Chess is having a moment. Chess is also having a decade. The game has been on an upward trajectory in pop culture ever since the charismatic Magnus Carlsen, who has even worked as a model, won the World Championship in 2013. Now Netflixs The Queens Gambit has ratcheted interest up to new heights. As millions of converts download chess apps and buy boards, its time to dispel a few myths about this ancient game.
Does it seem to you like there just isnt enough televised chess on these days? David Letterman joked sarcastically in 1989. More recently, coverage of The Queens Gambit has expressed doubt about the visual and dramatic appeal of the game. Vanity Fair said that, to most people, the game seems dull and buttoned-up. And the Cut cried, The Sexiest Show on Television Is About Chess?
The Netflix series plays up the royal games glamorous side and, yes, its sensual side. But the connection between chess and sex goes back centuries. Historian Marilyn Yalom writes that medieval artists in manuscript illustrations, tapestries and stained-glass windows, among other art forms treated the game as synonymous with seduction: A chess scene between a man and a woman signified romance. Yalom also describes a work of fiction from around 1400, called The Book of Erotic Chess, in which each move on the board represented a decisive moment in the game of love between the characters.
Todays international chess competitions often feature just one game a day, in the midafternoon leaving players with plenty of time to connect at drinks, long dinners and parties.
The public often associates chess with intelligence and chess champions with preternatural brilliance. In the second episode of The Queens Gambit, a librarian tells the protagonist, Beth Harmon, that a grandmaster is a genius player. In 2009, Time asked Magnus Carlsen how he dealt with people assuming you are 40,000 times more intelligent than average: Youre clearly not a normal intellect, the interviewer declared.
Carlsen, the highest-rated grandmaster in history, has reiterated many times that he considers himself a normal person.
FIDE recognizes more than 1,700 grandmasters and what they have in common is hard work. Along with practice games and tournaments, and individual and group coaching sessions, a serious chess training regimen often includes the study of top players games, opening strategies, endgames and checkmating patterns. Serious players also use computers to deeply analyze their own games.
Its an old cliche that the best players plot long lines of future moves. In a 2010 profile, Time magazine described Carlsens beautiful mind and how he often calculates 20 moves ahead.
In fact, great chess players use a combination of strategic intuition, pattern recognition and calculation to decide their moves; intuition alone is plenty to beat much weaker players. Chess players do think deeply about a position and its possible outcomes. But they look sideways as much as straight ahead, scanning the board to see any possible moves they are missing in their current position. If I look ahead three moves but check five different counters, thats more total moves than looking down a 10-move tunnel.
What would it really mean if Deep Blue won? Newsweek asked before the match between Garry Kasparov and IBMs computer engine: Some people have argued whether chess would be diminished by this upheaval. I got a chance to visit the match in New York; I remember the audiences simultaneous horror and awe at Kasparovs loss . More recently, New Scientist claimed that computers had been ruining chess ever since Deep Blue and that AI was conquering the game.
Its true that, in time, the top computers dismantled the top humans so easily it was no longer competitive enough to be fun, and the epic man vs. machine matches were discontinued. But the death knell was premature. The games popularity has soared, as players and viewers find new ways to connect online.
Teachers and how-to guides often reiterate that, while the queen is the most powerful piece, the king is the most important .
But 8-foot soldiers have something to say about that. The mighty pawn, the only piece that captures differently than it moves, trudges ahead one step at a time. Since its the only piece that cannot move backward, every push is final. Pawns form the bones of the game: Play would be a mushy mess without them.
Pawn power was sent to the lab for study when, this year, Alpha Zero played against itself in nine variations on chess. Five of the variants tweaked the rules governing pawns. In torpedo chess, in which pawns can move two squares at a time, tactical volatility was hugely increased. Another variant, in which pawns moved backward, led to fewer decisive games, since that rule allowed for the reversal of strategic errors. Change the pawn, and you shake the very essence of the game.
Jennifer Shahade is a chess champion, author, poker player and womens program director at U.S. Chess.
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