Considering that the strongest piece in chess is a queen, it is a pretty man-heavy game. Men dominate chess history. But in the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” this gender distribution is mixed up a bit. The orphan girl Beth Harmon discovered her talent for child prodigies in the 1960s and managed to assert herself against the best grandmasters with her ingenious features.
The seven-part miniseries is the addictive hit of the second lockdown worldwide. And it means that interest in chess is even greater than was the case with other games in this exceptional year, which gave many people more free time at home than usual. According to the International Chess Federation FIDE, searches on eBay by people looking for chess sets increased by a full 253 percent in the first ten days after “Queen’s Gambit” was published.
Record interest on the web
FIDE has been observing the new weakness for chess since the outbreak of the coronavirus: The number of online chess games is said to have almost doubled in the spring, and relevant platforms such as chess.com or LiChess recorded 40 percent more registrations. November brought further records. On YouTube and Twitch, where the video gaming scene actually watches each other play, chess games are becoming the new street sweeper. In February, “only” two million chess games broadcast on Twitch followed, in April already four million, which doubled again to eight million in May.
The novel on which the series is based has now also made it back onto the bestseller lists. Writer Walter Tevis has modeled his main character Beth after the US chess legend Bobby Fischer – the first US grandmaster to defeat a Russian at the World Cup – as a more fairytale-like and naturally female version. The fact that he did not model her immediately after a female grandmaster is due to the dynamism of the sport of chess. Similar to football or other sports, there is also the so-called “women’s chess” here. One would like to think that in a discipline in which the possible physical inferiority of women does not play a role, such a separation would not be necessary. The reality is different. The World Chess Federation founded the women’s world championship back in 1927, and the tournament is no longer particularly popular with modern female players. The current number one in the world rankings, the Chinese Hou Yifan, never competed again to defend her title from 2016. The best woman in chess history, Judit Polgar, never felt the need to take part in this world championship.
Scientific studies are concerned with why women are worse at chess, and other scientific studies are concerned with why women are not. The prejudice that women think differently than men and therefore play poorly chess is supposed to lead as a self-fulfilling prophecy that they really play worse. A large study recently refuted this; it showed that chess players won against men of equal strength (the respective level is defined by the so-called ELO number) more often than against women of equal strength – so performance was even boosted when a man was the opponent was.
However, another factor is likely to play a role when it comes to equality between men and women in chess: there are many more men who play chess professionally than women. To change that, the “First Conference on Equality for Women in Chess” was held in Spain in 2016. The fact that no more women play tournament chess was attributed to the male image of the game, to the different upbringing and to the chauvinism allegedly widespread in clubs and tournaments. If you watch the video on YouTube in which Viktor Korchnoi does not react confidently when he is defeated by Sofia Polgar, one is inclined to believe the description.
It was also stated that more associations are needed that are run by women.
It’s about the money
An analysis of the “Frankfurter Allgemeine” once explained that the gender division also has disgraceful economic reasons: The more tournaments there are, the more fees the world association can collect – which therefore has little interest in changing that.
But maybe the series “The Queen’s Gambit” will also help. That’s what chess player Irina Berezina hopes for. She discovered her talent – back then in the Soviet Union – even earlier than the main character in the series, namely at the age of four. Like Beth Harmon, she too can play multiple games at the same time – and win. She hopes the series will bring a whole generation of new players to the scene. “All my life I have dreamed of advancing women’s chess. This show has already achieved an enormous amount.” In any case, more women than men have recently registered on chess.com.