How the Queen’s Gambit reinvented chess
In 2002, an American player named Jennifer Shahade, who looks more than Beth Harmon, became the youngest American chess champion in history. Subsequently, she was awarded the title of female grandmaster by the international chess organization, FIDE (the acronym is French). Like Harmon, Shahade once graced the cover of America’s premier chess magazine. She, too, has flamboyant red hair – although less scrutinized than Harmon’s successful fame – and like the show’s character, she’s made it a point to publicly embrace fashion and travel. She plays the game with Harmon’s same attacking style, which is a major plot point in the story. To be clear, Shahade cannot be the inspiration for the character, as she was only three years old when Tevis’ novel first appeared. She even remembers not having finished the book – despite the similarities to her own story – when she first came across it in the midst of the teenage pangs of her obsession with chess.
Shahade has emerged as a prominent face in the game, challenging his longstanding tendencies to favor white men and conservative politics. The cover of his first book, Chess Bitch: women in the ultimate intellectual sport, featured the author posing in a pink wig, pink spaghetti strap top, pink scarf, and pink furry gloves, and her second book, examining the games of prominent female players, was titled Play like a girl. Additionally, Shahade has staged a number of chess-themed art installations and events, performed or directed in the spirit of artist Marcel Duchamp, for whom chess was a lifelong concern. and which is the subject of Shahade’s third co-authored book.
Alongside Shahade’s own efforts, several other changes in the chess world have broadened the appeal of the game. Current world champion Magnus Carlsen, a 29-year-old Norwegian with a dry wit and a willingness to offer words kind to his opponents, has been a far more attractive figurehead to the game than many of his predecessors. (Anyone who is convinced that chess is a toy should watch the first five minutes of Netflix’s Carlsen documentary, Magnus.) The St. Louis Chess Club achieved international status as a venue for major tournaments and initiated philanthropic efforts to highlight the supposed intellectual benefits of the game. A Chess in the Schools program helped gain recognition for the game as an art, as well as a sport, making it fundable from sources previously unavailable to it. The American Chess Federation became a 501c3 nonprofit organization, representing a shift in mission from promoting chess to improving people’s lives through play. The Twitch and Chess streaming platform. com, with a strong lineup of male and female commentators on live covered tournaments around the world, have revolutionized the way the game is consumed by fans. In Fischer’s time, and even 20 years ago, it was rare to see grandmasters playing chess. Today, it is possible to observe the best players in the world practically 24 hours a day.
Even the pandemic may have contributed to the popularity of chess and The Queen’s Gambit. If too much time at home has left the audience ready for a bildungsroman in which dedication and perseverance are duly rewarded, then chess offers the opportunity for both intellectual challenge and welcoming community, at a time when these things are hard to find.