Chess popularity soars thanks to The Queen’s Gambit

Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit has been credited with rekindling wide interest in the game of chess. by Donna Fleming.

It’s no mean feat creating a TV series about chess that’s compelling viewing. Two people eyeballing wooden figures on a board is not exactly a recipe for riveting visual drama.

But the makers of the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit have done such a good job with the story of a chess prodigy with addiction issues that it became the most popular scripted series on the streaming site, and is being credited with reviving interest in the game around the world.

Google searches for “how to play chess” doubled after it began screening and enquiries into chess sets on eBay shot up by a staggering 250 per cent. Even in New Zealand, the show is said to have led to a rise in the game’s popularity, with the Auckland Chess Centre reporting four new people joining every week – up from one every four weeks.

The Queen’s Gambit follows the fortunes of Beth Harmon, played by the mesmerising Anya Taylor-Joy, from her childhood in an orphanage where a gruff janitor teaches her to play chess, through to finding fame as a champion in her twenties. Set in the 1950s and 60s, the series feels like a biopic, but there’s no real-life Beth. Instead, the series is based on the 1983 novel by American Walter Tevis, who was inspired by the chess rock stars of the 60s – Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov – but also drew on his own life to create his heroine.

Tevis, a gambler and alcoholic, littered many of his works with autobiographical details and, according to his son Will, was “the [anti-]hero of all his own books”.

An obsession with the game of pool sparked the plots for his books The Hustler and The Color of Money, which were also turned into movies, and he spent many hours in pool halls watching the hustlers at work, becoming a pretty good player himself.

Tevis was introduced to chess at age seven, but didn’t compete professionally until adulthood. He never reached the giddy heights of his character Beth, who leaves chess masters reeling in her wake as she pursues her dream of being world champion. But there was something else he had in common with Beth: a dependency on drugs, developed at a young age.

In The Queen’s Gambit, orphanage staff feed Beth a daily diet of a fictional sedative called xanzolam, which not only numbs her but also helps her to visualise winning moves. Tevis, meanwhile, spent time in a convalescent home after being diagnosed with a rheumatic heart. Effectively abandoned by his parents for the duration of his stay, he was dosed up with phenobarbital three times a day, which he believes tipped him into alcoholism later in life.

When The Queen’s Gambit was published in 1983 – the year before his death, aged 56, from lung cancer – he told the New York Times, “Writing about [Beth] was purgative. There was some pain – I did a lot of dreaming while writing that part of the story.”

When it came to writing about the chess moves, as capable as Tevis was, his publisher decided to get expert input from renowned chess author and teacher Bruce Pandolfini, who suggested some revisions to the games in the manuscript and also put forward The Queen’s Gambit as a title.

When one of the executive producers, William Horberg, got the go-ahead from Netflix to turn The Queen’s Gambit into a mini-series, he contacted his old pal Pandolfini to help with filming, not knowing about his link to the book.

The chess expert revealed that Tevis initially wasn’t too thrilled to have him on board when it came to writing the book, but over the course of a few months warmed to him.

“When the book was finally published, Bruce found that Tevis had included exactly none of his suggested revisions to the chess games,” says Horberg. “But he had adopted his suggested title. It felt like good karma to us, that through Bruce working with us on the show, we had made this direct connection to Tevis.”

Along with Pandolfini, former world champion Garry Kasparov was brought on board to make sure the chess moves in the show were authentic. Every move came from a real game and the actors memorised them all, says director/screenwriter Scott Frank. “You can freeze-frame anything and it’s a real chess setup. There’s even a whole sequence where you never see the board, but they’re still actually moving the pieces where they’re supposed to.”

For another of the executive producers, Allan Scott, correctly representing chess while making the games nail-biting viewing was crucial. He had spent 30 years and a lot of money trying to get The Queen’s Gambit on screen after reading the book and buying the rights in the late 1980s. Everything about his project, from the costumes to the chess moves, had to meet his high standards.

The writer and producer of Don’t Look Now and Shallow Grave, he’d been through 11 drafts and courted at least eight directors, including Bernardo Bertolucci, over three decades to make a movie version of Tevis’ book, but they all fell through.

The one time he was convinced it would finally get made was in 2007 when Australian actor Heath Ledger became involved. Ledger was a gifted chess player who had been a champion as a child, and was very close to achieving grandmaster status. Keen to direct his first movie, he worked on several drafts with Scott and was passionate about every aspect of the project, including the soundtrack and the cast – Ellen Page (now Elliot Page) was their pick for Beth.

“Heath was in New York and I spoke to him about four in the afternoon. We were looking for music from the 50s and early 60s, of which he knew very little,” says Scott. “I said I would send him a list of the best stuff, which I did. The following morning they told me he had died that night.”

Scott couldn’t face working on the movie immediately after Ledger’s overdose from prescription drugs, and put it on hold for three years. Eventually, he partnered with Scott Frank (Logan) and it became a Netflix mini-series.

Scott has no doubts about why The Queen’s Gambit has done so well. “It’s the reason I held on to it for all those years – it’s a terrific story. I think people recognised that they were going to be moved by it, and they have been.”

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