I’m a Grandmaster and The Queen’s Gambit has all the right moves – Sydney Morning Herald

Grandmaster Chess

The Queen's Gambit has generated plenty of praise from better qualified television reviewers than myself. The backdrop of US and international chess tournaments is rarely seen on screen but offers the tension of any high-stakes sporting contest. Taylor-Joy, who did not play chess before the role but immersed herself in the game and looked a believable player in the series, commented: "I got invited into a very secret world that is super cool and really interesting."

Australia's first Grandmaster Ian Rogers plays in an exhibition match (beating four plays while blind folded) in 1989.

Certainly I found myself well entertained, with the small number of chess-technical errors easy to overlook. Indeed one of the weirder concepts Harmon visualising positions on the ceiling rather than the chessboard when calculating might seem like just a cinematic device but is also a characteristic of some top Grandmasters.

Yet this writer also experienced a weird form of deja vu: I felt that I was watching a weird fairytale version of my own chess career, which began 10 years later than Harmon's.

I too, surreptitiously read chess books in class where the course work was not challenging thanks Ivanhoe Grammar. I too, needed to borrow money for my entry fee, to be paid back after a prize was secured thanks Frank Meerbach. Like many players whose self worth hung on their chess success, I was deeply tormented after a key loss. Harmon drowned her sorrows; I didn't eat for two days thanks Grandmaster Draguljub Velimirovic. Like Harmon, sleeping on someone's floor was not uncommon. (Too many to thank.)

However Harmon, apart from making a much better fist of learning Russian than me, climbed the chess ladder faster and higher than I could ever dream of. In the series, despite inevitable setbacks,this prodigious teen rises through the ranks with ease; only slowed down and almost brought to a halt by her other addictions. (Harmon's binges may seem over the top but plenty of Grandmasters have been slaves to alcohol. However only a handful have managed to stay world class while addicted.)

Ian Rogers playing in the Australian Chess Championships in 1986.Credit:Paul Matthews

Travel to top European tournaments of that era was just as exciting as depicted in The Queen's Gambit. However, Harmon's final showdown in Moscow was, for me, just a little too straightforward, though the lavish venue and big, enthusiastic crowds were quite realistic. Why, before her most critical game, did the radio in her hotel room not turn on at 2am, and stay on at full blast for an hour, as happened to me and other foreign players competing in the USSR? Why did Harmon discuss key variations about her adjourned final game over a hotel telephone line which was likely monitored?

Marcin Dorocinski as Vasily Borgov and Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit.Credit:Netflix

The answer, of course, is that The Queen's Gambit is not a biopic but feel-good fiction. And so, despite being a rare female player in US tournaments of that era, Harmon somehow avoids opponents who make demeaning pre-game comments, or react to a defeat with fury, or withdraw from a tournament if they happen to lose to a woman. (Or perhaps, because the series' chess advisers were both male former World Champion Garry Kasparov and US chess personality Bruce Pandolfini such occurrences were not even contemplated.)

I should also mention that I have only once seen a player stare at their opponent as much as Taylor-Joy does in The Queen's Gambit. That person was a 13-year-old Kasparov when I played him in France in 1976. It was a seriously annoying habit, but a solid stare plus good moves proved a decisive combination. So I'm glad I never had to take on Beth Harmon.

Ian Rogers was Australia's first chess Grandmaster.

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I'm a Grandmaster and The Queen's Gambit has all the right moves - Sydney Morning Herald

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