I recently heard something remarkable on an NPR news/feature program. The show devoted a half-hour of airtime to the nerdiest topic in the history of nerdy topics: chess.
You can probably guess why. In late October, Netflix offered up a miniseries called “The Queen’s Gambit.” Since then, people have apparently been buying chess sets the way they bought disinfectants in March.
For Netflix, creating an eight-hour miniseries about a 600-year-old board game was a gambit in itself. Eight hours of movie-making doesn’t come cheap. I can imagine the producers pitching the idea to the studio big-wigs: “It’s about a girl who plays chess and beats up a lot of guys. Well, not physically. She beats them up with chess pieces.”
Admittedly, it’s not Rambo.
Chess movies have been around for years, but you have to look to find them. In my lifetime, there have been three good ones: “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “Pawn Sacrifice” and Disney’s “The Queen of Katwe.” If you’ve heard of even one of these movies, I’m impressed.
As for me, I play an enthusiastic but only slightly above average game of chess. Think of it this way: If you actually play in a chess club, you’re better than me. But I love the game, and I hate to see it trivialized as an activity solely for social rejects who can’t do anything else.
So when “The Queen’s Gambit” hit Netflix, I watched it with trepidation. And by the end I enjoyed it, but not because of the chess.
Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of enjoyably long, lingering scenes of the highly photogenic young female chess prodigy gazing at the board, immersed in the intricacies of the Sicilian Dragon Defense, or maybe the Nimzo-Indian Defense — I can never tell the difference — followed by the quietly inevitable half-smile aimed at her smug male opponent moments before blowing his butt out of the water.
It’s great. I’ve been there lots of times — although usually on the receiving end.
But what makes “The Queen’s Gambit” entertaining isn’t the chess. Chess is just the conduit for what great sports films always deliver: odds to overcome, fatal flaws to rise above, perseverance, grit and the ability to take that one shot for greatness and hit nothing but net.
So I’m pretty sure that the pitch delivered to the studio execs actually went like this: “So here’s the deal. Orphan girl. Becomes a drug addict. Grows up. Adds alcohol to her addictions. Horrible home. Plays chess like a champ, but only when she’s stoned. Crashes. Overcomes the odds. Moment of glory.”
“Well, OK,” say the execs, “but come on. Chess? Really?”
Well, yes. Really. And the 62 million people who watched “The Queen’s Gambit” in its first four weeks on Netflix apparently agreed.
And now, no less than NPR is proclaiming that chess in America is having a “moment.” The program’s coverage included everyone from beginners to grandmasters, and even some people who picked it up during the pandemic out of boredom and then fell in love with it.
Here’s my story. When my oldest child was about 8 years old, I bought a cheap plastic chess set for about $2.50. “Mike,” I said, “you and I are going to figure out how to play chess.” Fortunately, he was at an age when doing something with Dad was still cool.
That was nearly four decades ago, and I’ve never lost my enjoyment for the game. Through the years I’ve taught all my kids how to play, and I’m working through my grandchildren now. I bring my chess board to school when I substitute teach. I invite them — once their work is done — to “beat the sub.”
Why am I writing this? I suppose it’s to assure you that despite “The Queen’s Gambit’s” glossy but semi-sordid tale, it’s possible to be normal and still enjoy chess. It’s been shown to improve math and critical thinking test scores. It’s inexpensive. You don’t have to buy uniforms, or special insurance. Online teaching tools abound.
And keep in mind that if you act right now, telling your friends you play chess will actually make you cool.
I have to admit — that’s a gambit I never thought would work.
Chris Huston is an author and award-winning columnist living in southern Idaho. Connect with Chris on both Facebook and Instagram at Chris Huston-Finding My Way and at chrishustonauthor.com.