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Davis Journal

Tom’s Tomes: Chess reimagined

Jan 14, 2021 05:13PM ● By Tom Haraldsen

 We’ve watched a lot of TV shows during the past 10 months of COVID quarantine. We’ve also read a lot of books. One thing we’ve thought about doing, but haven’t yet, is pulling out our chess board. And apparently, I’m one of the few people in the nation who hasn’t, according to reports from around the nation and world. It’s all the fault of a Netflix series called “The Queen’s Gambit.”

If you failed to catch this one, or you were still trying to get over the hours you spent watching “Tiger King,” you missed TV binging at its finest. The scripted program, based on a novel of the same name first published 37 years ago by author Walter Tevis, is the story of a young girl who learns the game of chess from a janitor in the orphanage where she was raised. She battles addiction issues as she moves into her teenage years while rising through the local, regional and national ranks of the pro chess circuit. The final episodes are led by the brilliant acting of Anya Taylor-Joy. She has told writers she learned the “choreography” of playing chess and compared it to dancing, where she excelled before becoming an actress.

The show was brilliant, but the aftermath is even more stunning. Rolling Stone magazine reported that according to Netflix, “The Queen's Gambit” became the streaming service's biggest limited scripted series, when 62 million households watched in its first 28 days of availability. It was the number one show in 63 countries; the namesake book it’s based on landed on The New York Times bestseller list 37 years after its release; it even made Barack Obama’s Best of 2020 TV list and Haim referenced it in their reimagining of “Christmas Wrapping.”

It also revived interest in the game of chess. The website has gained 5.3 million new members, 30 percent of which were female, since the show’s debut. As of late December, more than 120,000 people were joining PER DAY, and between October and December, there was a 1,000 percent increase in members studying the strategies of the game. Its sister site, ChessKid, is also seeing a similar pattern of growth.

My 8-year-old grandson began playing chess two years ago, and he beat all of us regularly even back then. Like most kids, his interest has moved on to other things, but also back to chess at times. The success of “The Queen’s Gambit” is a reminder that “thinking games,” like chess, are good for the soul, especially at a time of COVID when we need something good to focus on. 

Now, it’s your move.