The Queen’s Gambit: Chess on Campus

How a pandemic and a hit Netflix series are causing a resurgence in one of the world’s oldest sports

This year's online format coupled with the Netflix series The Queen's Gambit has caused a surge of interest for chess on campus

“I’d say I knew it was over when I took your rook.”

I’ve just been humbled by Queen’s chess phenomenon and women’s international master Rachel Miller in an online game that lasted all of 20 moves, and she’s explaining her gameplay. She’s taken nine of my pieces while I only managed to collect two piddly pawns. Nevertheless, this five-minute experience has left me with a strange desire to play again.

Queen’s chess club, and most others around the world, have been forced to transition to an online format this year. Unlike other sports that have been handicapped to some degree throughout the pandemic, chess is making a resurgence.

The club has added approximately 50 new members to its Facebook group since September and was able to send 37 Gaels to the Canadian University Chess Championship this year—an increase of about 25 from a typical year.

In an interview with The Journal, Chess Club President and Queen’s medical student Daniel Shi explained how this year’s odd circumstances may have caused a perfect storm for the game. At a time when most students were hunkered down at home, looking for ways to pass the time, Netflix released a new series that took the world by storm.

“Many of [the new members] actually signed up to play in the tournament this year, because they got into chess through The Queen’s Gambit and that made them want to get better at the game and they thought it was really cool.”

Shi believes that while the show may have been a catalyst for interest, the online format of chess has made the game more accessible to newcomers.

“In my opinion, from where I am, chess is not an accessible sport. Partly because, as much as anything else that’s competitive, people are just intimidated because the skill level is just so high.”

The online format makes it easier to organize matchups against players similar in skill level, and the anonymity that comes with it makes losing less of a deal.

“I think the key [to learning] is actually online chess, and we’ve seen a lot of success with that. Especially because people can just sort of sign-on—you don’t have to show your name, you can play as any username, and then you can sort of play against people who have a similar amount of ratings points as you.”

In most cases, once students take that initial leap, they’re hooked.

“I think a lot of players have found chess to be addictive because once you learn the basics, it’s sort of like a drive to get better.”

Indeed, for a sport to stick around for over 5,000 years, there must be something about it that intrinsically connects with human nature.

“[A]t the end of the day, simple is better, right? There’s something great about just having a game where it’s just you in a mental battle with your opponent.”

However, despite being such a consuming game for players, for some reason, at least in North America, chess has never truly reached mainstream status. It’s partly why Miller, Queen’s international star, didn’t get into it early.

“At first I didn’t really want to join the school chess club, because I thought chess was a game for nerds,” Miller said, recounting how she first got into the game while she was in elementary school in Jamaica.

The fourth-year life sciences student was encouraged by her parents in the fourth grade to take up chess, thinking it would be great preparation for a national exam that decides where students attend high school. The exam, which begins in the sixth grade, carries heavy implications for where one can attend university.

“Sometimes when you’re nine years old, though, you really care about what other people think. But I joined the club anyway and I really liked the game and ended up playing it for the last, almost 12 years, so it’s been a while,” she said.

Miller, about to turn 21, said the past 12 years have been a journey filled with ups and down but that, ultimately, she’s learned a lot.

“I was trying to get that title for a total of four years, which was pretty rough, I’m not gonna lie. I really had to learn a lot of things about myself during that period.”

Interestingly, it was when Miller let go and reminded herself to have fun during gameplay that she finally caught her big break. In 2019, Miller won the Central American and Caribbean (CAC) Under-20 Individual Chess Championships, crowning her the second Woman International Master (WIM) in Jamaica.

“In the tournament where I actually won my title I wasn’t really focused on the results, I just focused on my match and thinking ‘Okay, let me just have fun.’ […] that really helped me to stay grounded and, ironically, get the results I wanted at the same time.”

In addition to being a WIM, Miller is an absolute candidate master—absolute being a category comprised of both men and women. Although the female divisions were originally created to encourage women to join a male-dominated sport, Miller isn’t a fan of dividing categories on gender.

“[Chess] is definitely still male-dominated; for instance, when I go back to my home club in Ottawa and see maybe one other girl out of forty people,” she said.

“One thing I believe [chess] can do to boost female morale is to combine absolute and female sections. […] By putting females in their own divisions, they’re really missing out on the chance to play the best player in their age group and not just like the best female player,” she said.

In addition to making the game more equitable for female players, Miller believes the sport needs to be destigmatized.

“Just like how I said before I thought it was a game for nerds, I believe there’s still a slight stigma that if you play chess, it mean’s you’re nerdy or antisocial, which is not the case at all.”

As those who have taken the leap and tried chess have come to understand, it’s a game for everyone, and a great game at that.

“When I focus on chess I kind of forget about everything else, it’s just one of those things where I can keep going for hours and hours, and won’t even know as time goes by.”

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