Beth Harmon, heroine of Netflix’s miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, has joined Magnus Carlsen and easy access to internet games as a trigger for the unlikely chess boom of 2020.
The current worldwide interest is probably the greatest that the game has experienced since Bobby Fischer famously defeated Boris Spassky at Reykjavik in 1972, incidentally providing an inspiration for Walter Tevis to write his 1983 novel where Beth is the central character.
The 2020 boom is improbable because it coincides with a contrasting disaster for normal over-the-board chess. All levels from grandmaster tournaments to weekly club nights have been ruined by Covid-19. Games face-to-face with a human opponent are currently rarer occurrences than even during the two world wars.
Meanwhile chess websites, where within seconds of clicking on you are paired with an opponent of suitable strength for a game which will take just a few minutes of your time, are flourishing as never before. Participation at lichess and chess.com has multiplied into six or seven figures at a dizzy growth rate, while tens of thousands of eager fans tune in to watch world champion Magnus Carlsen’s latest tournament .
There is not long to wait for the next sight of the legendary Norwegian in action. Carlsen is playing Banter Blitz, commenting on the game while he makes his moves, on chess24.com, starting on Friday afternoon at 3pm. Sunday at 3pm sees the start of the 16-player $100,000 Skilling Open, the first event of the year-long $1.5m Champions Tour. Carlsen, who turns 30 during the tournament on 30 November, will be odds-on to win against an eminent field.
Walter Tevis wrote The Queen’s Gambit in 1983, a year before his death. He was a Class C player, and the film’s drab early settings reflect his personal experiences. Beth’s fictional chess career begins in 1958, the year of Bobby Fischer’s first US title at age 14, and ends in 1967, when he won his eighth and final crown from eight appearances.
Fischer learnt Russian to study Soviet literature, as does Beth in the film. Fischer did not do substance abuse like Beth, but he had other well documented inner demons. Beth’s mother dies early in the series, while Fischer’s mother left him to pursue a medical degree. Playing White against the Sicilian Defence, Beth employs the Fischer-Sozin Attack.
Garry Kasparov was the chess consultant for the series, along with Bruce Pandolfini. a leading US chess teacher. Kasparov’s choice of games for the series included the classics won by Paul Morphy at the Paris opera in 1858, Richard Reti’s 1910 brevity against Savielly Tartakower, and a win by Rashid Nezhmetdinov at Riga 1955. These three games have something in common-a queen sacrifice.
Kasparov’s selections are all wins by men, which missed an opportunity to display equally brilliant games by women. Just four of these would have incidentally provided a mini-history of the best moments from women’s chess.
The first woman world champion, Vera Menchik, who was tragically killed by a 1944 flying bomb, scored with a powerful attack and a queen sacrifice against the badminton baronet Sir George Thomas at London 1932. Nona Gaprindashvili, the Georgian who won strong events against men, sacrificed both rooks for unavoidable mate. Judit Polgar, the all-time No 1 woman, beat Vishy Anand with a brilliant tactic in 1998.
Four years later in the Russia v World match in Moscow, Polgar became the only woman ever to defeat Kasparov himself, in a finale captured on video.
There are hopes that The Queen’s Gambit will inspire many more girls to take up chess. In China, India, Russia, and Eastern Europe there are numerous strong women players, while in the US, Rex Sinquefield’s backing and prize funds of $100,000 for the US women’s title and $16,000 for the US girls have encouraged several fast improving teenage talents.
It is different and worse in Britain and Western Europe, where playing rewards for women are low. The most rewarding chess work now is in streaming, where the top three in the field Anna Rudolf, Anna Cramling and Fiona Steil-Antoni have a combined total of around 100,000 followers on Twitch. Perhaps a Beth Harmon Award, an equivalent of the Slater awards of 1973 which transformed English chess and launched a generation of grandmasters, would be the answer.
3698: 1 Rh8+! Kxh8 2 Rh1+ Kg8 3 Rh8+! Kxh8 4 Qh1+ Rh6 5 Qxh6+ Kg8 6 Qh7 mate. This spectacular but standard tactic works here because of the b2 bishop pinning the g7 pawn.