”A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick boxing.”
By now almost everyone has heard about The Queen’s Gambit. This is a Netflix miniseries featuring actress Anya Taylor-Joy. Set in the 1950s and 1960s it tells the fictional story of Beth Harmon, an orphaned chess prodigy, who rises to become the world’s chess champion, overcoming addiction in the process. Within a month of its release in October it had become Netflix’s most popular dramatic miniseries ever. Even the international chess community gave it a positive reception. Former world champion Garry Kasparov and chess expert Bruce Pandolfini served as technical consultants to the production and the current world champion Magnus Carlsen even gave it a 5 out of 6 star rating.
The series is thought to be responsible for an upsurge in public interest in chess.
According to The Washington Post, the COVID-19 quarantines and lockdowns had already increased the popularity of chess and board games, but The Queen’s Gambit ignited a firestorm of interest. Over the holidays our daughter posted some photos. In one I saw a chess set that I had never seen before, prominently displayed on the dining room table. I can only assumed this was A sign of The Queens Gambit’s influence.
My father taught me how to play chess when I was a child. I played occasionally with friends but showed no talent or aptitude at all. Like many folks, however, I can remember the last time chess caught the public’s imagination when the 1972 World Chess Championship match pitted 29 year-old American Bobby Fischer against defending champion Boris Spassky from the Soviet Union. Fischer was a brash chess prodigy from Brooklyn who had dropped out school because it took time away from chess.
The Fischer-Spassky match in Iceland was billed as the Match of the Century. The Soviets had dominated chess and this contest was seen as a metaphor for the cold war. In a match characterized by threats, delays and conflicts, and numerous bizarre demands, Fischer eventually won. He was instantly hailed as an American hero. Sales of chess sets soared and chess became positively patriotic.
Around this time I started playing chess with a coworker named Fred who was just about as bad a player as I was. Over time Fred and I convinced ourselves that we were pretty good players and that it was time to advance our chess careers. We decided to attend a meeting of an actual chess club.. How we became so deluded about our abilities is still a mystery. My wife Diane and a friend joined a high school chess club, with no interest in chess, but just to meet a smart boy. Years later she joined a boat club with hopes of meeting a man with a boat.
My chess club meeting started out with introductions and then a number of “friendly games.” As newbies everyone challenged us. What transpired is still top on my list of greatest embarrassments ever. We didn’t have a chance. I can’t recall any games that lasted more than a handful of moves. One young fellow, who seemed to the best player, took exceptional pleasure in beating us while pointing out how terrible we were. Garrison Keillor once wrote, “Nothing gets the taste of shame and humiliation out of your mouth like a piece of rhubarb pie.” We sure could have used an entire pie. The whole experience put me off chess for years.
I remember seeing Bobby Fischer being interviewed by Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. Although perhaps a brilliant chess player, Fischer was a terrible role model and flawed individual. He referred to poor chess players as “weakies” and as for women chess players in 1962 he said, “They’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you know. They’re like beginners.” Some critics of The Queen’s Gambit say that as good as the series is, it fails to reflect the actual depth of sexism and discrimination present during the time period depicted and that it tends to make many of its male characters too benign or sympathetic.
In 1975 Fischer forfeited his title while showing increasingly erratic behavior. Eventually he became a fugitive, after illegally participating in a match in Yugoslavia, which was under United Nations sanctions at the time. He went on the lam and literally became a man without a country for several years. He lived abroad until he was allowed to settle in Iceland where he died in 2008.
Years later I grew interested in chess again and even joined the U.S. Chess Federation. I was proud of my ID card. Their monthly magazine was impressive, although I seldom could make heads or tails out of it. This time instead of going to a chess club I decided I would play correspondence chess instead. In the days before the internet people played chess by sending moves back and forth on postcards. I thought this could give me enough anonymity that I stood less chance of being embarrassed. I entered the Golden Knights Correspondence Chess Annual Tournament. I believe that I actually won one game, when one of my opponents dropped out and forfeited. Unfortunately, I lost all my other games. There was one guy who constantly sent me illegal moves. His strategy worked. I got so frustrated that I finally gave up playing postal chess altogether. When he was near the top of his game Fischer had a chess rating of 2,780. The reigning world champion currently has a 2,845 rating. To give you some idea of my skill level, when I dropped out of postal chess, my correspondence chess rating was 618 and you get 600 for just showing up.
Chess, of course, has been significantly altered by the advent of chess playing computers. Experts in the 1960s said that no computer could ever be as good as the top players in the world. By the late 1970s computers were starting to beat top notch players. By 2009, computers reached the grandmaster level and a mobile phone even won a major chess tournament with a rating of 2,898. In 2016 chess grandmaster Andrew Soltis said that world champion Magnus Carlsen won’t play computer chess because “he just loses all the time and there’s nothing more depressing than losing without even being in the game.”
People always like an inspirational story about someone who overcomes losses and adversity, which probably accounts for much of the popularity of The Queen‘s Gambit. Milwaukee writer Molly Snyder also points out that rarefied world of high level chess transports viewers to a place where intellect is glamorous and smartness is celebrated. As for me, I have had to finally admit that I am a “weakie,” when it comes to chess. I have abandoned my early dream to become a grandmaster in order to focus on my other childhood ambition — to become a nuclear physicist. It could happen.