Has the chess boom reached OTB tournaments?

ChessTournamentOver the board
Have Irish tournaments experienced the chess boom?

Since 2019, there is has been huge growth in online chess. In December 2019, 44 million games were played on Lichess, in December 2023, 92 million games were played. has seen even higher levels with over one billion games played in February 2023 (although this includes unrated games and games against bots). Between the lockdowns, the Queen's Gambit and growth of chess content creators, there has been an explosion of interest in chess.

But has this growth spread to over-the-board (OTB) chess tournaments? Have many of these new players taken their chess playing to the next level by attending an in-person tournament?

To find out, I decided to examine to participation numbers at Irish tournament (mainly because I'm Irish so I know the tournaments). I used the figures from as this would be the most accurate number (as other lists might miss late signups or people who don't show up). I counted all the main national tournaments (based on my own judgement) and obviously it must be remembered that many players competed in multiple tournaments.

Cavan 107
City of Dublin169122 144 79
Cork6962 77116
CUS 7689
DCU 122
Drogheda6774 131
Dublin Blitz 3813 4630
Dublin Rapid2833 4951
Ennis7593 90132122
First Weekender9769 9488139
Galway 127 105160
Gonzaga230208202 186
Irish Championship363933362532
Irish Championship: Rapid 11 3577
John Bolger 154160
Junior Championship140162 183144301
Kilkenny170177 255206
Limerick6475 10482
Malahide12897 67
Mulcahy535173 71
New Year204849 4841
Open Weekender6463 5764115
Rapid & Blitz4940 291127
Sligo 125139
UCD 148
Weekday Open2431 302146

The first take away is that OTB chess in Ireland has not only recovered from the Covid lockdown, but bounced back even stronger. Total participation across all tournaments recovered to pre-Covid figures in 2022 and was a solid 50% higher in 2023 compared to 2019. This is even more impressive when you consider that the main pre-Covid event, the Bunratty International Chess Festival, has not returned. Instead there has been a host of new tournaments that sprung up and attracted a new player base.

There is also a good deal of annual fluctuation. Some events have major jumps one year and then a major drop the next year (the Rapid & Blitz Championship being the most extreme example). Most of the growth seemed to have occurred in 2023 (although the City of Dublin was a major exception), implying a lag between when people start playing online chess before they move on to over-the-board chess.

Unsurprisingly, rapid chess has seen an explosion in popularity as many people spent the Covid period honing their online skills. Tournaments for new players like the First Weekender and the Junior Championship have seen massive growth too. In contrast tournaments specifically for those aged over 50 and 65 has remained roughly stable since Covid, suggesting the new players are mostly young. In general, the growth doesn't seem concentrated in any one area, tournaments both in Dublin and in the rest of the country have seen massive expansion, with some reporting hitting all time highs.

But the trend isn't all in one direction and some tournaments have even experienced a drop in participation numbers. Oddly, these tournaments are all based in Dublin, but I don't know what might be causing this. Several of the new tournaments are based in Dublin (CUS, DCU, UCD, John Bolger) so perhaps there is fiercer competition. Some of the tournaments may have suffered from poor advertising, inaccessible locations or dates when other events were occurring.

Event% change 2019-2023
Irish Championship: Rapid600
Rapid & Blitz Championship218
First Weekender101
Junior Championship86
Open Weekender83
Dublin Rapid55
Weekday Open48
New Year-15
Irish Championship-18
Dublin Blitz-21
City of Dublin-35

So much for the total number of players, but has the level of the players changed? Is the growth driven by a flood of beginners or have other players returned to the game? Are there any signs of beginners moving up the ranks?

Irish Championship363933362532
First Weekender Major6240 502454
First Weekender Challenger3027 446485

To answer this, I examined the numbers for the Irish Championship (for players with an ICU rating of over 1900) and the First Weekender Major (1200-1900) and Challenger (under 1300). (Although in 2019 and 2022, it was under 1400 and 1300-1900).

There has been a significant shift in the composition of the tournament. At the top level, there has been no growth in players (in fact a slight decline) and the mid-section is roughly stable. The number of players doubled between 2019 and 2023, and this growth is entirely confined to the Challenger section. In 2018, the under 1300 section was the smallest section with only a quarter of the total players, but by 2023 it had as many people as the other two sections combined.

Kilkenny Masters2618 3528
Kilkenny Majors4448 6238
Kilkenny James Mason4847 4950
Kilkenny Challengers5264 10990

I also examined the Kilkenny Congress as it is a very large tournament divided into four sections. Challengers (under 1200), James Mason (1150-1599), Major (1550-1999) and Masters (1950+). This again is based on ICU ratings, not FIDE ratings (in my experience ICU ratings are about 200 points lower than FIDE ratings).

We can see the same pattern here again. In 2018, the Challenger section was the same size as the other sections, but since 2022 it has swollen to double the size. The other sections had some modest growth in 2022, but this year returned to pre-Covid levels. It has jumped from 31% of players in 2018 to 44% in 2023.


What conclusions can we draw from the data? First of all, the answer to the question in the title is a definite yes, there has been a boom for OTB chess in Ireland. There has been a significant 50% rise in participation at chess tournaments and there's no indication that the boom has peaked yet.

The other feature is that the boom is almost entirely driven by new players in the Challenger section. Perhaps over the next few years these players will slowly work their way up the ladder and into higher sections. FIDE is worried about the flood of new players causing rating deflation and it seems like this is impacting Irish chess on an even larger scale.

This information is specific to Ireland, so it would be interesting to see how other countries compare. Chess is not particularly popular in Ireland and it doesn't receive much attention from the general population, so I don't see any event or issue that would only affect Irish players but not impact other countries.