The hit Netflix chess drama The Queen’s Gambit may be set in mid-century Kentucky, but it’s resonating with chess players in Halifax today.
A renewed interest in chess
The Queen’s Gambit follows protagonist Beth Harmon: an orphan who becomes a chess prodigy thanks to early lessons from the janitor in the basement of her orphanage. The series deals with substance abuse, mental health issues, sexism and other serious subjects.
But most of all, the show is about chess. The acclaimed series has caused a major boost in curiosity about the game.
While the COVID-19 pandemic already sparked an increase in the general public’s interest in chess, when The Queen’s Gambit was released interest skyrocketed. The New York Times reported the sale of chess games shot up 125 per cent in the weeks following the October 2020 release of the Netflix show. One toy company, Goliath Games, saw more than 1,000 per cent increase in chess sales since The Queen’s Gambit came out. Chess.com has gained several million new users to its website since last October.
Ken Cashin, president of Chess Nova Scotia, has also seen a recent rise in chess interest in the province and hopes “any new interest will translate into more people coming out to [their] chess clubs and tournaments. . . once things open back up.”
Accuracies and inaccuracies
For Aaron Yip, a Dalhousie University engineering alumnus who started the Dalhousie Chess Club in 2018, says The Queen’s Gambit highlights the social aspects of chess he has come to love.
“Players love to get together and talk about moves and openings like they do in the Netflix series,” says Yip.
Sex and gender discrimination are major themes throughout The Queen’s Gambit. It’s inspiring to watch Harmon destroy her opponents at all-male competitions. For Ridhi Mittal, a former Nova Scotia provincial chess champion and current first-year student at McGill University, The Queen’s Gambit reminds her how little the chess world has changed: When she attends tournaments, she is often one of few, if not the only woman there.
“This can be discouraging to girls when they see that there aren’t many female role models within the chess community,” Mittal says. “But I think things are changing and I’m hoping more girls get into chess because it’s a game for everyone.”
Although the reviews for the Netflix show were overwhelmingly positive, with the show receiving 97 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, some critics were quick to point out its flaws.
Bethonie Butler of the Washington Post points out the show has only one major Black character, Jolene, whose “backstory and character development are so limited,” says Butler, “that she seems to exist merely to make Beth’s life easier.” Other critics said the show misrepresents drug abuse.
What’s next for local chess
Unfortunately, the pandemic has halted in-person chess tournaments around the globe.
“It has taken the social aspect out of it,” Yip says. “It’s become much more individual.”
Yip said when he was in the Dal Chess Club, they worked to get equal ratios of male and female players. They once hosted a seminar on famous female chess players for this reason, but it’s not an easy task to create gender equality in chess. Yip is hopeful once in-person games resume post-pandemic, more players, and more women, will show up.
“It doesn’t matter what your social status is, what your gender is, doesn’t matter how rich or poor you are, the game is for everyone,” Yip says.
For Mittal the best thing about chess, which comes across in The Queen’s Gambit, is how unpredictable it can be.
“Every time I play a game it’s something different, something unique,” says Mittal, who’s been playing chess for 12 years and held the title as a Nova Scotia grade champion for five years.
“There are more possible chess games than stars in the galaxy,” says Mittal.