The Queen’s Gambit


My wife Lisa and I recently enjoyed seeing the Netflix episodes of The Queen’s Gambit.  The response to the series has been surprisingly positive given the lack of enthusiasm most Americans have for the game.  I developed an early interest in the game after my younger brother, Andrew, became quite proficient at it.  Call it what you may, perhaps sibling rivalry, but my chess acumen improved to the point where I started beating my brother on a fairly regular basis.

To improve my game, I started to follow the moves of all the leading chess players and, especially, became intrigued with the different openings and their origins.  Fortunately, for my parents, I had other interests, such as sports.  Consequently, chess never dominated my mind so I never put in the time that is really a sine qua non if one wants to compete with the best players.  My crowning achievement occurred when I played a math professor, while attending graduate school, who claimed to have had, at an earlier time in his life, an 1800 rating that is considered a Class A, category 1 player.  This rating is designated for those that are called very strong club players.  Although he beat me, he did tell me that I gave him a good game, and he pointed out that I had a very strong opening.

As demonstrated in the Queen’s Gambit, Beth quickly learned that once she touched a chess piece, she had to move it.  Adept players have a way of keeping track of the board insofar as they can visualize future combinations of moves and where the pieces would be subsequent to their mental calculations.   These players retain a map of the chessboard with all its pieces implanted in their minds.  Chess matches are mentally grueling affairs.  For example, Bobby Fischer, past chess world champion, would prepare for a chess tournament by playing tennis, months in advance, to strengthen both his mind and body so he could endure the rigors of a chess match. 

The last craze over chess occurred in 1972 when Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky in Reykjavík, Iceland.  The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) decided to take a chance on an unknown chess nerd, Shelby Lyman, who had no TV experience, to host the program live.  The station devised a way in which each move made by Spassky and Fischer would be relayed by phone, live, to Shelby who would then post it on a huge chessboard that was displayed to the viewer.  Next to that board, Mr. Lyman would have another board where he would analyze the ongoing progress of the game with other experts in the studio.

After waiting, sometimes as long as 30 minutes before Shelby would post a move, I remember sitting in front of my chessboard absolutely mesmerized by the process.  Needless to say, so were many others as the broadcast gained instant overwhelming popularity.  The event became even more fascinating when Shelby and the group of experts would confer on what the next best move would be by Fischer.  Invariably, they would overlook the move that Fischer actually chose, realizing afterwards, by post hoc analysis, that they had missed the beauty of what Fischer had done.  This confirmed the difference in ability between a great player, such as Fischer, and expert players that were nowhere near the level of either him or Spassky.

Although Fischer won the contest, three years later he failed to defend his title, and he never again was to compete at the level he had.  Soon after, the chess mania disappeared in the U.S.A.  Perhaps the combination of the current pandemic, in conjunction with the showing of the Queen’s Gambit, have both contributed to the revival of the earlier chess enthusiasm witnessed in the Fischer Spassky match.

Chess is not a difficult game to learn.  The game has an instant allure to it given the different pieces and the unique way in which they are moved.  Like golf or tennis, there are many levels at which it can be played.  Some people probably possess innate abilities allowing them to engage in it at a higher level.  Nevertheless, to become a great player, like Bobby Fischer or Beth, as portrayed in the Queen’s Gambit, requires an intense study of all aspects of the game that takes an enormous amount of time.  Much of this study, such as reading chess books from all over the world, is isolative.  Although Beth, like Bobby Fischer, is admired by all, in choosing to devote so much of her time to chess, she sacrifices many opportunities to have any kind of social life.  The image Beth projects as so obsessed with the game fits well with how Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky responded when asked to describe what chess meant to them.  Whereas Spassky said: “Chess is like life,” Fischer said: “Chess is life.”   

My wife Lisa and I recently enjoyed seeing the Netflix episodes of The Queen’s Gambit.  The response to the series has been surprisingly positive given the lack of enthusiasm most Americans have for the game.  I developed an early interest in the game after my younger brother, Andrew, became quite proficient at it.  Call it what you may, perhaps sibling rivalry, but my chess acumen improved to the point where I started beating my brother on a fairly regular basis.

To improve my game, I started to follow the moves of all the leading chess players and, especially, became intrigued with the different openings and their origins.  Fortunately, for my parents, I had other interests, such as sports.  Consequently, chess never dominated my mind so I never put in the time that is really a sine qua non if one wants to compete with the best players.  My crowning achievement occurred when I played a math professor, while attending graduate school, who claimed to have had, at an earlier time in his life, an 1800 rating that is considered a Class A, category 1 player.  This rating is designated for those that are called very strong club players.  Although he beat me, he did tell me that I gave him a good game, and he pointed out that I had a very strong opening.

As demonstrated in the Queen’s Gambit, Beth quickly learned that once she touched a chess piece, she had to move it.  Adept players have a way of keeping track of the board insofar as they can visualize future combinations of moves and where the pieces would be subsequent to their mental calculations.   These players retain a map of the chessboard with all its pieces implanted in their minds.  Chess matches are mentally grueling affairs.  For example, Bobby Fischer, past chess world champion, would prepare for a chess tournament by playing tennis, months in advance, to strengthen both his mind and body so he could endure the rigors of a chess match. 

The last craze over chess occurred in 1972 when Bobby Fischer played Boris Spassky in Reykjavík, Iceland.  The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) decided to take a chance on an unknown chess nerd, Shelby Lyman, who had no TV experience, to host the program live.  The station devised a way in which each move made by Spassky and Fischer would be relayed by phone, live, to Shelby who would then post it on a huge chessboard that was displayed to the viewer.  Next to that board, Mr. Lyman would have another board where he would analyze the ongoing progress of the game with other experts in the studio.

After waiting, sometimes as long as 30 minutes before Shelby would post a move, I remember sitting in front of my chessboard absolutely mesmerized by the process.  Needless to say, so were many others as the broadcast gained instant overwhelming popularity.  The event became even more fascinating when Shelby and the group of experts would confer on what the next best move would be by Fischer.  Invariably, they would overlook the move that Fischer actually chose, realizing afterwards, by post hoc analysis, that they had missed the beauty of what Fischer had done.  This confirmed the difference in ability between a great player, such as Fischer, and expert players that were nowhere near the level of either him or Spassky.

Although Fischer won the contest, three years later he failed to defend his title, and he never again was to compete at the level he had.  Soon after, the chess mania disappeared in the U.S.A.  Perhaps the combination of the current pandemic, in conjunction with the showing of the Queen’s Gambit, have both contributed to the revival of the earlier chess enthusiasm witnessed in the Fischer Spassky match.

Chess is not a difficult game to learn.  The game has an instant allure to it given the different pieces and the unique way in which they that are moved.  Like golf or tennis, there are many levels at which it can be played.  Some people probably possess innate abilities allowing them to engage in it at a higher level.  Nevertheless, to become a great player, like Bobby Fischer or Beth, as portrayed in the Queen’s Gambit, requires an intense study of all aspects of the game that takes an enormous amount of time.  Much of this study, such as reading chess books from all over the world, is isolative.  Although Beth, like Bobby Fischer, is admired by all, in choosing to devote so much of her time to chess, she sacrifices many opportunities to have any kind of social life.  The image Beth projects as so obsessed with the game fits well with how Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky responded when asked to describe what chess meant to them.  Whereas Spassky said: “Chess is like life,” Fischer said: “Chess is life.”