How many chessplayers are there worldwide? How many in the U.S. alone? How many who actually understand the game well enough to be interested in watching it on TV or the internet?
Getting solid answers on questions like that is difficult, especially since those most likely to provide them have an interest in either inflating or reducing the numbers. But having a number you can trust is essential to making many arguments about the game.
According to the The Chess in the Olympics Campaign, for example, "605 million people worldwide know how to play chess" and "285 million people play ... via the internet" and "7.5 million are registered players." These "staggering" numbers are repeated by Susan Polgar at her blog. Obviously, if you believe these numbers, chess is more popular than practically any other Olympic sport....
On the other hand, in a recent post J'Adoube writes: "The chess universe is relatively small - only a few million competitive players world wide out of a population exceeding 6 Billion and only 80,000 registered with the USCF, so it's not unusual that distance between two players is relatively close." Of course, he is talking about "competitive players," which naturally would be much smaller than just those who play. But, if you consider that chess spectatorship depends upon being able to understand the game at a relatively sophisticated level, then his numbers may actually more closely reflect the potential audience for chess in the Olympics.
The comments to Polgar's blog posting suggest the two natural reactions to the larger numbers provided by the campaign for chess in the Olympics: optimism and skepticism. One respondent writes: "As of the December 2006 ratings supplement, there were 83,754 USCF members- a mere 0.2% of the estimated number of chessplayers. This tells me that some serious promotion is in order! If the pool of potential chessplayers and USCF members is really so deep, then the organization has incredible potential!"
Another writes: "For me 285 millions playing chess on internet is very difficult to believe. Where are they? I use[d] to play in ICC ,yahoo, playchess and probably all together are just 60,000 or less. And if really there are 300 sites to play chess on internet...where is the list? And one of each six (45 millions) knowing how the play chess in USA looks very strange too. ... Sorry but I do not believe these big numbers!" And another: "It is expected that by 2010 there will be a billion computer users... Even assuming there are a billion computer users today, is it possible that 285 million of them, i.e., more than 1 in 4 computer users have played chess on Internet servers? I would be surprised if 28 million people have played chess on the Internet, let alone 285 million. Something is wrong with these numbers."
At Google Answers you can find a number of sources in response to "how big is the audience for chess online?" But all of them have an angle, so you have to wonder. How are you arriving at these estimates? By the number of chess sets sold worldwide? By survey data (and what survey ever asked about chess)? Inquiring minds want to know....
Truth be told, though, I began looking into this only because yesterday I told my chess students that they were already better than 99% of the people living in the United States and could probably beat their fathers without a problem (a speculation that several quickly backed up with personal testimony).
I like belonging to a relatively exclusive club. But I would also be glad to see chess in the Olympics. Most of all, though, I would love to see some numbers that I can trust.