The Queen’s Gambit: How Realistic Is It?

Chess is an excellent game for keeping your brain fit.

This article is not a critique of the beautiful TV series The Queen’s Gambit. Because I am not an expert when it comes to movies or TV series. I limit my TV consumption to a couple of hours a week. Nevertheless, I recently finished watching a short TV series called The Queen’s Gambit which was a bit like a flashback for me:) Why? Because I was a professional chess player some twenty years ago. I was the national third amongst female players of my age group. Sounds impressive? Let me tell you right from the start I played nowhere near as good as Beth Harmon did:) So this article is not about my past glories either.

I believe I can express an opinion or two on how realistic what’s shown on The Queen’s Gambit is. In the end, I attended many tournaments back in the day. If you have not seen the series or read the actual novel yet, please stop reading because the rest of this blog post might be a spoiler for you. But if you are interested in my opinion, please read on.

Becoming a great chess player requires a lot of hard work. And I cannot emphasize the word “a lot” enough. As you might have noticed while watching The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon dedicated hours of her daily life to studying chess books, game openings, game endings etc. I think in one scene, Beth said she studied chess eight hours per day?That’s like a full-time job. And the interesting thing is Beth is also shown as a character who inherited an extra level of IQ from her mother, who had a Ph.D. in mathematics. So when I was watching the series, I was really happy to see that they did not represent chess as a game reserved only for people with high IQ levels. Beth still lost a few matches regardless of her special ability, or how much she studied, or how many of the tranquilizer pills she swallowed. That’s the nature of chess. It does not matter high your IQ is, if you do not study or practice enough games, you have a good chance of losing your chess matches.

The way the series represented the atmosphere of the tournaments rang a bell with me too. Usually, there are a lot of Benny’s sitting around discussing different games and sharing their expertise with other players. Again, talking about Benny, I’d like to draw attention to how much he studied chess himself too. He was even one of the people who pushed Beth to study more chess games played by various game masters. I was playing chess in the 1990s, so the sport was not very popular back then; at least not in my native country. The Queen’s Gambit takes place in the late 60s, and it seems that back then the sport was very very famous, especially in Russia. You can see elderly people playing chess out on the streets; lots of them. I’ve never had the opportunity to visit Russia so I cannot comment on that. But back when I was playing, Russian players were still one of the top-level players:)

So, I think The Queen’s Gambit is very realistic. Oh, and in one scene, Beth plays simultaneously against two people with her back turned to the chess boards; she does not see the boards at all. And she wins against both of them. That’s a very realistic scene as well. I’ve never managed to do it but my chess teacher had done it. My uncle was my chess teacher back in the day and he was simply an exceptional chess player. He did not have any official titles. But one day he played against three other strong players without seeing the chessboard and he won. I did not witness this story but I received confirmation from one of those three who lost.

The scenes about speed chess, and playing chess from memory are very realistic too. Again, I never managed to play chess without looking at the board. I tried speed chess. For example, my teacher (my uncle) would give himself only one minute and would give me ten minutes to play. I never managed to win against him:)

So now, you might be asking how come I managed to obtain the national third title. Actually, I shared the title with two other females and I guess only the youngest of us was awarded a medal. Because we all obtained the same points; and there was a rule back then to decide who’d get the medal in such cases. So I do not even possess a medal, but my name appeared on the newspaper as one of the national third titleholders and it’s in federation records as well. If you ask my high school friends from the dormitory, most of them still remember me waking up at five a.m. in the morning to study chess. So I’ve worked on improving my chess skills. But still, I was not a great player. I think I’ve just been lucky:) Back in the day, there were only a handful of female chess players. And in my age group, there were even fewer chess players. For whatever it’s worth, I loved playing chess but I also knew my limits. I knew I did not possess enough talent or enough will to study hard for it. So I quit. And I think I made the right decision dedicating my time to other things.

Chess is a wonderful game and especially during the pandemic, you might consider giving it a try. And if you get a chance to see The Queen’s Gambit, please do so. The dresses in the series are simply amazing:)

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