Friday, February 09, 2007

How many chessplayers?

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.


Anonymous said...

Hi Micheal.

I base my numbers on the same source you do - USCF domestically and FIDE for the international numbers.

I am only counting actual competitive players. Casual players don't count.

I figure if you are serious enough to be a member of these two organizations, than you can be called a chess player, in my opinion.

Anonymous said...

It's possible that every one of six knows how the pieces move. Former USSR had 4 million players registered with clubs. In former Yugoslavia I believe 90% of male population knows how the pieces go.

Anyway, it's very hard to estimate the numbers on global level.

Tom Panelas said...

Right now I’m following the Illinois state high school championship, which is currently in progress. In scanning the results from the first four rounds, I made a random check of player names in the USCF database, just out of curiosity, to get some idea of how many are members. It’s remarkable how many are not, especially on the lower boards but also to some extent on the upper boards. All of these kids are competitive chess players in a basic sense: they’re members of their high school chess teams and play regularly against other schools. Yet many, even most, are not USCF members. This doesn’t surprise me too much; I’ve met a lot of people in scholastic chess, including coaches and TDs, who are not Federation members.

It’s just an observation. I’ll leave it to others to figure out what inferences to draw from this about the number of people who play chess in the U.S.

Anonymous said...

I myself am a very competitive chess player. I do not know anyone who can play at my level, so I choose to play online. My chess rating on different sites varies from 1200 to 1800, so I am unsure where I really stand. I am NOT a member of the USCF or FIDE, but does this mean I am not a "real" chess player?

I think that in the USA, 1 in 6 persons knowing how to play chess is not too far of a stretch.

They should ask this on the next census.

Anonymous said...

Before relocating to US I lived in Europe. There kinda everybody (and by that I mean more than 80%) of fifth graders and up knew and played chess (surely more than 80% in USSR/Russia) cuz it was shameful for somebody to admit that s/he’s not interested/skilled in an intellectual game.

I’m NOT a member of the USCF or FIDE but I play with my buddies (which are not members either), or against the PC, online just to relax and have some fun. When you try to pick up a chick online and she wants to play chess first, well … u’ve gotta play. And I’m not a video games’ fan: the only games I play online are chess (mostly) and Cubis (rarely).

My point being: I know firsthand how popular chess is in Europe and Russia (and all of its former republics): I’m pretty sure that more than 200,000,000 Europeans and Russians play chess online just as a matter of regional culture.

Goran is right: “In former Yugoslavia I believe 90% of male population knows how the pieces go.”, while J’adoube is wrong when saying, “I am only counting actual competitive players. Casual players don't count.” when debating the number of online chess players.

Muggins said...

I have never watched chess on TV in the U.S., because as far as I know it's not available. That is a problem, no? And it makes me suspicious on those numbers.

goritmo said...

In my opinion, most of the players registered on the Internet are just try out players. They play for some weeks or days and then they realize how hard it's the game and how fast are been beaten so they opt for quitting. I had teach chess like five friends of the past and all them had registered in a web site at least once. All of them opt not to play chess anymore they look for other kinds of entertainments like TV's, video games and spend time at studies,work and as dedicated husbands. As I may guess, most of the registered players never get even into the beginning level and they only know how to move the pieces, even though, some forget that. Good post, I've been looking for this some time though, thanks.