Back in October, Netflix released a new mini-series called The Queen’s Gambit. Featuring Anya Taylor-Joy, of Peaky Blinders fame, the series showcased a riveting story about a young woman obsessed with chess who transcends the game with her talent. Although there are some real-world analogs to the characters and events showcased in the series, The Queen’s Gambit is fictional. However, it grounds itself firmly in the 1960s, bringing the viewer along for the ride.
Now, if I were a studio executive and someone pitching a series to me all about chess, I would be instantly skeptical. How can you make chess exciting to watch? Even more importantly, how can you make chess exciting to watch for 7 hours? I mean, you’re moving pieces across the board and tapping a clock – not exactly earth-shattering stuff here.
But I’ll tell you what – everything about The Queen’s Gambit is exceptional. From the setting, to the character development, to the story, I was completely invested from the beginning. And, honestly, I was surprised about how the show uses chess as a catalyst to tell the tale of Beth Harmon. It really isn’t a show about chess; it’s a show about a person that just so happens to love the game.
And that’s what you have to do if you want a show to be accepted by the masses. People have to relate to the characters and be entranced by the storytelling. The fact that chess is involved is a bonus for nerds everywhere, because in the days of $12 Million board game Kickstarters, chess is very much considered an old-school game. Everybody is moving on to the next Wingspan or whatever gaming zeitgeist they can capture in their ghost-sapping vacuum.
That’s what makes The Queen’s Gambit so exciting though. I’ve had a bunch of people bring up the show to me and explicitly mention how it made them pick up chess as a hobby. The show is shot in such a way that chess-enthusiasts can appreciate the classic chess openings and tournament commentary, but chess knowledge isn’t required to appreciate the game or the story.
The show explores some really deep themes like addiction and gender roles. As Beth deals with these issues, chess is both an escape and an obsession. It’s really the only thing that she knows, and it’s a comfort to her because she is so dominant at the game. In fact, there is a point in the show – spoilers – that she is confronted with the fact that as good as she is, she is still beatable.
Beth wants to be the best, and when suddenly her abilities are challenged and the foundation of her escape is weakened, she has to choose how she is going to react. Will she lose herself at the bottom of a bottle, or will she rely on the fragile support system of people around her?
So what does all of this have to do with nerds?
The Queen’s Gambit Revitalized Chess
I don’t think that online chess was necessarily a wasteland prior to The Queen’s Gambit’s release, but one thing is for certain: the show skyrocketed the popularity of chess. The Online Chess behemoth Chess.com reported having nearly 100,000 new members signup daily in the middle of November, right around the show’s release. That’s nothing to shake a stick at.
There have always been an abundant of resources for chess players, like Lessons or Puzzle challenges, but I had no idea that there was so much chess content available out there. If you want to become a serious player, it’s astounding to begin reading about chess strategy. It also makes you painfully aware of how skilled chess grandmasters are.
Nerds Love Montages
We love a good montage. Typically these come in the form of a training sequence ala Rocky, or when a superhero is learning to control their powers and failing time and time again. The Queen’s Gambit has several types of shots that they use to make the chess games interesting. From Beth visualizing pieces on the ceiling or showing sped-up iterations of how a game might be played out, it’s quite thrilling.
And what I love about the show most is that the story and its characters all come together in the end. Every scene has a specific purpose and all of those threads get tied up neatly.
Chess is a Great Game
Contrary to what some people might say, chess isn’t a ‘solved game’. Every game starts within the same boundaries, but within a handful of moves two games can look completely different. You can be defensive or aggressive, and the game itself only requires two people to play. Plus, playing virtually is also a fantastic option if you want to have fun or if you want to try and take your game to the next level.
Because chess has been around for so long, people tend to have a general understanding of how the game is played and what the pieces do. There’s a slight learning curve, but as a game its mechanics are simple enough to teach to others and start playing. And when you first learn what it feels like to be tied up in 4 moves via the Scholar’s Mate, you can quickly and easily set up the board for another game.
Watch The Queen’s Gambit
All this is to say that The Queen’s Gambit is a fantastic show that deserves your attention. I’m signed up over at Chess.com and playing games daily all because of the show, and I hope that you can find a similar sort of joy in it as well. Anytime that a mainstream show can inject new life into a nerdy hobby, that’s a huge win. That’s how hobbies hang around, by new people coming along and bringing a fresh batch of excitement with them.
And if you need to ask the question, “Is it too late for me to become a Grandmaster?” The answer is probably yes. But you can at least get better at the game!