The actress Beth Behrs has a new obsession chess and the Netflix series The Queens Gambit is to blame. Her obsession even got her into trouble on the set of the CBS show The Neighborhood, where she plays Gemma Johnson.
They yelled at me at work yesterday because I was hiding my phone under my script, she said. I should have been acting and I was playing on Chess.com.
Behrs is hardly alone in her new passion. The Queens Gambit, about a troubled chess prodigy named Beth Harmon who is navigating the male-dominated tournament world, is a hit on Netflix. (62 million households watched at least some of the show, according to the streaming service.) That has ignited interest in the game, including among women and girls.
Chess.com, the site on which Behrs was playing, has added more than 2.35 million players since the series debuted in late October, according to Nick Barton, director of business development for the site. Registrations of female players are up 15 percent compared to the composition of players who were joining the site before the series began, he said. Demand for chess lessons has spiked. Evan Rabin, the founder of Premier Chess, said that enrollment in the fall virtual classes was up 50 percent and that many of the inquiries are coming from women. Maxim Dlugy, a grandmaster who runs Chess Max Academy in Manhattan, said that demand for private lessons has doubled and that he, too, is seeing more female players.
One of the academys new students is Leyli Zohrenejad, who sits on the boards of several nonprofits, including Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn. She learned to move the pieces when she was young, but never took to the game until The Queens Gambit came out.
It kind of motivated me to go from these casual phone games to something that is actually more meaningful, Zohrenejad said.
She takes as many as four lessons a week and begins some mornings by grabbing a coffee and doing chess puzzles.
It wakes up my brain in the morning, she said. I dont think there are many things that I could do in the morning that gives me that thinking pattern.
Svetlana Timofejeva, who lives in Athens, started taking chess lessons a few weeks ago with Anastasiya Karlovich, a woman grandmaster, after she saw an advertisement on a Facebook page that featured a picture of Beth from the show. Timofejeva said that playing chess has brought back memories of her father, who taught her to play when she was young and living in Latvia. He played with friends in the park, similar to scenes depicted in the final episode of the series.
Bianca Mitchell, a 15-year-old who lives in Albuquerque, started playing when she was in the first grade, but she quit in the seventh grade when she moved to Rochester, N.Y., for a year.
I was the only girl who played and I felt really awkward, she said.
Even after she returned to New Mexico, she did not feel like picking up the game again. But her feelings changed when she watched The Queens Gambit. An aspiring filmmaker, she was transported by the cinematography and by Beths character. She said that the series makes chess look very glamorous and very luxurious, that women can be rock stars. She now wants to be a chess grandmaster too.
Even established chess players have found inspiration in the series. Rowan Field, 12, and her sister, Lila, 11, who live in New York, (and who both tried out for the part of the young Beth), are highly ranked juniors who have competed in international competitions in Brazil, China, Spain and Chile.
The sisters said that they could not identify with Beth because she is an orphan and addicted to drugs, but her character shows that there are female chess players who can be extremely good, Rowan said, her sister nodding in agreement during a Zoom call. Rowan noted that this is rarely depicted in television shows or movies.
Marisa Maisano, a 13-year-old in Philadelphia, who started playing chess in the first grade, found Beth to be a strong role model. To see how she progressed over time, and to see how amazing that progression was, and how successful she became, that was really an inspiration to me, she said. Now a couple of her non-chess playing friends have asked her to teach them the game.
The last time there was a similar chess mania was in 1972 after Bobby Fischer, an American, beat Boris Spassky, a Russian, to become world champion. That craze, which spawned a generation of chess enthusiasts, fizzled out, in no small part because Fischer became increasingly reclusive and unstable, spouting anti-Semitic rhetoric and then giving up the title. It is too soon to tell how the current wave of enthusiasm will play out and whether it might create a wave of Beth Harmons. But it has already found a place in some peoples lives.
Behrs, the actress, said that learning chess had long been a priority because her husband, the Mad Men actor Michael Gladis, is passionate about the game. He plays multiple games online every day. When they had first gotten together 10 years ago, Behrs tried to learn chess, but she felt intimidated.
I just put it away and I never committed, she said.
The Queens Gambit has changed that for her. She said that she feels empowered by the show and finds chess creative and stimulating.
Now, once a week, Behrs and Gladis have a chess date night. They put on a record, light a fire and play a game.
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