South Africa


The Queen’s Gambit and the myth of the chess genius

(Photo: Unsplash)

Chess has always straddled the Cartesian mind-body dualism that underpins modern sport, but digitalisation has created a whole new ballgame: mobile phones provide access to superstrong chess algorithms and the internet has fostered new fields of competitive chess for both humans and machines. The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated this trend dramatically.

“It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it; I can dominate it – and it’s predictable.” In the Netflix miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit, these are the words that chess prodigy Beth Harmon uses to describe her passion for the game, but I suspect that they also tell us something about the runaway success of this series in the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The seven-episode series was viewed worldwide by more than 62 million people in its first month, making it the most-watched “limited scripted series” on Netflix. The show is visually compelling: 1960s fashion is one aspect of this, but perhaps the key features are the pace and aspirational tone of the narrative – a young girl/woman, orphaned and facing coming-of-age issues, while striving for the summit in the male-dominated realm of chess.

The series has also prompted a mini renaissance in the world of chess, with dramatic increases in the sale of chess sets and chess books, and a significant growth in the numbers of new enthusiasts at chess clubs and online chess platforms.

As a chess player I enjoyed the series and appreciate the effort that went into the depiction of top-class over-the-board chess. The series is a landmark in onscreen chess, but as a Cold War period piece – set in an age when global politics resembled a chess game – the gilded image it presents is somewhat removed from our current harsh reality, and contemporary high-level chess. This, no doubt, is a significant part of the appeal.

As a sociologist I am drawn to particular aspects of the show’s reception: enthusiasm within chess circles; speculation on the possibility of a “Netflix Effect” on the chess gender gap; and the manner in which the series draws on the history of prodigious talent in chess. I am particularly interested in a beguiling theme – in art, literature and science – that is also very much a feature of the world of chess: the myth of the lone genius. In fact, it is fair to say that chess-themed writing has been a powerful medium for this myth, and the Netflix series is the latest contribution to an established genre.

In Episode 2 the school librarian hands Beth a biography of a grandmaster (the former World Champion, José Capablanca). “What is a grandmaster?” Beth asks, to which the librarian replies, “A genius player.” This is a tale of genius: Beth Harmon progresses almost effortlessly to the top echelons of chess, despite a substance abuse problem. The early episodes suggest a natural talent for chess visualisation, that is somehow enhanced by the tranquiliser medication she is compelled to take. This aspect of the show has been described as “a dangerous and flawed representation of the link between drugs and genius”.

Beth’s character exemplifies the most common contemporary understanding of genius as an “innate intellectual or creative power of an exceptional or exalted type, such as is attributed to those people considered greatest in any area of art, science, etc”. (Oxford English Dictionary).

The word ‘genius’ derives from Latin, where it originally meant “guardian spirit”. The contemporary association with “an individual” was a product of the Renaissance, where it emerged in tandem with the notions of individual creativity and originality. Painting “cannot be taught to those not endowed by nature”, claimed Leonardo da Vinci, and this idea reverberated in the realms of literature and science.

The association with elite individual performance developed during the 18th century, notably in Germany, by means of a sharp contrast with “talent”. Talent tends to be associated with general ability, which most people have, and which can be nurtured. Genius tends to signify a much more exclusive and innate creative ability and the label is typically applied retrospectively to top achievers. Hence, Salieri is talented, but Mozart is a genius.

But ask people to list 10 geniuses and the problematic history of the word becomes apparent: the word connotes primarily white male achievers in Europe and North America. Through its association with “talent” (originally denoting a form of money), “genius” entered the realm of post-Enlightenment science as a supposedly “hard” or measurable entity. Francis Galton’s 1869 work on Hereditary Genius was particularly influential, notably in the US, where – as educational anthropologist Ray McDermott observes – genius became “tied to theories of individual differences, IQ scores, school policy, and eugenics”.

Given its pan-European traditional status and its deep heritage in the four major modern languages of print – French, English, German and Russian – chess has been a powerful vehicle for ideas about genius. Chess historian David Shenk notes how “the chess genius myth” has been a common feature in biographies of chess legends over the years.

Two US players exemplify this trend: Paul Morphy, the mid-nineteenth century unofficial world champion; and Bobby Fischer, the only American to win the World Championship (in 1972, he is the main inspiration for Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel, on which the series is based). Shenk argues that Fischer, “was far from a chess genius out of the box. After toying with the game for a year, he attended a simultaneous display in 1951, at age seven, and lost very quickly to an expert player. Afterward, Fischer joined a club and studied with ferocity. Six years and thousands of chess hours later, he had a spectacular ‘breakthrough’ at age thirteen and was pronounced a boy wonder.”

A grandmaster is not a genius. “Grandmaster” is a title or a status marker, rather like “professor” or “CEO”. The difference is that there are no 13-year-old professors or CEOs. Chess is a highly formalised field of human endeavour, which increasingly produces prodigious young talent. The legacy of child prodigies is one reason why chess is so strongly associated with genius.

Nevertheless, recent patterns associated with grandmaster prodigy undermine the notion of “innate genius”. High-level chess performance is produced in a dynamic and changing global chess environment or “field”. Here I use the word “field” in a particular manner, drawing on the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. Fields are networks or configurations of “objective relations between positions”, and the global chess field falls clearly within the highly structured, stratified and monetised subdomain of “games” that we associate with the term “sport”.

The modern field of chess emerged after 1950, when nominal rankings or titles (eg, grandmaster, international master) were officially recognised by the International Chess Federation (FIDE). After 1970 these titles were further specified when FIDE adopted a statistical model of chess performance – the Elo rating system. This system was first introduced in the US in 1960, forming the basis of a more stable assessment of title strength and, consequently, a more reliable gauge of prodigy.

In 1950 the youngest grandmaster was David Bronstein, aged 26. Boris Spassky, at 18, became the first teenage grandmaster in 1955 and three years later, Bobby Fischer set a new record of 15 years and six months. Fischer’s relatively brief career was a game changer for chess: his rapid ascent, obsessive work-ethic, and McEnroe-esque antics established him as the first chess professional in the Anglo-American sport tradition – where chess has struggled to achieve recognition

Fischer’s age record endured until the dawn of the internet age, when – in 1991 – one Judit Polgár became the youngest grandmaster, aged 15 years and four months. Polgár, the youngest of three famous Hungarian chess-playing sisters, rose to No 8 in the world and is the only woman ever to rank within the elite 2,700+ band of “super grandmasters”.

The Queen’s Gambit has provoked a debate on gender inequality in world chess (see links at end). There are currently no women among the 2,700+ super GMs and just 37 of the more than 1,700 GMs are women (excluding woman grandmasters as the WGM is a distinct, but lower, title). While participation rates are often cited as the key factor – in 2020, women constituted 15% of FIDE rated players, up from 6% in 2001 – this reduces the problem to numbers, thereby discounting the role of sexist attitudes and a history of institutional discrimination.

László Polgár, an educational psychologist and father of the Polgár sisters, believed that ‘geniuses are made, not born’. Intense training and participation in the boys’ section of junior competitions turned all three of the sisters into child prodigies. In 1986 Susan Polgár became the first woman to qualify for the ‘Men’s’ World Championship, and soon after this FIDE ‘men’s events’ were reclassified as ‘open’. In 1991, first Susan and then Judit became the first women to break chess’s ‘‘glass ceiling’: the grandmaster title earned through open tournament play (three GM norms and 2,500+ rating).

Fischer once boasted that he would give any woman “knight odds”. Comments like this and the idea that men are “hardwired” to play better chess are still commonplace and the current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, has acknowledged the need for “a change in culture”. At a public lecture, presented in Stellenbosch in January 2020, super GM Levon Aronion questioned whether chess culture can be considered “toxic”.

The problem is also institutional: men predominate as administrators and coaches, and FIDE channels female talent in the pursuit of lower-rated women’s titles, eg, Woman International Master (WIM), Woman Grandmaster (WGM) and Women’s World Chess Champion. The chess world’s well-documented “grandmaster experiment” has shown that women who circumvent this channel can rise to the top.

László Polgár, an educational psychologist and father of the Polgár sisters, believed that “geniuses are made, not born”. Intense training and participation in the boys’ section of junior competitions turned all three of the sisters into child prodigies. In 1986 Susan Polgár became the first woman to qualify for the “Men’s” World Championship, and soon after this FIDE “men’s events” were reclassified as “open”. In 1991, first Susan and then Judit became the first women to break chess’s “glass ceiling”: the grandmaster title earned through open tournament play (three GM norms and 2,500+ rating).

In the post-1990 age of the world wide web, the record for the youngest grandmaster has been broken six times and the current holder is Sergey Karjakin (Ukrainian), who qualified for the title at the age of 12 years, seven months. Of the 38 players who obtained the grandmaster title before their 15th birthday, all but five of them were born after 1990. And all but one (Hou Yifan, from China) are men.

Former world champion Garry Kasparov (who became a GM at 17), explains this trend as follows: “Today’s teens, and increasingly pre-teens, can accelerate this process by plugging into a digitised archive of chess information and making full use of the superiority of the young mind to retain it all. In the pre-computer era, teenage grandmasters were rarities and almost always destined to play for the world championship.”  

This pattern of prodigy raises questions about how chess is positioned as “a sport”, using conventional sporting age and gender categories. For example, the South African schools’ field is fragmented into distinct events based on the official FIDE categories for age (Under eight, 10, 12, 14, 16 and 18) and gender (Open and Girls).

Chess has always straddled the Cartesian mind-body dualism that underpins modern sport, but post-1990 digitalisation has created a whole new “ballgame”: mobile phones provide access to super-strong chess algorithms and the internet has fostered new online fields of competitive chess for both humans and machines. The pandemic has accelerated this trend rather dramatically: as most conventional sports were suspended, chess players migrated to a host of new online platform-based events.

It is difficult to believe that the post-1990 surge in ranks of male prodigies is the product of innate ability. A far better explanation seems to be the patriarchal traditions of major chess countries and the changing nature of the global chess field. While tournament chess is a semi-open field, it functions – quintessentially – as a male sporting code, mimicking the practices of more established sports. This trend is complicated, but in many ways reinforced, by digitalisation and the pivot to online platforms (and notably the gaming platform Twitch).

This pattern of prodigy is, therefore, likely to prevail until such time as a critical mass of women players, coaches and administrators is established – and until the global field is restructured.

The Queen’s Gambit weaves together chess fact and fiction using a particular narrative structure. Because Beth Harmon is the fictional equivalent of Bobby Fischer – a Cold War warrior beating the Russians at their “own” game – Fischer is never mentioned. While all of Beth’s opponents are fictional, several famous pre-1968 chess players enter into the verbal narrative (notably the nineteenth century “genius” Paul Morphy and Boris Spassky, Fischer’s 1972 World Championship opponent and presumably the inspiration for the agreeable Borgov).

Rather interestingly, only one real grandmaster is depicted in the series, and she provides an important foil for the character of Beth Harmon. In the final episode, as Beth takes her place at the prestigious Russian invitational tournament, we get a brief glimpse of a young woman in the audience. A commentator identifies her as Nona Gaprindashvili with a remark that “she is the female world champion and has never faced men”.

Gaprindashvili was the first woman ever to be awarded the FIDE grandmaster title. Now almost 80, she understandably “felt insulted” by this misleading description – fictional genius dismisses historically situated talent. The implication of this comment is nevertheless clear: Beth has sidestepped the women’s channel.

Will there be a “Netflix Effect” on the chess gender gap? Time will tell. Certainly, The Queen’s Gambit has put the spotlight on gender in chess and has generated massive new interest around the planet. This interest has, however, been channelled through the well-worn trope of chess genius. A tale of genius set in the 1960s makes for riveting entertainment – and a welcome diversion from the harsh realities of a pandemic – but it does not reflect key aspects of prodigy and performance in the internet age of chess.

Beth Harmon may be a woman, but her onscreen trajectory invokes the genius-mystique of Morphy and Fischer far more than the field-challenging experiences of Gaprindashvili and the Polgárs.

More on The Queen’s Gambit…

Dr Lloyd B Hill is with the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology at Stellenbosch University.


Comments - share your knowledge and experience

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or sign in if you are already an Insider.

Everybody has an opinion but not everyone has the knowledge and the experience to contribute meaningfully to a discussion. That’s what we want from our members. Help us learn with your expertise and insights on articles that we publish. We encourage different, respectful viewpoints to further our understanding of the world. View our comments policy here.

No Comments, yet