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I have spent over 8,500 hours of my life teaching kids how to play chess!

I started working for Chess at Three in 2014 and quickly became New York City’s busiest chess tutor. I spend my after-school hours teaching mini chess players how to move the pieces and love the game!

I have worked with small children in many capacities over the years, but this job feels different.

Not only am I helping children discover a game packed with mental and emotional benefits that go far beyond the chessboard, but I am also encouraging girls to fight for their place in this male-dominated sport. 

When I started teaching, I had very few female students. Most of my chess champs were little boys, eager to compete and win. But as the years have passed, I have noticed a shift towards female students playing and loving chess.

Enter: The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix!

Is it just me, or are you completely obsessed with this show? Are you rushing out to buy a chessboard, a strategy book, and perhaps a ‘60s-inspired vintage outfit to wear while playing the game? 

You’re not alone! 

Like so many of you, I was dying to watch The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. Who wouldn’t be entranced by a female chess player, dressed in increasingly glamorous outfits, winning her way up the ladder in the ‘50s and ‘60s?

The Queen’s Gambit follows the fictional character Beth Harmon, brilliantly played by Anya Taylor-Joy, on her journey into the competitive chess world.

From her days in an orphanage basement, learning chess from an emotionally unavailable janitor to playing top-rated male chess players in the prestigious Moscow Invitational, each episode chronicles Beth’s journey smartly and engagingly.

Beth playing chesscourtesy of Netflix

The Queen’s Gambit was a delicious breath of fresh air. Watching a woman rule in a historically male-dominated space left me feeling inspired, even if it was fiction.

Not only was it motivating, I felt personally connected to Beth’s story and her love of the game.

While The Queen’s Gambit isn’t kid-friendly television, I encourage all my chess parents to spend some time in Beth Harmon’s world. Many moms and dads have bounded into my lessons, newly inspired to learn chess alongside their children, something I always encourage.

I love that chess is having a moment in the spotlight! After countless conversations about The Queen’s Gambit, I wanted to share my takeaways from the show. Heads up—there are a few spoilers below!

1.The chess games are real!

The Queen’s Gambit called in the masters for help, literally! Gary Kasparov, chess grandmaster and former World Chess Champion advised on set. 

He worked alongside Bruce Pandolfini, celebrated chess author, teacher, and coach. Together these two choreographed every single move in the chess games, giving them an authentic feel. 

 Many of the games were based on famous chess players’ actual matches, giving the miniseries a few delightful Easter eggs for chess lovers.

Courtesy of Netflix

For example, the speed chess game between Benny and Beth was played at the Paris Opera in 1858, and Beth’s final match against Harry at the Kentucky State championship was from a 1955 match in Riga, Latvia

Beth’s final win against Russian champion Vasily Borgov was taken from a game played in Biel, Switzerland, in 1993. 

Good Game Handshakecourtesy of Netflix

As a teacher, I love sharing that kind of information with my students. We often work through puzzles from famous chess matches together.

Through this practice, my students learn new moves on the chessboard and appreciate the game’s true art. Playing through a famous chess player’s game is much like admiring a great work of art or listening to a renowned piece of music.

Kids doing a chess puzzle

I am obsessed with how engaging I found the chess games to be. The scenes were approachable, exciting, and the best chess matches I have seen on film. I loved the director’s choice to focus on the actor’s faces, giving the games a much more personal feel!

2. Who isn’t a sucker for a period piece?

America loves a period drama. With historical shows such as The Crown and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel reigning supreme, it was wise to use swing skirts and cap sleeves paired with vintage cocktails to pull us in.

Gabriele Binder’s costumes were captivating, and I loved her use of checkered patterns throughout Beth’s wardrobe. This small but essential nod to the game hinted that chess was Beth’s entire world for better or worse.

The Queen of chess courtesy of Netflix

 And of course, who wasn’t blown away by the final choice to dress Beth as the white queen on the chessboard. She’s the literal queen of chess!

Costumes are such a massive component of storytelling. Moving my lessons online due to the pandemic has opened the door to a more creative teaching style.

Being a theatre person myself, I have enjoyed adding a little more flair to my lessons and encouraging my students to do the same. Bringing costumes and props into my chess lessons has added life to my online lessons!

3. Three cheers for female representation!

I think we can all agree that even in works of fiction, representation is vital. Chess has long been a male-dominated game, and while the gender gap is slowly shrinking, women are still mostly unrepresented.

One of my earliest teaching experiences was at a summer camp in the Hamptons. After several male-dominated groups, my last class of the day was a group of all girls.

On the first day, they sat down uneasily, eyeing me with uncertainty. “Where is the chess teacher?” they asked, looking right through me and my collared Chess at Three shirt.

As I explained to them that I would be teaching their class, their little eyes widened. While some looked skeptical, others were lighting up with delighted smiles. “We’ve never had a girl chess teacher before!” one of them screamed out, and they all started talking excitedly at once.

outdoor chess game

Of all my groups that summer, my all-female class showed the most improvement. They showed up ready to work and eager to play with each other each week.

I continued to teach several of them in the city, and a few have gone on to join chess teams and play competitively in their school programs. Representation matters. Giving these girls someone in the chess world to identify with was just as crucial as teaching them how to checkmate their opponent.

4. Chess is taking center stage! 

I am so thrilled to see chess experiencing such a massive surge in popularity! Especially among women! Chess has been on the rise since the start of the pandemic, and The Queen’s Gambit is encouraging more female players to join the game. The Queen’s Gambit Effect!

Girl loving chess

As people stay home, they have found themselves with more time on their hands and a renewed interest in games and hobbies that flex mental agility and encourage complete focus. Jennifer Shahade, two-time US Women’s Chess Champion and women’s program director for the US Chess Federation, has noticed a massive upswing in the number of players taking lessons and signing up for online tournaments. Especially among females! 

I notice a lot of them are coming back into the game and getting that confidence,” Shahade commented in an interview with The Guardian. “The show depicts a woman who is able to find herself through the game, so I think that’s very appealing. And also the sense of community.” 

Chess sets are flying off the shelves, and online chess lessons have never been more popular! Are you looking to take an online chess lesson? We offer classes for children as young as three! It’s never too early to kickstart that chess education! I would love to be your tutor!

online chess class

5. The story can’t shake the “troubled prodigy” trope.

Inspiration for The Queen’s Gambit came from a novel of the same name, written by Walter Tevis. While the book is a work of fiction, Beth’s character most closely resembles the American chess grandmaster and the eleventh World Chess Champion, Bobby Fischer.

Fischer was an incredible talent in the chess world, and his story parallels Beth’s in many ways. Unfortunately, he was a troubled, anti-social, and often one-dimensional person who found it hard to relate to anything outside of the chess world. 

chess game courtesy of Netflix

Beth’s character took this one step further with her drug and alcohol use. While I understand the protagonist’s need to struggle for the story’s sake, I would have liked to see a less stereotypical chess champion. Chess players can be social, mentally stable, happy people!

6. Where was the female friendship? 

I am a sucker for an excellent female friendship. I was enamored with Beth and Jolene’s relationship and its ability to grow into adulthood when the two were reunited outside the orphanage.

Friends laughing
courtesy of Netflix

 However, I was not impressed with Beth’s treatment of Annette Packer, Beth’s first official opponent at the 1963 Kentucky State Championship. Annette was kind to Beth, helping her understand the tournament’s rules and graciously accepting defeat when Beth quickly bested her.

Later, Annette resurfaced in Beth’s life, seeking her out at a similar tournament in 1967 after Beth had gained notoriety as a chess player. Annette shared that she supported Beth and expressed how much it meant to her to see a woman reigning supreme in the chess world. 

Beth’s dismissive attitude towards someone who so clearly idolized her was off-putting to me. Kindness, good sportsmanship, and gracious behavior are just a few of the many qualities I encourage in my chess players, and I would have loved to see that play out a bit more.

7. Three cheers for sportsmanship and respect!

While I was annoyed with Beth’s treatment of several characters throughout the show, I loved the excellent sportsmanship shown during the higher-level chess tournaments. For many of these chess players, being beaten by a woman was unimaginable.

Beth playing chess
[courtesy of Netflix]

I was impressed with the writing and direction in those moments. While this may not have been the most historically accurate portrayal of the mood during these games, I am thankful the writers decided to take it in that direction.

As mentioned before, representation matters. The more we see characters treating each other with respect and kindness and rooting for one another in moments of competition, the more we can work towards that behavior in day to day life. 

In my chess class, my students and I always end with a “good game” handshake. Chess is full of life lessons, including how to win with humility and lose with dignity. My goal is for students to carry that lesson with them far beyond the chess game!

Kids playing chess  

I hope that The Queen’s Gambit pushes us toward inclusion. Sadly, I find feelings of inferiority and sexism deeply rooted in my female chess players, some even expressing this sentiment as early as age five. Early in my teaching career, a student told me she could never be the best chess player because she wasn’t as smart as a boy.

This comment left me feeling sucker-punched and ill-equipped to respond. As I sat across from this little human with such sadly biased views, I knew my job was about so much more than teaching the rules of chess. As a Chess at Three tutor, my responsibility is to help girls find their footing on and off the board.

Young Chess Player  [courtesy of Netflix]

I am dreaming of our own little Queen’s Gambit Effect. What if this show was just the beginning of equal representation for women in the chess world? I would love to see more girls playing chess competitively and embracing their intelligence on and off the chessboard. A series like The Queen’s Gambit is the first step!

 

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