Champion Judit Polgar hopes Netflix series Queen’s Gambit will break barriers in chess


The overwhelming success of the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, is fueling the largest global chess frenzy since the Cold War.

Hungarian Judit Polgár, the greatest chess player in history, believes that this “fantastic push” will lead many more parents to buy chess boards for their daughters, and she hopes to end up closing the gender gap in a considered sport as one of the last bastions of male dominance.

Queen’s Gambit stages the fictional story of Beth Harmon, an orphan chess prodigy who rises to stardom and faces a Soviet male world champion in Moscow in the 1960s.

The series premiered on October 23 and became the “best Netflix miniseries release to date,” seen in more than 62 million households around the world in its first month.

In November, Chess.com, the online platform dedicated to learning and practicing chess, registered a 15% increase in the number of female players, reaching the highest proportion of women in its history.

The “Lady Gambit Effect,” as Nick Barton, Chess.com’s Director of Business Development dubbed it, sent the total number of new registrations from Europe skyrocketing, from 280,000 in October to nearly a million in November.

The largest increases were recorded in France, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Italy.

“Before the program, we had approximately 7,000 to 8,000 new Europeans joining the platform each day. As of last week, the number is over 40,000,” says Barton. “This is huge.”

Judith’s Gambit

Hungarian chess star Polgár, the only woman to have been in the world top 10, compares this “boom” to the frenzy that surrounded the 1972 “Game of the Century” between American champion Bobby Fischer, and the Soviet number one, Boris Spassky.

The championship took place in Iceland, an ideal place for two superpowers to meet at the height of the Cold War, and was on the verge of being canceled several times. Accusations of deception, various breaches and a bitter war of words characterized the games as the world watched the show unfold.

“But this time there are no political reasons, and it has completely reached outside the world of chess,” Polgár tells Euronews.

Polgár’s father, Lászlo, raised his three daughters to be the best chess players in the world, even teaching them Esperanto, a “world language” that never got off the ground, in an effort to develop them intellectually.

His motto was that geniuses are made, not born. It seems that the success of his daughter has proved him right.

Polgár became Grandmaster at age 15, rising to the top with an impressive No. 8 in the world rankings. She topped the female classification for 26 years, until she retired in 2014. Now she promotes education through skill development, with a special focus on chess as an educational tool.

Her older sisters, Susan and Sofia, also became Grandmaster and International Teacher.

Nicknamed “The Queen of Chess,” Polgár has been compared to Beth Harmon, Netflix’s fictional heroine, though she noted that she was treated much worse by male competitors, compared to the way Harmon is treated in the series.

His comments, as well as the series, have renewed the debate on inequality and sexism in chess, which is good news for a sport dominated by men, and where sexist language is common.

In his career, Polgár beat both British champion Nigel Short, who once said that men are naturally better prepared for the game than women, and multiple world champion Garry Kasparov, who once commented that it is not in the nature of women play chess because “they are not great fighters.”

When it comes to chess, for every 15 men in a competition, there is one woman. Currently, only one woman is ranked among the 100 best chess players in the world: the Chinese Hou Yifan, in 86th place.

The reasons behind the gender gap in chess and how to close it

Polgár has always refused to play tournaments only for women, he does not believe that having separate events for boys and girls will solve the problem of the smaller proportion of female chess players.

His belief is shared by the ex-player and chess instructor, the Spanish journalist Leontxo García, one of the greatest connoisseurs of the world of chess.

In the 1990s, García points out, the Spanish federation abruptly abolished female competitors, in an attempt to curb the machismo of the game. However, a few years later, “it was the players themselves who wrote a manifesto asking to reverse the decision.”

Why? He underlines that holding mixed tournaments is good as long as, in parallel, national federations continue to invest in promoting the game among girls. “Traumatic decisions can only widen the gap between players and players.”

Polgár believes that very young girls are more comfortable playing in mixed environments “sometimes girls are worse, or sometimes they are better than boys their age, especially when they are very young – an age when they are happy to be mixed” .

One of the fundamental keys to this gender gap in chess is the high number of girls who leave the game after the age of 10. That is why, both Polgár and García say, more chess clubs for girls are needed, so that they feel more protected.

“Actually, there are even more girls who play chess when they are very young, between 6 and 10 years old. But somehow after that, after 10 or 11 years, they really drop out – unless they have some social club. or girls club, “Polgár tells Euronews. “It’s very difficult for a girl to be competitive when she starts to be the only one in the room, alone with the boys – especially at that age, when they need other girls around to feel comfortable.”

Regardless of gender, those who wish to pursue a professional chess career will find it difficult to earn a living from their game alone.

“The 20 best players in the world do not have salaries comparable to those of an elite tennis player, but they lead a comfortable life. But if you are not in the top 50 in the world, you need to have a second source of income if you want chess to be your profession, “says Garcia.

How do women get to the top?

Eva Repkova, Slovak grandmaster and Chairperson of the International Chess Federation Women’s Commission, has said that, in her opinion, having a female world champion one day is not impossible, but unlikely.

Polgar thinks it would be a much greater advance to have three women in the top ten than to have a world champion …

“A lot of factors have to come together for you – the passion, the knowledge, the team, the coaches, yourself, your psychological development, your physical preparation, being in the right moment and so on. Right now, [convertirse en número 1] it has nothing to do with gender. Becoming a world champion also happens for very, very few guys. “

Most of the registered members of the Chess.com platform, which saw a 200% increase in new players worldwide, are from Europe.

“We saw our first global boom in March,” says Barton. “The number of lessons for beginners is also increasing fivefold on our continent. Women spend more time on Chess.com than men. They may be more patient during their learning process.”

Garcia believes that, thanks to confinement, both male and female chess have a bright future ahead of them.

“It is the only sport, along with bridge, that can be practiced online. The world needs chess now more than ever, as more and more people think less and think worse.”

“Chess is static only in principle,” García continues. “The inner life of a chess player is fascinating, it is a fight of brains, and that is why so many film and theater directors are amazed at it. It is a creative gold mine in itself, without adding drug addiction, drug addiction to the script. alcoholism and insanity, as occurs in Lady’s Gambit “.

The International Chess Federation (FIDE) has expressed interest in being included in the 2024 or 2028 Olympic Games.

In light of that, Polgár thinks the time has come for parents to feel comfortable giving their daughters chess boards. Coaches, he adds, should inspire girls to play at their level, rather than being held back by their gender.

“I want them to give the same inspiration and the same possibilities and opportunities to girls as to boys.” If the coaches see a talented seven-year-old girl, please don’t tell them that they can become the world champion among women. “Tell them they can be the best in the world.”


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