Watching The Queen’s Gambit Doesn’t Make You Good at Chess
If you haven’t seen the latest phenomenon to take the world by storm yet on Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit, you’re truly missing out on something special. Based on the novel written in 1983 by Walter Tevis, the show follows the life of a chess prodigy named Elizabeth Harmon. She is discovered in an orphanage by a janitor named Mr. Shaibel who works there and enjoys studying and playing chess in the basement by himself. When he begins teaching her the game, he quickly realizes her talent is of a genius level, and tries to help her develop and hone her skill.
While fictitious, the character of Elizabeth Harmon, played marvelously by Anya Taylor-Joy, is enthralling, and her journey showcases the exciting potential of pure talent, while also highlighting many of its dangers. Along the way she must face personal demons of drug abuse and deal with her past traumas, while at the same time navigating a world built to suppress her talents because she isn’t the right gender. All of this is captivating and exceptionally well-crafted in its story and production value, making it another rousing success from the Netflix studio, and the second such success from writer/director Scott Frank. His series Godless, a western starring Jeff Daniels, is also beyond excellent.
The Queen’s Gambit broke records for streaming in its first week of release, becoming one of Netflix’s most popular productions of all time. This is extraordinary for a narrative built around a niche subject such as the world of chess, something many people are probably unfamiliar with. But maybe that is also part of its allure. Chess is a game that apparently many people are interested in, due to its perceived complexity, and its rarity of mastery. With the rising popularity of this streaming program, there has been a noticeable spike in sales of chess sets, up over 125%.
But, this swelling interest in the game of chess is certain to recede again soon, once people realize just how complicated and difficult of a game it is to master. It seems about once a decade or so a movie or book like this will come along and create interest in the game of chess. When I was growing up, that movie was Searching for Bobby Fischer. There was then a movie starring Samuel L. Jackson called Fresh. Another film about Bobby Fischer, arguably the greatest chess player of all time and who Elizabeth Harmon is loosely based upon, was released in 2015 called Pawn Sacrifice.
I remember vividly how popular chess became after the release of Searching for Bobby Fischer. My school started a chess club. Every day during recess, there would be kids huddled around boards, playing. Even my step-dad at the time bought a chess set and we would spend many nights playing. But, for us, and for most everyone else, this is a novelty. It’s playing at something far beyond our ability or expertise, something for which we quickly reach our plateaus and lose interest in, because we reach the limit of our own competitive growth.
It’s fun to watch films like Searching for Bobby Fischer and The Queen’s Gambit, because it awakens within us that inspiring sense of possibility, that “what if?” seed planting itself in our minds: what if we can achieve this level of success ourselves? But this is an illusion. The people born with these gifts are rare, and once they are discovered, they must dedicate their entire lives to nurturing their talent and genius. The sort of people born to become Grand Masters of chess have brains that could easily allow them to be astrophysicists and chemical engineers. Imagine having a brain with a computational ability nearly akin to that of a computer. That’s what it takes.
With each move a player makes on the chess board, the number of potential moves and positions to take increases exponentially. After just four moves, the number of possible positions to take is over 288 billion. Supposedly, there are around 10 to the 50th power possible ways a chess game can end up. That’s just insane to think about. This is why players who seriously study the game, and achieve higher levels of status competitively, have to devote so much time to its study.
Since there are so many possible outcomes, there are entire methods and tactical maneuvers that have been researched and given varying scores of effectiveness or advantage. There are methods for the very opening moves. There are scenarios documented for the various stages of game play, all the way to the endings.
Given the sheer number of possible variations, you can imagine now how difficult it would be to dedicate so many of them to memory, and to be able to predict the outcomes of various scenarios multiple moves in advance, predicting not only your opponents moves, but also keeping in mind your own strategy, and then being able to adjust to an opponent deviating from the predicted course. This is why this game requires a certain degree of mental capacity and stamina.
So, while it may be fun for all of us novices out here to see an entertainment such as The Queen’s Gambit, and decide to dabble in the game that inspired it, for most of us, dabbling is all we will ever do.