The New Chess Craze

According to a New York Times article published online on November 23rd, there’s a new chess craze happening in the U.S. and it’s happening because of Netflix. Just a month ago, October 23rd to be exact, Netflix released a 7 episode limited series titled, “The Queens Gambit”. It stars Anya Taylor-Joy, Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, and Moses Ingram and portrays a female chess prodigy (Beth Harmon, played by Taylor-Joy) and her rise in the chess world, while dealing with personal issues and drug addiction in the 1960’s. I watched it twice, and it’s brilliant. According to what I’ve read it’s doing really well.

Now I’m not a movie reviewer so I’m not going to go into details about the show (right). It’s unique in several ways, however. It doesn’t have a central character who’s the bad guy that the protagonist has to triumph over. If anything, the bad guy is the main character herself as she deals with having a screwed up childhood, being orphaned at nine years old, becoming drug addicted growing up in an orphanage where they fed the children barbiturates everyday, and becoming a female chess prodigy in the male dominated world of chess. The show is beautifully done, the actors are all very good and there are great moral lessons to be found, like never forgetting where you came from, no matter how humble your beginnings. The really cool thing about this show however is that according to the Times article sales of chess sets have risen 125% since the series first aired. There seems to be a new chess craze afoot.

My son first started playing chess when he was about 10 years old. He joined the chess club at his school and soon after, he taught me how to play. I’ve been interested ever since. After watching “The Queens Gambit” I’ve dug out my chess books, (of course I have chess books) bought a couple new ones, and started working chess problems every day. In books, chess problems look like this:

The text will say something like, “How can White win in three moves”? It’s your job to figure that out. It helps to have a chess board set up so you can figure out the answer in 3D by moving the pieces instead of imagining where they will move like the main character Beth does in the show. She has a unique ability to “see” the chessboard on the ceiling as she lays in bed at night. It’s the prodigy part of her brain that makes this happen.

One of the most interesting parts of this show is that the “action” sequences are the actual chess games played between Beth and her friends and at the tournaments. How can a chess game be considered an action sequence? You’ll have to watch it and see. It’s very well done. Gary Kasperov and Bruce Pandolfini, both chess Grandmasters were consultants for the series and the chess games and tournaments were all very accurate depictions of real chess. I think it’s great that chess is becoming so much more popular now. It’s definitely a thinking game, much better than any video game and honing my skills now in anticipation of playing my son again when the Covid is past us is very valuable. Learning chess helps one to find answers to questions that aren’t always easy to see, to look at things from different angles, and to plan and look ahead for unforeseen circumstances. And it’s just a great way to keep your brain from turning to dust.

Watching this series brought my attention to the lead actor, Anya Taylor-Joy. She’s very good and there are plenty of scenes where just her facial expressions or body language conveys way more meaning than reams of dialog could. I also discovered another actor here, Harry Melling. He’s done three Netflix characters in the last year. Most impressive is his portrayal of the limbless thespian in the Coen brothers movie, The Ballad Of Buster Scruggs. I can’t describe it for you, you’ll just have to watch it. The really interesting thing about Harry Melling is that he’s a “Harry Potter” alumni. He played the Dudley Dursley character, Harry Potter’s cousin. He had only a few minutes screen time in each of the five movies he was in but in that short time, he made you hate him. He was mean, selfish, and spoiled. Even as a child actor he could bring out those kind of emotions and make you despise him, knowing all along, that he’s just a character in a movie, and not real.

If you want to see some good acting and a really good story, check out “The Queens Gambit” on Netflix. There has only been a couple movies that I know of that have been about playing chess and this one is a seven episode series. There are several stories lines here that keep you interested. Beth’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) story is one of tragedy, (her mother suffers from mental illness and her father left) she grows up in an orphanage where they give the children barbiturates to keep them calm and subsequently becomes addicted, and discovers at age nine that she’s a chess prodigy by being taught how to play by the orphanage janitor. Then there’s the other chess players she meets when she begins to play in tournaments and attempts to become the best chess player in the world. All the characters are interesting and played very well by really good actors. It’s a well rounded story that brings Beth on a voyage of personal discovery. Normally I don’t plug movies or really, anything else (I keep saying this). But I am a movie buff and this one really got me. I’ll probably watch it again.

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