more than its fair share of Virginia State Champions,” reads the website.
Chrisney is actually the only third president of the club in its nearly 70-year history. Despite its longevity and sterling reputation, the club does face long-term challenges. A permanent and affordable venue and a multi-member active board that runs operations are the two things that Chrisney believes the club needs to remain viable.
As much as he enjoys being the club’s president, it’s a volunteer position that requires a serious commitment. Plus, he misses playing.
“I used to be one of the more active players in the D.C. metropolitan area and [now] the amount I play is about 10% of what it used to be,” Chrisney said. “I want to get back to playing.”
Another long-term goal of the club is to get more age and gender diversity. While Chrisney didn’t have exact numbers, about 20% of the club is under the age of 18. That used to be a bit higher prior to the pandemic.
For years, the club was known as a place for young players “on the rise” to come to hone their skills.
“We probably see a larger quotient of prodigies than the other clubs,” Chrisney said.
Additionally, Chrisney would like to make a push to attract more female players with chess still being “mostly… a male activity.” He estimates less than 5% of club members are women.
He cited Chess Girls D.C., the non-profit that encourages more young women to play chess, as a potential future partner that could bring in more players to the club.
While a permanent venue, a more distributed volunteer workload, and added diversity in membership are all goals, Chrisney said there is no lack of interest in the Arlington Chess Club.
“We have been going strong since the 1950s,” he said. “And there’s no sign of dissipating.”
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