Television

‘The Queen’s Gambit’: The Accelerated Polgár Variation

The Queen’s Gambit is a 2020 Netflix series directed by Scott Frank, who also wrote the screenplay. It was produced by Frank, Allan Scott and William Horberg, and adapted from the 1983 novel of the same name written by Walter Tevis, author of The Hustler, which was made into a 1963 Academy Award-winning film starring Paul Newman.

In the earliest correspondence I had with Les Murray, around 2010, I discovered we shared a love for playing pool. I was pretty keen as a teenager in the 1960s, with my own brass-jointed cue which folded in half, which I would take with me in a leather satchel, accompanied by my pool-mad friends, to Manny’s Billiards Parlor in Cleveland, Ohio. Les told me that The Hustler was his favourite movie.

Around 2012, when Les came over to my house for a home-cooked meal, I asked him if he was familiar with Tevis’s other masterpiece, The Queen’s Gambit, about a girl chess prodigy, which had yet to be made into a film. He told me he wasn’t, so I gave him my first edition hardback copy of the novel. I don’t know if he ever read it, but I assume he did, as he was a voracious reader.

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Chess is the struggle against error. 
—GM Johannes Zukertort, 1840

Without error there can be no brilliancy.
—GM Emanuel Lasker, 1898

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I discovered The Queen’s Gambit back in the 1980s during a period when I was a bit obsessed with playing chess. I would go over to the neighbourhood chess players’ hangout, The Red Triangle Snooker Room in Fitzroy, and watch the local masters play. I even joined the Melbourne Chess Club and competed in a few tournaments. I played correspondence chess, in the days before email, when you mailed your move to your opponent and then waited a couple of weeks to get their move back. Two elderly European men I was playing died during our games (I won those games by default).

The seven episodes of The Queen’s Gambit series use chess terms for their titles. In episode 1, “Openings”, set in 1967, we find a teenage Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), in her Parisian hotel room bath. She is running late to compete in an important chess tournament downstairs. She hurriedly dresses, runs down to the lobby and sits down at the chessboard in front of Russian World Champion Vasily Borgov. He has already started the dual chess clock and her time has been running down, putting her at a disadvantage. They stare aggressively at each other across the board.

The scene flashes back to nine-year-old Harmon in the 1950s standing in front of the bridge where her mother has just been killed in a head-on car collision. She is sent to the Methuen Home, an orphanage for girls, and forms a friendship with Jolene, who tells her that the green pills she is being given at night will help to “even her disposition”.

While carting laundry down to the basement, she observes the orphanage janitor, Mr Shaibel, playing chess. The image of the black-and-white board stays with her. She asks the janitor to teach her how to play and learns quickly. Shaibel realises she is a prodigy, gives her his dog-eared copy of Modern Chess Openings to study and teaches her how to read the chess notation so she can play through the games. He invites Mr Ganz, the coach of the Duncan High School chess club, to play her. During the game, becoming bored, she turns her back to the board but continues to play, calling out moves unseen, and abruptly announces a checkmate in three moves. Ganz is astounded and, at his request, Harmon is permitted to visit his school and play all the boys in the chess club at the same time, in what is known as a “simultaneous”. She defeats them all.

A state law has recently been passed forbidding the use of tranquillisers on children so Harmon can no longer get her nightly dose of pills, which she has become dependent on. Suffering a bad withdrawal, she breaks into the orphanage medicine cabinet, crams a handful of the pills into her mouth, overdoses and collapses.

In episode 2, “Exchanges”, Harmon has been prohibited from playing chess and the janitor has been ordered to stay away from her. She tells Jolene she is going to memorise the fifty-seven pages and 170 variations of the Sicilian Defence opening and play them in her mind. Jolene replies, “Poor mind.”

Years go by and the Wheatley family arrives to adopt the fifteen-year-old Harmon. When Mr. Wheatley begins to take frequent trips away on “business”, Mrs Wheatley confides to Harmon that they are now separated. She discovers Mrs Wheatley is taking the same green pills that she was getting at the orphanage and begins stealing them. She also begins sneaking chess magazines from the local chemist into her schoolbag.

She wants to enter the Kentucky State Chess Championship and writes to Mr Shaibel for a loan of the five-dollar entry fee, which he sends her. Harmon defeats every player, including the Kentucky champion, Harry Beltik, winning the hundred-dollar first prize. One of the other players, D.L. Townes, is a handsome lad and, after she wins their game, she begins having romantic fantasies about him. Mrs Wheatley, amazed that money can be earned playing chess, becomes interested in her stepdaughter’s new earning potential and decides to help her enter tournaments.

In episode 3, “Doubled Pawns”, Mrs Wheatley arranges airfares and accommodation for a competition in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is a heavy drinker and, during the trip, introduces Harmon to alcohol. Harmon meets a fellow chess prodigy, Benny Watts, who shows her a game from the 1930s by Samuel Reshevsky, a Polish chess prodigy who was even younger than she is. She wins the tournament, and scores her first win against a professional Grandmaster. She begins to study Russian in preparation for overseas tournaments and goes to Las Vegas for the US Open. Watts is also there and he shows her an error she made in her game against Beltik in Kentucky. This unnerves Harmon and, during her game with Watts the next day, she loses.

In episode 4, “Middle Game”, Harmon graduates from high school and she and her stepmother travel to Mexico City for another chess tournament. Mrs Wheatley is not well, but reassures her that it’s only a virus. During the tournament, Harmon defeats a young Russian boy and tells him he is the best player she has ever played. She then faces the Russian World Champion, GM Vasily Borgov, but loses the game.

Back in the hotel room, Harmon discovers that her stepmother has died of hepatitis. Harmon calls Mr Wheatley for help, but he asks her to take care of the funeral and, in return, she can keep the family house.

In episode 5, “Fork”, Harmon returns home, depressed by her loss to Borgov and the death of her stepmother, refusing to answer the door or phone, until Beltik contacts her. They begin chess training. He is developing a crush on her, she lets him kiss her and they spend the night together. Harmon runs into Watts again at the US Championship. They play some informal games of high-speed blitz chess (games between one and ten minutes) for money and he beats her every time but when she faces him in the actual tournament, she wins.

In episode 6, “Adjournment”, Watts invites Harmon to share his flat in New York to train. She plays him again in speed chess and this time defeats him in every game. She goes to Paris for a tournament, looking forward to a rematch with Borgov, but loses to him once again.

Returning home, she is visited by her stepfather and his solicitor who tell her that he has decided not to give her the house, so Harmon arranges to buy it from him. A Christian group contacts her, willing to finance her tournament in the USSR. Her friend from the orphanage, Jolene, pays a surprise visit.

In the final episode, “End Game”, she hears that Mr Shaibel has died, and she and Jolene attend the funeral. Harmon decides that she cannot represent the Christian group, with their anti-communist agenda, in Russia, and they withdraw their sponsorship, but Jolene offers to give Harmon the money for the trip. During the Moscow Invitational, she faces white-haired Grandmaster Luchenko, who had also started as a prodigy. When Harmon defeats him decisively, he tells her, “I may have just played the best chess player of my life.”

Finally, she is pitted against Borgov again. After long hours of play, he suggests they adjourn until morning. Borgov and his fellow grandmasters spend the night analysing the adjourned game, and every possible variation of moves. Harmon has no one to help her do this but gets an unexpected call from Watts in the US, who has been following the tournament in the newspapers and has assembled chess friends to help her analyse the game. Next morning, after a few minutes of play, Borgov offers a draw—something he never does—but Harmon refuses. A couple of moves later, he resigns “in the old way”, handing her his king, embracing her and joining the audience in applauding her victory. Later, while walking through a local park where some old Russian men are playing chess, she is recognised, and the men crowd around her hugging and congratulating her.

When Walter Tevis’s novel The Queen’s Gambit came out in 1983, it slipped past the mainstream media, but everyone I knew in the Melbourne chess world was familiar with it. Little did anyone at the time suspect that Tevis’s fantasy about a female chess prodigy would be incarnated in the true story of the three Hungarian-Jewish Polgár sisters, who emerged in the mid-1980s, the eldest, Susan, becoming in 1986 the first woman to qualify for the World Championship.

 

Susan Polgár’s youngest sister, Judit, eventually overtook her to become the strongest woman chess player in history, crushing everyone in her path, except World Champion, GM Garry Kasparov. When Kasparov was asked about women playing chess, he referred to Judit as a “circus puppet” and replied:

Some people don’t like to hear this, but chess does not fit women properly. It’s a fight, you know? A big fight. It’s not for women. Sorry. She’s helpless if she has men’s opposition.

Judit Polgár once said: “I make all the guys hate me. I’ve always been good at that. The more they hate me, the better I feel.” In a game with Kasparov, in 2001, she finally defeated him.

Kasparov once believed that a female world chess champion could exist only in fiction but in an interview with Leon Watson, of the Telegraph, in 2017, he said, “I don’t believe that now.”

Walter Tevis wrote The Hustler, about the seedy world of big-money pool-playing. He also wrote the 1963 science-fiction novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, which was made into a film in 1976.

Tevis was an English literature professor at Ohio University, in Athens, Ohio, the same university I attended in the late 1960s, but I was in the alternative music scene there and never had occasion to meet him. Tevis said:

I became a college professor in Athens, Ohio, and there just aren’t many science fiction writers around there. There’s one, Dan Keyes, who was a good friend of mine, who wrote Flowers for Algernon [filmed as Charly, starring Cliff Robertson] and he and I played chess and poker and shot pool.

Tevis was an avid chess player and the title, The Queen’s Gambit, is named after one of the oldest known chess openings, mentioned in the Göttingen manuscript of 1490. Playboy wrote, “What Walter Tevis did for pool in The Hustler, he does for chess in The Queen’s Gambit.” Tevis told Herbert Mitgang, of the New York Times:

Pool is a dazzling game, a loner’s game, and so is chess. They aren’t team sports. You don’t get the girls in high school by shooting pool or looking across the chessboard. I consider The Queen’s Gambit a tribute to brainy women. I like Beth for her bravery and intelligence. In the past, many women have had to hide their brains, but not today.

Originally intending to be a poet, he said:

I used to write my daily sonnet on the way to the poolroom in Lexington. Actually, I learned about gambling after enlisting in the Navy on my seventeenth birthday. I played poker for seventeen months on Okinawa. That was the background for The Hustler. Milton came later. I’m still crazy about Milton and his heavy-duty language. I want to hit the readers hard, like my character Beth at the chess board, and leave ’em shaking.

Walter Tevis spent his last years in New York City as a full-time writer, and died there in 1984, a year after The Queen’s Gambit was published.

Re-reading Tevis’s novel after three decades, I noticed some divergences from the current screen adaptation. In the book, Harmon is not present at the car crash and learns of her mother’s death from “a woman with a clipboard” who visits her at home. The Methuen Orphanage, where she was sent, was not a girls’ home but had both boys’ and girls’ wards. Harmon’s first impression of chess is a chequerboard “but where the checkers should be, there were little plastic things in funny shapes”.

There is an opening mistake in the very first chapter of the novel. Mr Shaibel, who Tevis describes as “fatter on one side than on the other”, is teaching Harmon to play the Sicilian Opening, but he begins with white queen’s pawn to square d4 and tells her to play black queen’s bishop’s pawn to square c5. This is not the Sicilian but the Old Benoni Opening and the positions that arise are completely different. Shaibel should have moved his white king’s pawn to square e4 first. After black’s c5, that’s the Sicilian. This may have been a typo that Walter Tevis overlooked but it’s been forty years since the book was published and I haven’t seen this blunder pointed out anywhere else. When I brought it to the attention of one of my chess-playing friends, he remarked, “Maybe that’s why he’s a janitor.” In the series Shaibel makes the correct first move—the king’s pawn to square e4.

The corporal punishment the children underwent at the orphanage is also missing. In the novel, when Harmon receives five demerits for skipping class to play chess with the janitor, she says, “with ten demerits you were whipped on the behind with a leather strap”. In the book she was twelve when she was adopted, but in the series she is fifteen, pretending to be thirteen, so as not to appear too old to be considered. The character of the handsome boy, Townes, whom Harmon is attracted to but who doesn’t return her affection, fades away in the novel, but in the series, there is a suggestion that his reluctance is because he is gay, preferring his male room-mate to Harmon. In the book, in the tournament in Mexico, Harmon does not tell the twelve-year-old Russian boy she defeats that he is the best she’s ever played; and Jolene does not come and find her—Harmon tracks Jolene down—and she receives no financial help from Jolene to go to the Moscow Invitational, spending her own savings.

In the novel, Tevis employs a dramatic device first used in The Hustler when Fast Eddie Felsen first plays the legendary pool player Minnesota Fats. After hours of a gruelling encounter, Fats leaves the room for a break. Felsen is dishevelled, worn out and looks as if he hasn’t slept for days. When Fats returns to the pool table, he has showered and shaved, changed into a fresh suit, with a flower in the buttonhole, and is immaculate. His confidence throws Felsen off and he loses the match.

In The Queen’s Gambit, when Harmon faces the Russian Luchenko the day after the adjournment, Tevis writes:

By the time she finished supper and arrived at the playing hall she was more tired than she ever remembered being. Her head ached and her body was sore from being hunched over a chessboard—when Luchenko came into the parlor room where the adjournment was to be played, he looked calm and rested. His suit, a dark worsted this time, was impeccably pressed and fit him beautifully across the shoulders.

But Harmon is still able to defeat him.

Chess adjournments (where long games are sealed overnight and finished the next day) are not possible today. In Tevis’s time, before chess computer programs, Grandmasters employed entire teams of seconds who would assist them during the night to analyse all potential variations of play. In the morning, the players would finish the game having absorbed all this team preparation. With today’s chess engines (super-computers), which are capable of analysing millions of chess variations, this kind of adjournment is unrealistic.

Chess prodigy and women’s GM Sofia Polgár commented:

I’ve always thought it was a weird rule to have adjournments and I don’t think anyone really misses them, it used to give an advantage to players who had the better trainers.

In the final game between Harmon and Borgov, up until the adjournment, all the moves played were from an actual game: Vassily Ivanchuk (white) against Patrick Wolff (black) in the 1993 Biel Chess Interzonal, which ended in a draw. The next day, however, when the game resumes, it enters creative fiction, with a new improved ending created, with the use of chess programs, and the ideas of Garry Kasparov, who was an adviser on the series, enabling Harmon to win.

The closest the world of chess has come to the tale in The Queen’s Gambit is in the true story of the Hungarian-Jewish Polgár sisters, Susan, Sofia and Judit, who were raised from birth as chess prodigies by their father, Laszlo Polgár. Polgár’s father survived Auschwitz but his father’s first wife and five children were murdered there. Laszlo Polgár believed that geniuses were made, not born, and that if children were taught a single intellectual activity from early childhood, they would master it. He used his three daughters, and chess, as his grand experiment in child-rearing psychology.

Polgár and his wife Klára were both teachers. They home-schooled the girls, developing a regime of early morning sports, including high-velocity ping-pong, for the girls’ physical stamina, before six to eight hours a day of chess training, lasting until well after dark.

Polgár created a card catalogue system, assembled from chess magazine clippings, with over 200,000 games cut and pasted onto index cards, the “cartotech”, for the girls to use during their study. This was the biggest chess archive outside the USSR.

There is a fine Israeli-made documentary on the Polgár family, as yet unavailable to the public, co-produced by cinematographer Eli Laszlo Berger and directed by Yossi Aviram, called The Polgár Variant. Aviram played a game against the youngest daughter, Judit, and remarked:

She’s sweet in life, but she’s a different person when she plays. You can see it in her eyes. When you play against her, it’s like being in the tentacles of an octopus squeezing you from different angles. She played against me without her queen and still beat me in ten minutes. And she was speaking on the phone with someone the whole time.

Berger said, “They became globally successful from behind the Iron Curtain all on their own. What they did was groundbreaking.”

Laszlo Polgár was attacked by the Hungarian authorities, who accused him of abusing his daughters and depriving them of the ordinary childhood of their peers. Tibor Krausz wrote in the Jerusalem Post:

To his critics in communist Hungary, the Jewish pedagogue was a misguided, domineering and monomaniacal drill sergeant of a father who exploited his daughters in the service of a psychological experiment. To his admirers, he was a trailblazing educator who showed that brilliance and ingenuity could be learned traits.

Laszlo Polgár shrugged off the negative criticism: “I developed a pedagogical theory. Every healthy child is a potential genius.”

The girls were barred for several years by the Hungarian government from competing at international tournaments, until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Sofia Polgár remembers it, when she was fifteen: “It was a huge relief and gave big hope for everyone in the ‘Eastern Bloc’. For us it also meant easier access to chess tournaments in Western countries.”

Krausz said, “Laszlo was a feminist back when most men weren’t—certainly not in communist Hungary.” Garry Kasparov remarked of Judit Polgár’s style, “If to ‘play like a girl’ meant anything in chess, it would mean relentless aggression.”

There are different kinds of geniuses; the main distinctions being between monomaths and polymaths. Bobby Fischer and Vincent van Gogh are examples of the former; Da Vinci and Michelangelo, of the latter. (I wrote about mono­maths and polymaths in the July-August 2016 Quadrant.)

Laszlo Polgár’s idea was to make monomath masters of his three daughters. He told the British chess champion and author William Hartson, of the Independent, “any child has the innate capacity to become a genius in any chosen field, as long as education starts before their third birthday and they begin to specialise at six”.

Prodigies, or wunderkind, are peppered throughout history. Physicist and mathematician Blaise Pascal wrote his first treatise at nine, a proof at eleven and a theorem at sixteen. Sumire Nakamura became the youngest professional Go player in history at ten. Edmund Clint, from India, created 25,000 paintings before dying at the age of six. Nadia Comaneci won three Olympic gold medals and was the first female gymnast to achieve a perfect score of ten at fourteen. In music, Mozart was accomplished at four, Saint-Saens at five, Chopin and Paganini at seven, and Liszt and Prokofiev at nine.

Russian-born US Grandmaster Irina Crush, a COVID-19 survivor, while suffering from long-term effects of the illness, won the US Women’s Championship in 2020, the eighth time she has taken first place. She was fourteen when she won it for the first time.

Prodigies are practically non-existent in the worlds of philosophy and the intuitive and improvisational arts. Philosophy requires wisdom; improvisation and art, experience. Prodigies also never occur in literature. Gifted children often have difficulty communicating with peers. Rick Kamal, of EduNova, said:

The spoken word can be difficult for some gifted children because they have the added task of translating the complex ideas in their heads into language that others of similar age can understand. This process can lead to abnormal hesitation when speaking, stuttering, and frustration on the part of the child.       

I was fortunate to interview the youngest Polgár daughter, Judit (now aged forty-four), via Zoom, in Budapest. I also exchanged emails with the middle daughter, Sofia, who lives in Tel Aviv with her husband, Israeli Grandmaster Yona Kosashvili, a leading orthopaedic surgeon, and their two teenage boys.

Sofia has International Master and Women’s Grandmaster titles and won the World Under-14 Girls Championship at eleven in 1986, and three years later, at fourteen, won an Open tournament in Italy, defeating several grandmasters, with a score of 8.5 out of 9, giving her a performance rating of 2879, one of the strongest performances in history, which became known as the “Sack of Rome”. She was the 1986 World Junior Rapid Chess Champion and won individual and team gold medals at the 1990 Olympiad, in Novi Sad, Serbia.

Judit has been called the greatest female chess player of all time (a title she is not particularly fond of) and she became a Grandmaster at fifteen, two months younger than chess prodigy Bobby Fischer’s previous record. She was the highest-rated woman chess player in the world for twenty years until her retirement in 2014, and has defeated eleven World Champions. She is married to a Hungarian veterinary surgeon, Gusztáv Font, and they have two children.

Both sisters loved The Queen’s Gambit series but neither has read the original novel. Sofia says, “I feel I should.” Judit said she heard about the book when she was a kid.

Judit felt the series had a slow start but picked up momentum and “got richer” after a few episodes, but she rejected the trope of chess players portrayed as lunatics or substance abusers. Sofia added:

Professional chess players are not drug addicts. I don’t think playing top-level chess is even possible on drugs. Some grandmasters had drinking issues, but that too is really rare. You need a sober mind to play good chess.

Sofia was the first of the sisters to leave a chess career behind in preference to family. In The Polgár Variant, she said, “Our parents gave up their lives for our education. We don’t take it that far.” Sofia’s husband Yona commented, “We never brought up the possibility of a focused spartan education.” She said:

In our education, the emphasis was on chess and we were home-schooled, taking exams only at the end of the year. We learned several languages (I speak Hungarian, English, Hebrew, Russian and a little German) and we got a great gift by travelling to chess tournaments: seeing the world and the different cultures that most kids in Communist Hungary only got to learn about in the textbooks. After I stopped playing competitively, I studied arts, graphic and interior design. So I don’t think concentrating on chess in my early years stopped me from doing other things later.

Judit and her husband Gusztáv have also chosen not to raise their children as the sisters were raised. She said:

Both of my parents [were] teachers—they were living in very modest conditions and they simply believed that with this attitude, this way of upbringing, they could have the best for their children financially, emotionally, from every aspect. I started with my husband from a completely different standpoint, having a very nice apartment, we were travelling, we were both [already] successful in our professions. So we thought that the main focus in our [kids’] education [would be] that [they] should be learning languages from a very early age. When they were born, they started to learn and speak Spanish, very shortly after that they were in the international kindergarten learning languages and travelling the world.

When they were children, the sisters’ mother, Klára, travelled to tournaments with them and taught them a love of family first and foremost. All three women now have chosen their new families as priorities over their former single-minded commitment to chess. Sofia said:

My mom is the most wonderful person I know and in contrast to The Queen’s Gambit script, we were brought up in a very loving family. My sisters are my best friends up to this day and having had such an example of a wonderful mom I believe helps us being better parents as well. For me chess was on top of the priority list until the moment we decided to have kids, from that point on family [was the] most important.

Judit added about their mother:

She always focused on the present to get the most and best out of the actual situation. This attitude worked for me and I think gave me a great push to succeed in chess and other parts of life. It was a great teamwork in my family as my dad was the creative brain of how to manage the training and tournaments. My mom was always taking care of the “sweet home”—food, dress, warmth of a household, etc. For her family was always the priority.

There is no hard and fast rule that professional chess and family can’t be compatible. But it appears to be tough going. Garry Kasparov, who some believe is the greatest chess player of all time, has been married three times and has three children. Russian Grandmaster Anatoly Karpov, the previous World Champion, has been married twice with two children. His first marriage was short as his wife was unable to adjust to the pressure of her husband’s international career. Another former World Champion, Russian GM Boris Spassky, allegedly said, “Which do I prefer? Sex or chess? It depends on the position.” He has been married three times and has three children. The eccentric late US World Champion Bobby Fischer never married but had a love-child with a companion from Manila. Fischer paid child support for this daughter until he died but a posthumous DNA test showed the child wasn’t his.

In contemporary times, Swedish GM Pia Cramling is married to Spanish GM Juan Bellon, who is thirteen years her senior. Lithuanian GM Viktoria Cmilyte, who was previously married to Latvian GM Alexei Shirov for six years, married Danish GM Peter Heine-Nielsen, and they have now been together for seven years. They have three sons. In 2015, Cmilyte became Leader of the Opposition in the Lithuanian parliament.

Sofia said:

Being a mother is a handicap in a way, but as Judit has proved it’s not impossible to play top class chess even when raising two little kids. It’s a challenge for every working person to balance work and family life. In the past it was always the mom who stayed home with the children, but today there are all kinds of family models. Also, I don’t see a reason why in chess a young woman couldn’t become world champion in her twenties and like in other sports, create a family after they made it to the top in their career.

In 2015 Judit Polgár received Hungary’s highest decoration, the Grand Cross of the Order of Saint Stephen of Hungary. She said:

I wouldn’t like to be in the Top Ten and not have a family. I love chess very much but maybe not that much. I still [want to be the World Chess Champion] but if I don’t, that doesn’t mean that a woman cannot.

I asked Judit if she thought that any of the current women playing the game had a chance to become world champion in our lifetimes or if it would require another generation or two of prodigies. She said:

I’m not sure I’m focusing so much on who is going to become the first lady world champion. I would be much more happy to see two ladies in the top ten than to see one world champion—because to see one world champion it means people will say, “Ah, okay, it’s only one exception so it just proves the rule, right?” If you have already two ladies in the top ten at the same time, it means that it’s really not something special—that there’s [not] only one person in the universe that can do that. It’s a matter of attitude and it’s a matter of how can you break through, in breaking this way of thinking, for men, for society, for women.

The French-American painter and sculptor Marcel Duchamp was a keen chess player, playing on the French team in the Chess Olympiads from 1928 to 1933. He once said, “I have come to the personal conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” But there is a hierarchy of competition, part and parcel of sports and games, which does not exist naturally in the world of art.

No one can say who was the greatest painter, poet or musician who ever lived. In art, the present builds upon the past and, in this regard, art is similar to chess. But the rules of chess, in competitive play, require a hierarchical tier system. There is no ladder of winners and losers in painting or poetry, for example, unless, of course, you consider the rigid domain of art competitions, which is really only a commercial artifice layered over a much more profound reality: that all master artists, once they find their authentic voice, are beyond comparison, and therefore beyond competition. It is competition that creates hierarchy.

But it is not necessary to be a professional to create at genius level. In every traditional culture mothers and grandmothers consistently create more brilliant food than any celebrity chef: grandmothers are the ultimate cooking monomaths, with often sixty-plus years of preparing a small repertoire of dishes that contain nuances and subtleties, often with home-grown ingredients, that no widely diversified celebrity chef can hope to achieve.

In the real world of chess, Walter Tevis’s vision in The Queen’s Gambit has already been transcended in one way—but still remains unrealised in another. In both the book and series, Beth Harmon beats the Russian World Champion, Vasily Borgov at the Moscow Invitational. This was not a match for the World Championship title. Tevis writes, at the end of the book, “In two years she could be playing Borgov for the World Championship.”

Judit Polgár became the first woman to compete for a world title, at the 2005 FIDE World Chess Championship. No woman, to date, has yet beaten a standing World Champion. Judit defeated Garry Kasparov and Anatoly Karpov, but they were ex-champions at the time. She won games over Viswanathan Anand and Magnus Carlsen before they became World Champions.

Albert Silver, of Chess News, said, “The Queen’s Gambit is exceptional on all levels. Simply put: this is easily the best chess movie or series to ever grace the screens.” Back in the 1980s, I had brief coaching from two Melbourne chess wunderkinds, Grand Master Darryl Johansen, who won the Australian Chess Championship a record six times and represented Australia at fourteen Chess Olympiads, and the late International Master Greg Hjorth, who later became Professor of Mathematics at UCLA and the University of Melbourne.

I decided early on, like Duchamp, that to master chess required a lifetime of focused commitment, involving thousands of hours of research, practice, competing and studying theory, so I was happy to remain an enthusiastic amateur.

As with cooking, you don’t have to be a career professional to get an extraordinary amount of pleasure out of doing something. Playing the game has stuck with me for over forty years and I play live games whenever I can but I hate playing computers, as part of the magic of chess is dealing with mistakes—your opponents’ and your own. Computers hardly make any. The great World Chess Champion of the nineteenth century Emanuel Lasker believed that mistakes could lead to quite brilliant games. I believe this theory exists at even the highest levels of professional play.

The 1972 World Chess Champion, Bobby Fischer, after defeating Boris Spassky, in what became symbolic of the Cold War confrontation between the US and the Soviet Union, refused to defend his title and walked away from the game for twenty years. He re-emerged in 1992 to win an informal match with Spassky, before going off the rails with anti-Semitic ranting, even though his mother was Jewish. Fischer died in 2008, at sixty-four, of kidney failure.

I asked Judit Polgár if there was any possibility that she might make a comeback bid for the world title after her children were grown. She is currently forty-four years old, but many chess players have become champions at her age or older: Anderssen and Steinitz at fifty, Lasker, from twenty-six to fifty-three, Alekhine, from forty-five to fifty-four, Botvinnik at forty-seven and again at fifty. Petrosian was on the candidates list for the World Chess Championship at forty-five, forty-eight and fifty-one as was Smyslov at forty-four, sixty-two and sixty-four.

She said:

Well, it’s very difficult. It’s a different time. I mean in chess obviously you will not be able to be on the top at the age of sixty-four. Simply, the sport itself unfolding the way [that it has] you need so many more things to be able to [compete]: physically, mentally, by attitude, by knowing technology, catching up with information, networking opportunities, whatever, I mean, everything’s changed.

Personally, I think both Judit and Sofia could do it. They have spartan chess training in their DNA, unlike no others. Let’s hope I planted some seeds.

Today Sofia is an illustrator, painter and educator. She and Judit, no doubt inspired by the innovative teaching of their parents, have created an award-winning educational chess program, the Judit Polgár Chess Palace, which is used by hundreds of pre-schools and elementary schools in Hungary.

The Queen’s Gambit has become a television phenomenon all over the world and is being discussed as a potential multiple Academy Award winner. The question on everyone’s lips now is: will there be a Season Two? In a logical world, the answer would be no, as the series was based on the novel and has remained faithful to it. The executive producer William Horberg told Town and Country, “The last scene feels like a beautiful note to end the show on. Maybe we can just let the audience imagine what comes next.” But Hollywood managed to extract five entire seasons out of Hitchcock’s masterpiece Psycho, under the title Bates Motel (2013 to 2017), which also was a masterpiece in its own right, so anything is possible.

I’m game.

Joe Dolce adds: Special thanks to Eli Laszlo Berger and Sarieli Films for allowing me to watch their unreleased documentary, The Polgár Variant; the trailer is available at https://youtu.be/lpCBdPBCELQ

3 comments
  • IainC

    I remember reading about the Polgar sisters back in the day (funny what your brain retains), and that they were very competitive. A phrase one of them used, referring to an opponent, has stuck with me: “We will cruuuush him!” Chess is indeed personal combat without the weapons.

  • Stephen Due

    As with all games the contestants in chess need to be evenly matched before the competition becomes interesting to watch. I once shared a house with a chess player and during the course of a year lost every game we played. I doubt whether the film rights would be much sought after.

  • Tricone

    Joe,
    Thanks for a superb and absorbing article.
    .
    Knowing little of chess, I enjoyed The Queens Gambit series.
    .
    Despite the changes you noted here (thanks also for that), I felt for once a series was telling a story and not trying to push an agenda or indulge in revisionism. It remained fairly true to its early 1980s origins..
    .

    It will stand the test of time.

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