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How a hit Netflix series has suddenly made it cool to play chess

Culture

The game of chess has never been so cool, and with a TV series about a female chess player breaking audience records, many in the sport hope it will lead to more women players.

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It seems an unlikely candidate for a huge TV hit but, according to streaming giant Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit has become its most-watched limited series ever.

The television adaptation of the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, about orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon, was watched by 62 million households in its first 28 days.

But what do chess players think of the show? Has it inspired lapsed enthusiasts to dust off their old chess boards? And can it boost the number of female players?

Gold Coast-based Alexandra Jule, who began playing chess at seven, has represented Australia in both junior and adult international competitions.

She said the increased interest in the game was exciting and she hoped that the series would encourage more girls to take up chess.

“A chess club started up at my school when I was in Year 2 so, during school and lunchtimes, my friends and I thought an hour out of school was brilliant — we had no idea what chess was,” she said.

Push to inspire girl players

But Jule said the lack of women playing the game became more apparent as she grew older.

“When you’re younger, there are still quite a few girls playing, especially in primary school, early high school,” she said.

“All through my schooling, I never felt alone … [but] as you come out of school there’s a big drop off in female players.”

Jule said that she believed the social aspect of getting together and playing chess with friends was a big motivator for girls, but as friendships waned, so did the number of girl players.

“As soon as you start losing some of those people, it makes it harder to want to keep playing,” she said.

But Jule said she hoped the popularity of The Queen’s Gambit would inspire more female players to stick with the game.

“I see the exposure and popularity being an absolute benefit to chess,” she said.

“Even girls that may have played a little bit when they were younger — and then stopped — might think, ‘I actually remember enjoying chess’.

Chess-mate

The show’s protagonist, Beth Harmon, doesn’t find love in The Queen’s Gambit, but Jule was more fortunate.

She and her partner, Dusan Stojic, met while assessing their moves and counter-moves during a chess tournament.

Stojic, a former Victorian and Queensland champion who began playing the game at six in Serbia, is now secretary of the Gold Coast Chess Club.

He said he was impressed by how accurately The Queen’s Gambit portrayed chess, which was officially recognised as a sport by the International Olympic Committee in 2000.

“The spirit of the game, and the competition, as well as the actual moves, were really, really well done,” he said

“Normally when chess is portrayed in movies and media, it’s a bit of a shoddy job, and they don’t portray it accurately.”

Stojic said the Gold Coast Chess Club had seen a spike in inquiries since the Netflix series was released.

“We’ve been getting a lot of former players trying to return to the game, a lot of new players as well showing a lot of interest, so I think it’s been great for chess overall,” he said.

Stojic also coaches chess in schools across the Gold Coast and hopes that more girls will be attracted to the game, as The Queen’s Gambit has a female champion at its heart.

“I truly believe there’s nothing stopping girls from being as good as boys, but currently we don’t have as many women playing,” he said.

“I think girls see it as a game dominated by men, and they’re reluctant to continue playing if they don’t see as many other girls playing as well, so hopefully we’ll see a rise.”

Quirky chess buys on the rise

Retail supervisor at Mind Games Gold Coast, Anna Leahy, said the popularity of show had seen fans not only looking for chess boards, but specific accessories such as chess clocks and timers as well.

“We sell quite a range of chess products, ranging from $10 to $1000,” Leahy said.

“Normally we’d sell one to two sets a day, but we’re probably [selling] twice that, or three times the amount we normally would.

“It’s been hard to source [items] during the pandemic, but we’re doing what we can, and it’s been really good.”

Jule said she was surprised by the series’ popularity.

“I would have thought it would only appeal to a certain demographic of the population, but people at work and old friends have stopped to tell me they watched it and loved it,” she said.

She said the program had also improved understanding of how tournaments work.

“It’s nice to have people recognise what you do on a daily basis.”

– ABC / Sally Rope

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