Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Warning Queens Gambit is Fake News

Spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers about the Netflix mini-series "Queen's Gambit" 

Still reading? Good. I just finished watching the mini-series "Queen's Gambit" and although it is quite dramatic and entertaining something about it did not ring true. Growing up a chess aficionado in the 1960's I had never heard of Elizabeth Harmon or the events described in the movie. Turns out it is actually based on a novel written in 1983 by Walter Tevis (The same guy who wrote the "Hustler" and the "Color of Money"). None of the occurrences in the movie from winning the Kentucky State Championship to beating the Russian World Champion are real. Being addicted to tranquilizers is unlikely to improve your chess game, so don't do it (An age eleven Walter Tevis was actually dosed with phenobarbital at the Stanford Children’s Convalescent home while he was recovering from a rheumatic heart condition).

As an aside, in my youth, I was a chess aficionado. One of my earliest memories of childhood was watching my father (who was a very good chess player, I had to wait until he was seventy-two and not quite as sharp to beat him) play chess with one of his students under the apple tree of the house we lived in Cambridge, MA. I still have my copy of Fred Reinfield's Complete Chess Course which I received as a present at age eight. For a while, I used to go over to the college chess club and play while I was still in high school. I gave up the chess club when I discovered the Dungeons and Dragons club which met the same night (It was called the Conflict Simulation Society, but Dungeons and Dragons heavily overshadowed the board gaming). I always suffered from the problem that I couldn't focus well unless I was losing (I have some brilliant games played fiercely with a piece down. I finally beat my father by sacrificing a pawn in a gambit early in the game). I also discovered by playing chess at lunch at work that although chess is an interesting game it is not a relaxing one.  

Although the mini-series is well-acted,  well-directed, and captures the spirit of the chess tournaments I have attended,  it feels a bit disingenuous. The real-world triumphs of Bobby Fischer who actually beat the Russian World Champion or even my friend David Sprenkle who won the Illinois State Championship in 1980 seem more important.

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