When Jennifer Shahade heard that Netflix was adapting Walter Teviss 1983 novel The Queens Gambit as a miniseries, she wasnt particularly worried that the miniseries would be as technically accurate as Teviss book. The two-time U.S. womens chess champion serves as the U.S. Chess Federations womens program director, and she knew the series would help draw females to the male-dominated sport either way.
Im not super sensitive [about accuracy]like, Oh, my God, are they going to do it wrong? Shahade told Vanity Fair this week. With chess, I think the more exposure, the better. It always tends to be presented in a very positive lightas a symbol of intellectualism and the power of the mind.
But when Shahade discovered that Garry Kasparov, one of the greatest chess players in history, and Bruce Pandolfini, the celebrated chess coach who advised Tevis on the novel, were consulting on the series, she knew it would be realistic. After seeing the drama, which stars Anya Taylor-Joy as chess prodigy Beth Harmon, Shahade confirmed, They just completely nailed the chess accuracy.
Ahead, Shahadewho has written two books about women in chess, Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport and Play Like a Girl!answers our most pressing questions about how The Queens Gambit compares to the real world.
Vanity Fair: What are some of the benefits to playing chess, especially for young women?
Jennifer Shahade: Chess is an equalizer when you play. Youre not as aware of traditional boundaries and hierarchies. I think thats one of my favorite things about it. I remember as a kid, sometimes Id play against littler kids, and sometimes I would play against grown-ups, [but] it was like we were all on the same playing field. And I think thats such a valuable skill for peopleto not be intimidated and also to not feel better than anyone else.
With the rise in social media use and mental health issues with teen girls, I also think that the idea that you can kind of completely lose yourself in chess [is beneficial]. Youre certainly not going to be worried about any social media accounts at that point because youre totally absorbed in the game.
Whats your own backstory with chess?
I learned the moves when I was maybe six, and I started getting more serious about it in third or fourth grade. I dropped out for a little while, which happens to a lot of girls in junior high school. I got back into it in high school because Im from a chess familymy father is a [FIDE] master and my brother is an international master. A lot of girls love it when theyre little kidseight or nine is our peak age for girls at the U.S. Chess Federation. Anywhere from six to 10, thats where we really have a high number of the girls. And then around age 12 or 13, you see a massive drop-off.
Why is that?
The thing about chess, which the series does show well, is that its actually really social. In order to play at a high level, usually the friendships in that network are really important. So if youre a girl and you dont have other girls who are playing at your same age range and level and city, it can start to be less interesting. You might just gravitate toward another sport where you have 10 friends.
Its easier for boys to stick with it because there are a lot more boys that play. So thats why Im so excited about the series: I think it will probably interest more girls, especially at that potential drop-off age.
Did you have any female role models in the chess world when you were young?
When I was getting really serious about chess, it was at the heyday of the Polgr sisters, and particularly Judit Polgr, who was the strongest female player in history. She had a super-aggressive style and I just loved to pore over her games, and I even copied some of her openings.
Beths style [in The Queens Gambit] is interesting because, on one hand, she plays openings that are a little bit more positional and strategic, but she is also very aggressive.
What do you mean when you say aggressive?
Aggressive doesnt mean only goodit means that you are more proficient at the middle stage of the game. In chess, theres basically two ways to win: one way is to checkmate your opponents king in the middle game, when most of the pieces are on the board. It means you arrange your pieces in this harmony to overpower your opponents game. Way number two is that you get to the end game, when most of the pieces get traded off the board, and you use one of your pawns to make another queen. You use that queen to checkmate. More aggressive players tend to do more of the earlier one and less of the other one. Judit Polgr also had flaming red hair, so that was another corollary with the series.
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