Among all the strange twists and turns that 2020 has brought us, there has been this:
One of the most-watched offerings on Netflix recently has been a miniseries about chess.
Okay, The Queens Gambit is about more than just the board game. It also takes on themes from the treatment of orphans in mid-20th-century America to societal sexism that was once even more pervasive than it is today.
But its also very much about chess, beautifully depicting the game, from how mentors introduce it to new players to what competition is like at the international level. And the series is so well-written and acted, including by its captivating lead, Anya Taylor-Joy, that it is attracting many viewers who never previously took an interest in the game, much less played it. Thats helped drive up sales of chess sets and books, adding them to this years list of must-have holiday gifts.
Some watchers of the series, however, already have chess sets at the ready, or perhaps have recently unearthed them from attics and closets due to a newly inspired desire to play again. They already are or were players of the game, and are now gratified to see others taking an interest in it. Perhaps they also are feeling nostalgic when it comes to their own history with the game.
Count me in that latter category. I have rarely played chess as an adult, but the mentor story line in The Queens Gambit rekindled fond childhood memories for me. In my case, the early mentor wasnt a school custodian, but instead my dad.
Dad was whip smart. He worked for Goodyear Aerospace before switching to teaching college math, and also had a knack for working with computers in their early days. For many families, a chalkboard in the kitchen is a place to list groceries that are running low. In our house it often ended up being used by my dad for giving his kids and sometimes even their friends impromptu math lessons solicited or not.
Among Dads hobbies were astronomy. He built his own telescope, even grinding the 6-inch-diameter reflective mirror by hand. And the night sky became his chalkboard for anyone who showed an interest in getting a tour of the celestial wonders to be found above.
Another of his hobbies was chess.
The Queens Gambit reminded me, among other things, about chess problems, which typically involve trying to checkmate the opposition in a few moves based on a certain configuration of pieces on the board. The problems ran in the local newspaper and were one more thing that kept Dad holed up for countless hours in his upstairs study.
Over time, I also found myself there more and more as Dad taught me the game. One thing I liked about those lessons is that chess provides a means for beginners to play against experts in what is a competitively even game. The trick: The better player gives up certain pieces before the game starts. Say, the queen, the most powerful piece on the board. And maybe some bishops and rooks however many pieces it takes at first for the beginner to have a chance at winning.
Whats fun about that approach is that eventually, the beginner gets better and better and the required amount of handicapping becomes less and less.
Finally, probably only once or twice, I ended up beating my dad with no handicap at all. Im guessing that, despite losing, the teacher in my dad had to be proud about what hed helped his student achieve.
In retrospect, the time I spent with my dad playing chess as a kid was some of the best time we spent together. Unfortunately thats not the kind of thing a kid appreciates at the time. In fact, one of the biggest problems I had with chess was a lack of patience when it came to having to sit there, waiting for my opponent my dad to make the next move. Ideally a player makes good use of that time to anticipate his opponents next move and his options from there. But as an energy-filled kid I was always anxious to finish the game, get outside and run around on a ballfield or the streets with friends.
My dad and I played a few times as adults, but not much; my move as a young man from Ohio to Colorado didnt help in that regard. And then he died unexpectedly just over 10 years ago, without there being even the chance for saying goodbyes. Thus ended the prospects of him ever showing me constellations in the sky again or us once more sitting down to a game of chess, at least in this earthly life.
But the memories of such times remain fond. And perhaps now, parents and their children with lots of time on their hands at home during quarantine, prompted by a Netflix surprise hit, are enjoying games of chess with each other. In doing so, they will be making wonderful memories in a year when we need all the wonderful memories we can get.
Dennis Webb is a longtime reporter for The Daily Sentinel, which rumor has it, never learned how to play checkers.
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