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What will The Queen's Gambit do for Chess?

Updated: Nov 17, 2020

To be clear, The Queen’s Gambit is a brilliant TV program. The acting is brilliant, the filming is sumptuous, the atmosphere created is authentic and the drama is gripping. The attention to detail is meticulous, with Gary Kasparov, one of the strongest players ever, and Bruce Pandolfini, acknowledged as one of the greatest chess teachers ever, advising. It throws up a number of issues about chess, aside of the issues of drug and alcohol addiction and childhood trauma away from the board. I wanted to examine those issues and express my thoughts on them, rather than critique the program which you can make your own mind up about by watching it. If you haven’t seen it yet you should, and I don’t intend to reveal any of the plot other than what is out there in the publicity already. It’s not for kids by the way, so don’t think it is something you can use to inspire your youngster, especially girls, to greater things. But it does teach us to look more closely at the nature of ‘prodigies’, the game itself and attitudes to girls in chess. If you want an inspiring film about chess to show your kids and especially daughters then I highly recommend ‘Queen of Katwe’ which was brilliantly done, and is a (mostly) true story.

Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction, but the characters are, in the director’s and Kasparov’s words, composites of actual chess players. Those of us familiar with the chess world will certainly recognise the characteristics of chess players we know in each character. As a parent of a former chess playing daughter, I also recognise some of the reactions of the young Beth to losing. I also recognise the attitudes of some of the boys to chess playing girls – the disbelief they can be that good, then the acceptance of them as just another chess player. However, though the program does examine some of the sexist attitudes that exist in chess, a recent quote form Susan Polgar suggests it is too gentle on this aspect and does not go anything like far enough portraying the abuse she took in her early competitive days. Girls still face lots of issues in chess. They are outnumbered ten to one at most junior tournaments and more at general congresses. As I have documented in an earlier blog, the last congress I played at was Scarborough two year ago, where there were over 300 people taking part. I counted 5 females. If I miscounted, it wasn’t by much. I will let you do the percentages. I have talked about this on many occasions and the reasons are complex. I suspect if you are a chess player you can reel off a few names in the top 10 men in the world, but if I ask you who is the top ranked female I would wager you couldn’t tell me. It is Chinese GM Yifan Hou -well done if you named her. Her world ranking last year was 59. including the men. Research suggests that the reason for girls’ lack of representation at this top end (and generally) is that they are less likely to work as hard at their chess than men due to wanting to pursue other things as well. Here we come to one of the first major points Queen’s Gambit really shows us. If you want to reach anywhere near the top you have to devote enormous swathes of time to it and not be distracted by anything else. In the program Beth is a prodigy, but that means nothing unless she is prepared to be single minded. She is portrayed as having little interest in anything else, obsessed and devouring every game she can get her hands on by the masters. This was definitely the right road to go down. There is talk in one episode of practice against natural ability, but Beth knows she can’t just win on natural ability. Inspiration is only possible when you have put in your ten thousand hours of meaningful practice. So parents – is that the road you want your daughter to go down? Total obsession – single minded? I never pushed my daughter down such a road – the cost (not just financial) is high, and it doesn’t guarantee success. Interesting that when my daughter was playing she was ranked in the top 50 females in the country. When I look at the same list now, none of the girls of similar age who were her rivals at the time are present. They all gave up playing – I know a few of them coach now – but they rarely compete. So prodigy means nothing. Mozart was a prodigy, but he had pretty much done his ten thousand hours by a young age – it was genius in the right place with the right parents.

I mean this in a nice way, but many of the talented kids I come across in chess have the wrong parents! They aren’t parents who are prepared to throw everything at it – money, time, encouragement, cancelling that party to go to a tournament. And if they aren’t prepared to do that – that’s all right. I guess part of Beth’s story was that she was an orphan and didn’t have parents to hold her back. Her adopted mother had the light bulb moment when she realised there was money to be made! But for most the chances of making a living out of it, especially in the UK, is next to zero.

Another really interesting theme is why some children suddenly get obsessed with the game. The first time Beth sees a chess board she is captured, and I find this aspect to be true with some children. Certainly, I can barely remember teaching my daughter the moves. She was about four years old, and picked it up like walking. Basic strategy is impossible if you are still having to think about how a knight moves, but this was never a problem. By seven she could beat almost everyone in her school. I have come across a number of children for who the game becomes completely captivating. And I have come across plenty for who it isn’t! Many quickly lose their initial interest of learning something new when they realise it is complicated and hard work! Unlike Beth, my daughter wasn’t prepared to read a book on the subject and would never have put those hours in outside tournaments and her general coaching sessions. I would have normally said that influences surrounding a child will very much govern what fascinates them. Beth is an orphan so this throws up a question which I don’t know the answer to. She is naturally highly intelligent so is there some need to find an avenue for that intelligence to be exercised? Why do I have so many children at our chess club whose parents claim to know nothing about chess?

Now what about the wider influence on chess this program is going to have? It is currently the most watched show on Netflix in the UK and the US. This means that many people have seen the fascination of chess and what an amazing game it is. Or have they? Is it just the fact that it’s a thumping good drama that just happens to be about chess, and is brilliantly made, really the truth of it? I don’t know the answer, but I think it is unlikely that the program is suddenly going to produce a surge of interest. For one thing, I am not giving anything away about the plot by saying Beth is a drug addict (it is in all the publicity). The venues are seedy, the politics are complicated and it is not a glamorous life. Young girls can’t watch it and say ‘I want to be Beth’ because it is not a suitable program for young girls. Also, when they see what she had to do to get to the top they might think twice. But I like this realism, personally. It all needed to be said, and portrayed. Chess can give us some great moments – but we all know they are sandwiched in between a lot of pain, and life is like that (especially at the moment). So it isn’t a program which is saying, ‘play chess – it’s great’. But maybe it does say - look chess can be amazing, beautiful, inspirational, but it can be cruel, brutal and depressing!

You need to watch the Queen’s Gambit. Anya Taylor-Joy who plays Beth is fantastic, as is Isla Johnson who plays young Beth (apparently she knew no chess moves when she was cast for the part!), and Kasparov selected actual master games for the scenarios, so if you like your chess you will find that aspect interesting. But what will its lasting impact be? I think to raise the bar for TV dramas yes – to bring about a chess revolution – not sure!

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