Entertainment Renaissance: Did The Queen’s Gambit make chess cool again?
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Renaissance: Did The Queen’s Gambit make chess cool again?

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One of the oldest games in the world is experiencing a cultural revival, due in part to Netflix’s most-watched scripted series The Queen’s Gambit. 

More than 62 million viewers have tuned in to watch the tale about tranquilliser fiend and chess child prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy).

The series is based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel and has seen more people stream a limited series than ever before.

It has also inspired people to run out and buy black-and-white checkered boards of their own.

Simon Dale, the president of the 154-year-old Melbourne Chess Club, said the show has brought chess back to the forefront of viewers’ minds.

“Certainly there is a much stronger emotional reaction to chess now because of The Queen’s Gambit – it’s talked about a lot more,” Mr Dale told The New Daily. 

The perfect storm of a global pandemic that forced people to entertain themselves from home, plus the Netflix hit, has seen sales skyrocket.

Online retailer eBay said in the US alone, sales of chess sets had increased by 60 per cent due to the pandemic, but when The Queen’s Gambit hit screens in October, sales rose by almost 215 per cent.

Mary Higbe, director of marketing at Goliath Games, told NPR that sales were already on the rise, but thanks to the show, “chess sales are up 1048 per cent”.

But why has the 1500-year-old game stood the test of time?

“It’s the competitive environment which means you take it seriously, and the rest of your world turns off and you can let go and be part of that community while you’re competing,” Mr Dale said.

“Once you know that you like the game, and enjoy playing it and enjoy the mental challenges it gives you, my suggestion is to join a club. It’s just like doing a fun run – it’s a friendly, social but competitive environment.”

The Queen’s Gambit has also fuelled an increase in young girls and women learning to play the game – but sadly, the attitudes to female chess players portrayed in the series is accurate, if not too generous.

Judit Polgar, the only female professional chess player to have made it into the top 10 in the game’s long history, said the male-dominated chess scene was more difficult to crack than depicted.

“The way the boys treat Beth in the series is a dream; sadly, the reality is not like that,” Polgar said.

Knight to E5 …

Mr Dale said it was hard to tell whether new inquiries at the prestigious club were due to the show or because Melbourne’s enduring lockdown has been lifted.

“For America it might be easier to see [a rise in club memberships] because they didn’t have the same lockdown laws we had in Australia.”

But the “chess renaissance” can’t be solely attributed to Netflix’s show du jour, Mr Dale said, but instead suggested it was largely to do with a growing interest from Australian kids.

“The chess renaissance has been happening for Australia for the last 15 or 20 years and it’s based on chess at schools,” he said.

There’s tens of thousands of kids who play regularly at school in structured learning environments and they’re coming through and joining clubs … we have seven-year-olds playing 70-year-olds.

“The club used to be very big before internet. The internet changed the nature of the way people play chess.

“The club was very social in the past. It was a social place to come to and spend your time and play a game.”

Mr Dale said the MCC won’t be able to tell if the increasing interests are due to the show or the pandemic until next year.

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