Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ ignites public interest in chess, contributes to female empowerment

A+game+of+chess+commences+as+the+white+player+moves+a+pawn+to+F4+on+the+board.

Photos by Jankhna Sura

A game of chess commences as the white player moves a pawn to F4 on the board.

Jankhna Sura, Editor-in-Chief

Lining up her pieces on the chessboard, she takes a glance at her opponent. Her gaze is intense and feral. They lock eyes. Breaking the stare, she eyes the board one last time and hits the chess clock. The game begins. 

“The Queen’s Gambit,” a limited series released by Netflix Oct. 23, has garnered significant attention during the COVID-19 pandemic, with over 62 million view worldwide. The storyline follows Beth Harmon, a young female chess prodigy from Kentucky in the 1960s, who works her way through the world’s chess arena and easily demolishes the male grandmasters who stand in her way. 

“I think in the time period this was set in, chess was a great pursuit for a female to break into. It allowed Beth to excel and still be ‘female’ in a way that society demanded—quiet, ladylike, mannerly,” said Trena Kirby, AP Government and Politics teacher.

With overwhelmingly positive reviews, the show has sparked a chess surge as new and recreational players pull out their boards and pieces amidst the pandemic. While chess did see a spike at the start of the COVID-19 quarantine, the current fascination with chess does not parallel that of March. Sales of chess sets have skyrocketed, leaving countless online shops and store shelves void of the game. Ebay, for instance, has seen a 215% increase in purchases of chess sets and a strong demand for wooden sets, which are used in the show. 

Back at the Drive, several students even began playing chess with their own families after drawing inspiration from Beth Harmon. Others, who did not already know the rules of the game, took on the challenge of learning how to play. 

“After watching the show, learning chess immediately shot to the top of my quarantine goals list. I didn’t own a set, but decided to download an application to my computer. Playing has been frustratingly addicting,” said Lauren Garcia, senior. 

Played with 32 pieces and a 64-square board, chess revolves around strategy, creativity and the ability to visualize moves in advance. Chess’s objective is to capture an opponent’s king by making it impossible for the king to move, while simultaneously defending one’s own pieces. With the uncertainty and chaos of COVID-19 looming in the air, chess provides a stable alternative in which players can remain in control, and their patience, purpose and precision can be rewarded.

“I really enjoy chess because you can sit down and it gets quiet. You can think through your moves and it’s fun to figure out what the other player will do,” said Sean Nguyen, senior.  “Chess is also a strategy game, which is something I really like. I’ve learned to be very careful about decisions, since you can’t go back once you’ve made them. You have to look at all the possibilities and there’s always a chance you’ve missed something. I’ve also learned how to read people or figure out their intentions.”

However, in the demographics of professional chess as well as youth competitions, women are disproportionately underrepresented. While scholastic chess’s popularity has grown among young women in the past decade, there is a steep decline in participation after their high school graduation. In fact, Emma Baccellieri from Sports Illustrated wrote that the record high of females in the U.S. Chess Federation was reached at only 14% in 2018.

Beth Harmon, played by actress Anya Taylor-Joy, is recognized for her triumphs in chess as well as her fearless and headstrong attitude in the male-dominated field. By heightening the interest in chess using a strong female protagonist, “The Queen’s Gambit” has achieved a major feat—opening the way for more female involvement in the game.

“The way Beth gracefully and confidently played chess inspired me to look into learning it,” said Anna Cobb, senior. “I was incredibly inspired by how Beth unflinchingly took on a new challenge that was dominated by men. Not only did she focus on her skills, she also blazed new trails and showed viewers that hard work and determination count for more than one’s background and gender.”

In the show, Harmon also delivers a powerful line: “Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful.” With her brilliance palpable through the screen, Taylor-Joy’s character may have forever revolutionized the public intrigue in chess. Once perceived as mundane, chess has transformed it into an art—teaching students to explore the beauty of whatever may come their way.

“I know some people may say that the survival aspect and ‘overcoming adversity’ is the theme here, but I actually think it is more about the importance of finding your passion. I’m not sure what lessons Beth learned, because it seems she never did overcome her own demons, but there is comfort in finding what you love and having that be a safe harbor for you,” said Kirby. 

Check out the photo gallery here!