Queens Gambit accepted Ranier Fsadni – Times of Malta

Chess Tournament

The year of COVID-19 has now also ushered in a season of chess fever, in the wake of the Netflix drama series, The Queens Gambit. It is the third contagion in a century, although the first not to be triggered by a real-world chess event.

The first chess fever swept through Moscow in 1925 (and, subsequently, throughout the newly-founded Soviet Union). It coincided with a great chess tournament that brought together several brilliant players and which saw a Russian, Yefim Bogoljubov, win the tournament of his life.

The febrile atmosphere was captured in a silent film, a comic love story called Chess Fever, which featured footage from the tournament and a walk-on part by the charismatic world champion Jos Raul Capablanca.

The second epidemic spread in the early 1970s, thanks to the massive publicity given to the 1972 Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky match, in which the lone, temperamental American genius took on the Soviet chess machine and won.

Now we have The Queens Gambit, featuring a troubled young woman, Beth Harmon, as a chess prodigy in the 1950s and 1960s, who makes it to the top of the chess world at a time when no woman was anywhere near the top 10 chess players (no woman did before Judith Polgar in the 1990s).

Worldwide, a new chess fever has spiked. Sales of chess sets have gone up, in places, by 1,000 per cent, and chess coaches and websites are registering an unprecedented rate of enquiries, not least from girls.

Everywhere? Well, this newspaper reports that one indomitable island still holds out against conquest by the royal game. The Malta Chess Federation is lobbying to have chess taught in primary schools as it is in some countries but the extraordinary worldwide popularity of Harmon will not be helping here.

Its a pity because there is a strong rational case for chess in schools. To see it, however, we need to take a disenchanted view of The Queens Gambit.

Netflix has come up with a winning formula that presents three interlocking cultural obsessions: feminism in the face of male bullies; the cultivation of talent and passion against adversity; and drugs. Oh, and it hooked chess players because, for once, the chess played in a TV series was spectacular rather than ridiculous as it was, say, in an episode of Columbo (during the Fischer craze) or, more recently, of House MD.

The formula recycles powerful myths about genius and drugs and chess and mental health. Harmon drinks and pops pills but remains svelte and smooth-skinned, not to mention lucid. Clearly, medical reality keeps a discreet distance from the story. So does the psychology of chess and the skills it imparts.

Alas, the series bears some resemblance to the film Pawn Sacrifice (2015). It is supposedly a homage to Fischers title match but there isnt a significant detail that it doesnt get wrong. The real, bohemian Spassky is unrecognisable. Above all, youd think that chess drove Fischer mad.

All the evidence, in fact, points in the other direction. Chess kept Fischer sane. He went off the rails, into the ravine of anti-Semitic paranoia, after he gave up chess.

The game kept him anchored to a search for objective truth on the board. It led him to make cool assessments of his own weaknesses so that he could eradicate them. A dogmatic conspiracy theorist when he was spouting off about international relations, over the board he was the flexible genius of trading one advantage for another, astounding even world-class grandmasters.

Chess in schools will teach habits of mind for todays world. Such habits do not depend on an extraordinary level of skill at chess- Ranier Fsadni

Its unfortunate that in Harmon we see a reinforcement of the mythic association between fragile mental health and chess. Its great for TV drama but makes it more difficult to make the case for chess in schools.

Because that case has little to do with cultivating extraordinary chess talent or catapulting young minds into an introverted world of their own, just as teaching music is not about searching for the next Mozart or Joseph Calleja.

To get better at chess is to get training in searching for truth, alongside a mentor. What matters is not age but the test of truth over the board. In chess, bluster and wishful thinking do not live long. Bluff, gambles and psychological ploys exist but even these need to be based on objective assessment.

Chess strategy is not really a matter of seeing many moves ahead. Its a matter of learning and spotting patterns. It teaches critical thinking but, above all, reasoning by analogy what Aristotle identified as the thinking technique of genius.

A young player will learn how to review his or her own games to identify characteristic mistakes. She will learn the advantages of self-knowledge and how to build up a well-balanced set of skills.

During the game itself, she will learn how to take decisions based on the time and information available and her psychological assessment of her opponent. She will learn a variety of decision-making techniques.

Her game preparation will include using a computer for baseline decision-making. In a world of AI, she will learn how to work with a computer to bring the best out of both human and machine.

In short, chess in schools will teach habits of mind for todays world. Such habits do not depend on an extraordinary level of skill at chess. They can be instilled thanks to the game but then be developed in academic subjects.

So, by all means be entranced and enthralled by Harmons destiny. Long for the second series. However, in thinking about whether youd like your child or grandchild to be taught chess, remember this. The game doesnt send them spinning into a world of their own. It equips them for the only world there is.


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Queens Gambit accepted Ranier Fsadni - Times of Malta

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