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Netflix says Queen's Gambit is its most-watched limited series yet

A show about an orphaned chess prodigy doesn't exactly have the hallmarks of a breakout hit, but The Queen's Gambit has been watched by 62 million accounts.

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The Queen's Gambit was watched by 62 million accounts in its first 28 days of release. 

Netflix

Netflix's The Queen's Gambit, the streaming service's breakout hit about chess, is also its most-watched limited series yet, the company said Monday. Based on Netflix's own yardstick for measuring popularity (see below...), The Queen's Gambit was watched by 62 million households in its first four weeks of release. A limited series typically is a show that completes its story within one season. 

The first-month audience for The Queen's Gambit nearly matches that of the The Irishman, Netflix's $159 million period epic about the Mafia directed by Martin Scorsese, and Tiger King, its viral docuseries earlier this year. 

Netflix attributed the sensation around The Queen's Gambit for other viral chess trends, according to Peter Friedlander, Netflix's vice president of original series, in a blog post. The novel that's the basis for the show is on the The New York Times bestseller list 37 years after its release; Google searches for chess have doubled and searches for "how to play chess" have hit a nine-year peak; interest in chess sets on eBay is up 250% and Goliath Games said its chess sales have increased over 170%; and the number of new players on chess.com has increased fivefold. 

For years, Netflix was notoriously tight-lipped about viewership. The creator of House of Cards, which put Netflix's original content efforts on the map, once said the company wouldn't even share viewership metrics with him. But in the last couple years, Netflix has relaxed its near-absolute silence on the popularity of its shows and movies to help recruit talent and stoke buzz. 

Netflix's popularity figures need disclaimers. For one, they aren't independently verified, nor are they backed up by detailed data from the company. Netflix is in the unique position that it can cherry-pick highlights, and we don't have much independent data to verify them. Traditional media companies, on the other hand, have their box office performance independently monitored, and they're at the mercy of Nielsen ratings as the barometer for TV shows.

Speaking of Nielsen: Don't compare Netflix's numbers to metrics like Nielsen ratings or box office figures. It's tempting to compare how many people watched a Netflix show versus one on regular TV, or to estimate how much money a big movie on Netflix would've made at the box office. But these metrics aren't even close to comparable because the methods behind them differ wildly.

And at the beginning of this year, Netflix switched to a new viewership metric. Netflix now counts a title as "watched" if you choose to watch it and let it play for just two minutes. With some shows or movies, you can turn them off before you even hit the main title sequence -- and it still counts as a view. In The Queen's Gambit, main character Beth has spoken only three words in English when you hit the two-minute mark at which Netflix counts the series as "watched."

Still, The Queen's Gambit audience of 62 million accounts compares with the 76 million accounts that tuned into the first season of The Witcher, the fantasy series that is Netflix's most-watched show under the current popularity metric. The third season of Stranger Things, the retro sci-fi show that is Netflix's other big series hit, reached 64 million households -- but that was under an older, more challenging metric for measuring audience. Netflix has said its new calculations boost the reported audience by about one-third, suggesting Stranger Thing's biggest audience yet may have been in the ballpark of 85 million if calculated by the newer rules.