Taking comfort in chess

Last Call

Quarantine-weary amid a pandemic raging outside, millions of Americans curled up in their pajamas last November to watch “The Queen’s Gambit,” a Netflix miniseries that took the airwaves by storm. 

Fiercely feminine in her 1960s style and radically independent, we watched Beth Harmon’s obsessive talent for chess pull her from a Kentucky orphanage to the hushed halls of the greatest tournament of her time, battling drug addiction along the way.

Besides its magnetic draw for just about anyone, “The Queen’s Gambit” also manages the impossible—making chess cool again.

The newly obsessed flocked to toy stores and the timeless game began a sea-change to digital. Chess.com saw its membership double in a month. With their tournaments cancelled, grandmasters took to streaming live before millions of fans. The game couldn’t have asked for better timing.

We were stuck inside, yet we discovered a world of possibility under our fingers. For some, it was a needed escape from within four walls. For others, it was a renaissance of the mind.

For introverts, the pandemic was the perfect excuse they had been waiting for as they relished quiet mornings over the board. The meditative act of chewing on a particular position, or taming their mind of worry, did wonders for their mental health.

Extroverts blitzed out moves in online speed chess “rooms” or simply tuned into “streamers” on Twitch, dancing circles around their opponents while responding to the chat with quick-witted banter. For some, this became a bona fide profession.

And a new kind of tournament debuted, surpassing all expectation: “PogChamps” became a crossover hit that featured streamers popular from other video games. These internet personalities, learning chess from scratch under the tutelage of grandmasters, were pitted against one another to comic effect. New lingo did away with stodgy terminology as chess won a fresh rebrand. “PogChamps” granted chess arguably the widest audience in history.

Chess brought down language barriers, too. It was a special feeling that, united in the same tragic struggle of the pandemic, you could face an opponent from Mumbai, or Moscow, or Berlin.

We also gleaned lessons from the game itself. We learned that things aren’t always what they seem; that rigid rules could be bent. We discovered the best move isn’t always most apparent. We learned to lean on intuition when logic failed us, and to value checkmate over material gain. Most of all? We learned that sometimes you have to give up a little to gain a lot.

Over the chess board, as in life, Beth Harmon fights one pawn down. Surviving her mother’s suicide by car and raised in an orphanage, she learns to turn weakness into strength. During these times, we’re all playing one pawn down. We have all had to give up something dear to us, whether it’s a cherished social life or a way of making a living.

I’ll even say this—some of us are living without their knight, or worse, their queen. But maybe, just maybe, we’ll learn to ensnare our foes in the best played gambit of our lives.