Female prodigies fuel the great chess boom

Checkmate: Real-life chess legend Judit Polgár (left) and Anya Taylor-Joy (right) in The Queen’s Gambit.

Is this the next big thing in sport? The Queen’s Gambit is adding glamour to a skill with a geeky reputation – and young women are flocking to a game that once was the preserve of men.

Raised in an orphanage, Beth Harmon overcomes personal tragedy and drug addiction, using her brilliant mind to triumph in the ruthless world of chess. This is the Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit, the “boxset binge hit” of 2020, that is riding a wave of popularity for the ancient game of strategy.

This year has been a good one for chess. With sports events cancelled, the “game of kings” is flourishing online. Tens of thousands of viewers have flocked to Twitch.tv to watch grandmasters slug it out, whilst eBay has seen a 276% increase in searches for chess sets.

Now, The Queen’s Gambit brings glamour and drama to the chequered board. In the first episode, the protagonist easily defeats 12 boys at chess, playing each game simultaneously. This may sound incredible, but a real-life child prodigy did just that. Seven-year-old Judit Polgár shot to fame when she beat 15 opponents at once. She went on to become the world’s youngest grandmaster when she was only 15.

But Polgár remains the only woman to play in the world championship and enter the top 10 rankings. Although The Queen’s Gambit is set in the 1950s, chess players say it draws attention to sexism in the chess world today. Polgár herself says that the men in the show are “too nice” to Beth.

Polgár fought her way to the top against a pervasive belief that women were just not clever enough to play chess. Their brains “are hard-wired very differently”, once explained grandmaster Nigel Short. In 1990, world champion Garry Kasparov said: “no woman can sustain a prolonged battle,” and Polgár “is, after all, a woman”.

Chess remains a male-dominated game. Out of 1,700 grandmasters worldwide, only 37 are women and only one is ranked in the top 100. But the reasons are cultural, not neurological, according to chess trainer Elizabeth Spiegel. At school, boys are encouraged to be overconfident, a useful skill on the chessboard.

In contrast, girls are taught to be less assertive and to doubt their decisions. Two-time US Women’s Champion Jennifer Shahade says this gender bias is reinforced by a lack of social contacts and role-models in the sport. Netflix’s Beth Harmon succeeds because she is a loner and keeps going, whereas most women quit early before they have a chance to develop.

To counter this trend Shahade set up an online club in April for women to stay connected and play during the lockdown. This month she launched the Madwoman’s Book Club, an online forum to inspire female chess players. The hope is that The Queen’s Gambit will further boost the growing interest in the game. “It’s great for girls, and it’s great for chess,” says former British women’s champion Sarah Longson.

And for some, it is not just about gender. It challenges the perception of chess as an elite game for the super-intelligent and the super-geeky. As Polgár says, it is a game anyone can learn “in 15 minutes” and it has “the power to connect young and old, poor and rich, eliminate politics or gender issues”.

So is chess going to be the next big thing?

Check yourself

Some say no, chess has had its day. It may be simple to learn, but it takes years to master. In the past, it had no competition, but today there are thousands of board games to choose from. They are more colourful, interesting and fun than the black and white chequered board. And online, players can immerse themselves in ever more beautiful and complex video games. Chess just doesn’t stand a chance.

Others say yes, chess has a great future. The simplicity of its rules has stood the test of time, so that almost anyone can play, regardless of age or ability. But the more you play, the more complex it gets; it is never boring. And with over 605 million players worldwide, even when you don’t speak the same language, you will always find an opponent who wants to play.

You Decide

  1. Is chess the greatest game ever invented? If not, what is?
  2. Can a TV show really change people’s attitudes in the real world?

Activities

  1. Design your own board game.
  2. Use the Expert Links to research the incredible life story of Judit Polgár. Write a pitch for a Hollywood film about her life.

Some People Say...

“Whatever your circumstances, anyone can enjoy a good fight to the death over the chessboard.”

Simon Williams (1979 - ), British grandmaster

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that chess is one of the oldest games still played today. But it is not quite the oldest. The Chinese game of Go is 4,000 years old, and Backgammon from Ancient Persia and Checkers from Mesopotamia, are even older. Chess first appeared 1,500 years ago in India and arrived in Europe around 1000AD, becoming an important part of medieval high society. But it wasn’t until the 19th Century that the rules were formalised and the first tournaments took place.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether there should be separate women’s championships. Judit Polgár refused to play in the segregated Women’s Championship, arguing that men and women should “compete with one another on an equal footing”. Others argue that female-only tournaments attract media attention and funding, allowing women to play professionally and attract more women to an otherwise male-dominated sport.

Word Watch

The Queen’s Gambit
The series is named after an opening sequence of moves first mentioned in 1490 in the Göttingen manuscript, the earliest known work dedicated to modern chess.
Chess
The game originated in medieval India, where it was called chaturanga (four divisions). It travelled along the Silk Road to Persia where it was known by the word for king, Shah. “Shāh māt” or checkmate means literally “the king is helpless”.
Grandmasters
After World Champion, this is the highest title a chess player can attain. It is awarded based on a player’s ability and is held for life.
Judit Polgár
The 44-year-old Hungarian is the youngest of three chess-playing sisters, home educated by their father, whose fundamental belief was that “geniuses are made, not born”.
Too nice
Polgár recalls putting up with sexist comments and hurtful jokes. “There were opponents who refused to shake hands. There was one who hit his head on the board after he lost.”
Garry Kasparov
The grandmaster had to eat his words after losing to Polgár in 2002. In total, Polgár beat 11 male world champions during her career. Kasparov later changed his mind and became a champion of women’s chess and was a consultant for the Netflix miniseries.
Overconfident
Chess players often refer to the game as a fight, a battle or a war. Some of the most successful female players, like Judit Polgár and Dorsa Derakhshani, achieved their success with strong attacking and aggressive styles of play.
Madwoman’s Book Club
In the 15th Century the game became known as the “madwoman’s game” because the queen was the strongest piece on the board.

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