Here is something that's really great about 2020: Chess is now super cool.
"The Queen's Gambit" has become a worldwide hit on Netflix. The story follows the character of Beth Harmon, an orphan who becomes a chess prodigy.
The series has earned widespread praise for its authentic portrayal of the game. In part, that can be attributed to none other than Garry Kasparov.
The Russian grandmaster and former world chess champion dominated international play for two decades and was a chess consultant for the Netflix series. He joined The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss the show.
Garry Kasparov: First, you know, we had to separate our functions with Bruce Pandolfini [another chess consultant working on the show]. I asked Bruce what he generally thought about America and chess. At early games, Beth Harmon played in Kentucky and at some national tournaments. But I concentrated on making sure that the games were shown at a higher level. So the top events — American National Championship, and of course the games with the Soviet players — had to be perfect quality representations. Not just some positions on the chessboard, but real games. Because I knew that many of these games would not be shown in their entirety, players — even chess amateurs — would be able to look at the positions and identify whether it's serious or not.
And I came up with a collection of games that were based on real games, but also added some of the continuations that were analyzed with a computer to make these games real, top, professional games. I also wanted to bring them as close as possible to the book description [from the 1983 novel published by Walter Tevis]. And I think it worked out, especially the last game. I was quite proud that I developed a new game based on one of the professional games played in 1993 between two top players, Vasyl Ivanchuk from Ukraine and American champion Patrick Wolff. And actually, Patrick immediately wrote me a message after the show was released saying, 'Oh, I recognize the game.' He wanted to make sure that the story in the book was properly reflected on the chessboard.
I know that you cannot get 100% perfection because I'm talking about actors. They had to pretend that they are playing chess, but it's not about me or any top professionals. It's about the general public. The public believes it was real, and it was as close as one can get in a Hollywood production.
But it's not just the way they sat at the chessboard, the way they played the game. It's also the atmosphere surrounding the chess matches, because she faced Soviet champions, the Soviets who dominated the game. I thought it would be very important to show the difference between American individualism and the Soviet teamwork. And eventually, at the end, she actually succeeded in beating Borgov in the adjourned game — receiving very valuable advice from New York City, from her American friends and colleagues.
Look, I grew up in the Soviet Union, so it was not just working together during the analysis of adjourned games. But also, it's like shifting experience from one generation to another. That's why the Soviet chess school was unbeatable for several generations. And in America, the best example of individualism was Bobby Fischer. And while many believe that Beth Harmon was kind of the female version of Bobby Fischer, that's where their path separated because Fischer never accepted anyone's help, even when he played a world championship match. He was always very suspicious of anyone working with him. Beth Harmon's final success is based very much on teamwork.
Oh, absolutely. Yes, of course I can. And many of us can. And that's very typical for top players. They can think about the game of chess even during the match by not looking at the board. Sometimes you need to reload your software. The whole idea of her you know looking at the ceiling or at the side and seeing the pieces and just turning them upside down. It's a great way of displaying some kind of chaotic thinking in the mind of the chess player. But it's very, very natural. It's an innate quality of top players.
Absolutely. Even when I played Anatoly Karpov during the mid-80s, we had huge crowds of people standing outside of the playing halls. But even at the big concert halls where we played that could bring in up to 2,000 people, that was not big enough to satisfy the demand. So that's why the big demonstration boards outside of the playing halls were quite normal in Russia, and the chess players were always treated with utmost respect.
I cannot imagine what would go down in the 60s. But in 1970, '71 and '72, Bobby Fischer crushed consecutively all the top Soviet players, and it had a tremendous impact on Soviet chess. And I can tell you that most of the people I knew were rooting for Fischer, believe it or not. So I don't know what it was, this kind of protest against the system — or Fischer’s playing style, his energy, his dynamism. But Fischer had a massive, massive following in the Soviet Union.
Chess gained tremendous popularity over the last few weeks, and I hope it will be the beginning of a new boom, especially among girls and women. I think the story of Beth Harmon will be a great encouragement for parents and for talented girls to continue pursuing their goals in chess. And I can hardly overestimate the importance and positive impact of the series for the promotion of the game of chess worldwide. It's a TV series on chess that has been dominating Netflix in almost every country of the world.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Every week, more than 2 million listeners tune into our broadcast and follow our digital coverage like this story, which is available to read for free thanks to charitable contributions from listeners like you. But less than 1% of our audience supports our program directly. From now through the end of the year, every gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor, which means your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 challenge match.
Will you join our growing list of loyal supporters and double your impact today?