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Chess’ recent surge in popularity has Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit to thank. The series, adapted from the 1983 novel written by Walter Tevis, follows the life of Beth Harmon, a young chess prodigy who discovers the game while living in an orphanage. The show takes its name from the common game opening move—when white sacrifices a queen-side pawn.
Chess is universal: two opponents don’t even need to speak the same language to play and it can even be played remotely (by internet or even mail). When we find ourselves confined to small social bubbles and limitations to the activities we can do, why not learn to play?
The show has inspired a lot of real-life interest in the game. Svitlana Demchenko, an 17-year-old multi-winning chess champion from Ottawa says, “I had many friends and acquaintances come up to me and say that they loved the show and it made them want to learn to play.”
“To someone like myself who loves the game, it makes me really happy that the show is inspiring other people to get into chess,” says Svitlana, who has been a Canadian Women Olympiad team member at World Chess Olympiad 2018 and 2020, and was awarded the title of Woman International Master by the International Chess Federation 2019.
The captivating way the game was portrayed, Demchenko feels, is part of the show’s success and changed viewers’ perception of the game. “I think, before watching the show, most people probably viewed chess as a simple, kinda-boring board game, but the series managed to showcase the artistic side of it and all the creativity behind the competitive side of chess and, just in general, how much more there is to the game than you might think at first glance.”
The game remains vastly popular in many parts of the world, though maybe not North America—until now. Demchenko was nine when her great grandfather introduced her to the game in her native country Ukraine. The benefits of playing reads like an academic’s dream skillset. It can help develop memory, decision-making abilities, creativity, organization, responsibility, critical thinking pattern recognition, and more. “In some countries, Armenia for example, chess is taught as a compulsory class in schools, for many of its benefits to the developing brain. Chess can teach many life lessons that can be helpful with anything in life, and develop many useful skills that can be applied to other, very diverse areas,” she says.
You don’t have to belong to a club, or achieve master level to enjoy a round or two of Skittles (that’s slang for a quick, leisurely game). Not at all, Demchenko says. “While of course, winning is the main goal for many players, I think there is a lot in the game to be enjoyed apart from that.” If you want to up your chances for an End Game, read chess books, watch commentary and broadcasts. “I know many people at my local Ottawa club who have only started to play in their adult years and never played at a competitive level but have had it as a hobby for many years. To me, that’s the beauty of chess—that people can enjoy it at any point in their lives, and it’s never too late to start.”
The object (being able to say “Check Mate” and all that) may be simple, but the game itself isn’t. A quick study could get you familiar with the rules of the game in about an hour and a half, but rising to “master” level can take years. Once you’ve got the basics, you’ll need to learn a few of the opening principles. “An opening is the beginning part of the game (the first 10-20 moves on average),” says Demchenko. “The three most common principles include: taking control of the centre of the board, developing all pieces, and making sure the king is safe. Learning to implement those three principles at the beginning of the game is a good place to start.”
There are two sides, two players, and one winner. “In chess, just as in life, there are many ups and downs,” she notes. “One of the most important life qualities I have learned is how to manage these ‘downs’ and learn from mistakes.”
If you’re looking for something new to do on long wintry nights, snow days, or during a quarantine, buy a board, and start playing. Demchenko reassures that it’s a game that anyone can play, regardless of your physicality. Whether it’s at the chess club, or right in someone’s living room, she says you’ll see opponents of “completely different ages, ethnicities, genders, physical appearances, and backgrounds, and how chess brings them all together in such a positive and inclusive environment.”
10 Facts About Chess
1. Checkmate comes from the Arabic, “Sha Mat” meaning “The king is dead (helpless).”
2. A priest invented the folding chessboard in 1125. Since he was forbidden to play, disguised the board by folding it: when placed on a shelf it simply looked like two books.
3. Kirk and Spock played chess three times on Star Trek. Who won? Kirk did—all three times.
4. The first modern chessboard with its alternating light and dark squares was created around 1090 in Europe.
5. Rookies (first-year new players) are named after the Rook.
6. The oldest known complete chess sets were found on the Isle of Lewis in northern Scotland and dated back to the 12th century. Their appearance was modelled in the wizard chess pieces in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s stone.
7. White always moves first.
8. In 1973 the police raided a chess tournament in Cleveland. They arrested the Tournament director and confiscated all chess sets on charges of permitting gambling (prize money) and possession of gambling devices.
9. Psychologists cite chess as an effective way to improve memory function.
10. Chess was the subject of the second book ever printed in the English language.
Feeling inspired? Don’t worry about being a rookie—just grab a board and make your first move.
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