First of all, is chess popular or not? Many people know it...? Many people play it...? If it's popular, maybe this article doesn't make sense... Or should it be more popular? If it is not popular, should we make it popular?
Taking some European countries as example, where the most famous sport is soccer, chess popularity seems limited. However, both chess and soccer are not common sports: while the first is more than a game (maybe science, maybe art, maybe both), the latter is more like a business, mass entertainment product. But, for the purpose of this article, let's consider both as sports. In the countries where there is a distinctive number 1 sport (like soccer, quite far in popularity from other sports), I bet chess is far in popularity from the number 2 sport (or “numbers 2”). Where sports “favouriteness” is more equally distributed, chess must be closer to the top, as it will be discussed further.
While some sports may be incredibly famous in some countries and almost unknown in some others (cricket is a possible example, quite famous in Asia, for instance), chess is more or less known everywhere. Even if it has only a few participants... (or are the numbers not that low?). While softball, korfball and cricket (to name just a few) may be totally unknown in some countries, I bet chess is not unknown at all. One reason for its popularity (in this point of view) may be its age. How old is chess? Some centuries, at least. Softball, korfball and many “ball sports” are, generally, about one hundred years old. Chess is mature enough to be widespread in the planet. Moreover, what equipment is necessary to play chess? Just a chess board or any 8x8 squares where two sets of 16 pieces, each with different distinguishable colours, may be played in. The setting is so easy. Also, only 2 players are needed. Not like the 22 players of soccer, 16 of korfball or 10 of basketball. Given chess old age, easy logistics and generally low requirements, shouldn't it be more popular?
How many players are there?
The number of chess players is difficult to assess (as the number of players of any sport). Apart from the official numbers, a little under 500 million players in the world, which is a quite concrete number (but not always true as some players might be inactive, for example), we must count the unofficial players. Let's estimate the number of chess players as 400 to 600 million players worldwide. Let's also consider that chess fans are, roughly, the same number of chess players as nobody else is interested in the game if not playing it (contrarily to soccer fans, for instance). This would place chess around the tenth place in number of fans in the world (soccer being the first with more than 3 billion fans (credits to www.topendsports.com)). So, is chess unpopular?
Chess is not a game for the masses. It is not that easy to play. Soccer is for the masses because of it's easiness, namely in a supporter point of view: the ball must cross a line under a metallic rectangle. Easy goal, isn't it? It generates great discussions, however (Is the ball really inside? Was it a foul prior to the goal? Was the referee helping one of the teams?), but that's so amusing for the masses! Like religion, people believe in its team as sacred and, well, let's have faith they will score more goals than the other team (…); amen to that. Whether referees helped or not, whether players are good or not, that doesn't matter because dogmas are very “nutritive”. Panem et circenses... A chess game, however, is difficult to judge. When the best players are over the board, only some of its peers can fully understand what's happening. In this way, only a few hundreds of humans can truly judge what's happening in the square. Aren't we over 7 billion humans!? Then, it comes a recurrent topic: time. The FIDE preferred play time for the main events (90 minute for 40 moves, blah blah blah...) is not “fan friendly”! Most of us chess players will certainly have something better to do rather than watching a chess game for 4 hours! Not even the referred hundreds of humans are that patient! Then, how tomake chess popular?
Well, what if chess is already as popular as possible? Should we change it (make it faster, easier) to reach the masses? Hmm... Do we want it? We do love when our non-chess-believers friends stare at us with that egg in their face when they realize we are chess players. Maybe we are some sort of demi-gods, specially in our minds. Yes, we love to be different. We love to have a complex challenge that most people wouldn't or couldn't embrace! We, the chess players, are a considerable tribe in a world scale given chess is know everywhere but only played/enjoyed by a “few”: ourselves. That's great, I guess! And another plus of chess popular unpopularity: once there are only a few women playing it, it is even easier to discuss soccer with our chess peers. Soccer it is popular and we know it. By the way, what's happening with Chelsea this season?