I was taught chess at the ancient age of 17 by a learned and cultured boyfriend. He was an avid player and we spent countless weekends at the local chess club. When I was there, I never dared play with others but I watched and analyzed the many games.
Our relationship didn’t last but my fascination with the game endured. When I was 23 and working in a pub as a bartender, I set up my chess set by the counter and I’d play in between serving drinks. I won every game. The exhilaration was unparalleled.
Life shifted and other things took precedence. I stopped playing. Work and later, parenthood consumed my time and attention instead. There, another opportunity presented itself. When my son was 5, I taught him the game, and soon after, his younger sister. Both children play regularly together.
Only now that they are teens have I picked up chess again and it is largely due to the gorgeously inspiring TV series The Queen’s Gambit that took me on an intriguing journey into the life of fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon.
Said to be inspired by the life of real-life American chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, whom I greatly admired on my own chess journey, The Queen’s Gambit gives an authentic view of the experiences professional chess players go through and most certainly, that of a woman in a field dominated by men.
I loved that the series depicted most of the men close to Beth as decent men who acknowledged and respected her as the better player instead of having a misogynistic outburst whenever they lost, and who gave her tremendous support afterward as allies and friends.
However, I felt that the romantic dalliances were unnecessary and they took precious time and substance from Beth’s story, lending the show an R rating. I can only suppose they were added to spice up the show to attract more viewers, but in doing so, has excluded critical viewing for many children who could benefit so much from watching this series.
I was especially disappointed because I wanted my kids to see how a smart, capable woman could pave her own path in life despite insurmountable obstacles. Having watched the series, I can say with absolute certainty that the story could have done perfectly well without the R-rated scenes and still have carried as much evocative weight as it does now.
On a positive note, the show weaves in tightly the themes of hard work, confidence, and self-belief, as well as the perspective that we can accomplish so much more when we accept help from others.
There are many people on our life’s journey who are willing to help and who offer help — friends, teachers, mentors. It is up to us to accept it.
Beth soars when she has an entire team of brilliant chess players coaching her and helping her analyze and strategize before a match. I, too, have learned to accept such help.
“The lone wolf dies but the pack survives.”
— George R.R. Martin
The story begins when Beth loses her mother in a car accident after her father who has a new family refuses to take her in. Beth is sent to an orphanage where she learns chess from the janitor who is an avid chess player.
Soon, she joins tournaments and meets a menagerie of players, some of whom eventually become her friends and stalwart allies. Her wins are astounding but the show is careful to also see her falter and fail.
Part of her incredible genius is she can see games in her mind, reflected in the show as being projected on the ceiling, and in doing so, analyze the game in her head. Few can do this without astounding focus.
So perfectly played by Anya Taylor-Joy and her younger counterpart, Isla Johnston, Beth imbues an intensity into her polished classy character who always strives for more.
She works hard, studying and analyzing games for hours on end. She never makes impulsive and impatient moves, as is often tempting when frustrated with a game.
She keeps her focus, even with the most lauded and celebrated players — all men — and is so hell-bent on winning that we are all cheering her on at every game. It is this drive that is intoxicating and infectious.
Somewhat lost in my own life journey now, I seized upon Beth’s uplifting tale and began playing again — I remembered I could play — and in the process, inspired my own children to play again.
For Christmas last year, I bought myself my first chess set in decades, a beautiful 10-inch wooden set straight from India where they make it with gorgeous-smelling woods. The children and I play chess daily and we celebrate our wins as we see ourselves getting better and better.
Finally overcoming my fear of playing with humans apart from my mini-mes, I now play online with chess players on chess.com. I love chess puzzles and eagerly dive into the daily puzzles from the app. Each day, I feel my brain ticking faster. It’s become an integral part of my life.
My former boyfriend used to tell me, chess is life. I think he is right.