The runaway success of the Netflix series The Queen's Gambit, coupled with the COVID-19 pandemic, is fuelling possibly the biggest chess frenzy around the world since the Cold War.
Hungary's Judit Polgár, the strongest female player in the history of chess, believes this "fantastic boost" will lead many more parents to buy chessboards for their daughters, in the hope of eventually closing the gender gap in a sport seen as one of the last strongholds of male domination.
The Queen's Gambit stages the fictional story of Beth Harmon, an orphaned chess prodigy who rises to stardom and goes toe to toe with a male Soviet world champion in Moscow, in the 1960s.
The series was released on October 23rd and became Netflix's "biggest scripted limited series to date", watched in more than 62 million households worldwide in its first month.
In November, Chess.com, the online platform dedicated to learning and playing chess, recorded a 15% increase in female players, reaching its highest share of women players ever.
"The Queen's Gambit Effect", as dubbed by Nick Barton, director of Business Development at Chess.com, drove the overall numbers of new sign-ups from Europe through the roof, going from 280,000 in October to nearly 1 million in November.
The largest increases were recorded in France, the UK, Germany, Spain, and Italy.
"Before the show, we had approximately 7,000 to 8,000 new Europeans joining the platform each day. As of last week, the number is now over 40,000," says Barton. "This is huge".
Hungarian chess star Polgár, the only woman to ever rank in the world top 10, compares this "boom" to the frenzy surrounding 1972 "Match of the Century" between the American champion Bobby Fischer, and the Soviet No 1, Boris Spassky.
This championship took place in Iceland, an ideal place for two superpowers to meet at the height of the Cold War, and was almost called off multiple times. Accusations of cheating, several no-shows, and a bitter war of words, characterised the matches as the world watched the spectacle unfold.
"But this time there are no political reasons, and it has completely reached the outside of the chess world," Polgár tells Euronews.
Polgár's father, Lászlo, raised all three of his daughters to be the best women chess players in the world, even teaching them Esperanto, a 'world language' that never quite took off, in an effort to develop them intellectually.
His motto was that geniuses are made, not born. It appears his daughter's success has proved him right.
Polgár became Grandmaster at 15, peaking at a world ranking of No. 8. She topped the female rankings for 26 years, until she retired in 2014. She now promotes education through skills development, with a special focus on chess as an educational tool.
Her older sisters, Susan and Sofia, also became Grandmaster and International Master.
Dubbed as "The Queen of Chess", Polgár has drawn comparisons with Beth Harmon, the fictional heroine of the Netflix drama, although she pointed out that she was treated far worse by male competitors, compared to how Harmon is treated in the series.
Her comments, as well as the series, have renewed the debate about inequality and sexism in chess, which is good news for a sport dominated by men, and where sexist language is common.
In her career, Polgár beat both British champion Nigel Short, who once said men are naturally better hardwired for the game than women, and multiple World Champion Garry Kasparov, who once remarked that it's not in women's nature to play chess.
When it comes to chess, for every 15 men in a competition, there is one woman. Currently, only one woman is ranked amongst the world's top 100 chess players: Hou Yifan of China, in 86th place.
Reasons behind the chess gender-gap and how to close it
Polgár has always refused to play women-only tournaments, She does not believe that having separate events for boys and girls will fix the problem of the lower share of female chess players.
Her belief is shared by former player and chess instructor, Spanish journalist Leontxo García, one of the most knowledgeable commentators in the world of chess.
In the '90s, Garcia 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 female players themselves who wrote a manifesto asking to revert the decision".
Why? He stresses that having mixed tournaments is good as long as, in parallel, national federations invest in the promotion of the game among girls. "Traumatic decisions can only widen the gap between female and male players".
Polgár believes "sometimes girls are weaker, or sometimes they are better than the boys of their age, especially when they are very little - an age in which they are happy to be mixed".
One of the core issues behind this gender gap in chess is the high number of girls dropping out after the age of 10. This is why, say both Polgár and García, more girls’ chess clubs are needed.
"Actually, there are even more girls who play chess when they are very young, between 6 and 10. But somehow, after that, after the age of 10 or 11, they really drop out - unless they have some social club or girls club", Polgár tells Euronews. "It is very difficult for a girl to be competitive when she starts to be the only one in the room, with the other boys - especially at that age, when they need other girls to feel comfortable with".
No matter the gender, those who wish to pursue a professional career in chess would find it hard to make a living based just on their gameplay.
"The top 20 players in the world don't have salaries that can compare with those of an élite tennis player, but live a comfortable life. But if you are not in the world top 50, you need to have a second source of income if you want chess to be your profession", says García.
How do women rise to the top?
Eva Repkova, Slovak grandmaster and the Chairperson of the Commission for Women at the International Chess Federation, has said that, in her opinion, having a female world champion one day is not impossible, but it's unlikely.
Polgar thinks it would be a much bigger breakthrough to have three women in the top ten, than to have a female world champion..
"There are many things that have to be in place for you - your passion, your knowledge, your team, your coaches, yourself, your psychological development, your physical preparation, timing opportunities and so on. Right now, [becoming number 1] does not have anything to do with gender. To become a world champion, it also happens for very, very few guys".
Most of the registered members of the Chess.com platform, that saw a 200% increase in new players worldwide, are from Europe.
"We saw our first world-wide boom in March", says Barton. "The number of beginners lessons is also increasing fivefold in our continent. Women spend more time on Chess.com than men. Perhaps they are more patient during their learning process".
Garcia reckons, thanks to the lockdown, both male and female chess have a bright future ahead.
"It is the only sport - together with bridge - that can be practised online. The world needs chess now more than ever as there are more and more people who think less, and think worse".
"Chess is static only in principle", continues García. "The interior life of a chess player is fascinating, It's a fight of the brain, and this is why so many cinema and theatre directors are amazed by it. It's a creative goldmine by itself, without the need of adding drug addiction, alcoholism, and madness to the script, as happened in The Queen's Gambit".
The International Chess Federation (FIDE) has expressed an interest in being included in the 2024 or 2028 Olympic games.
In light of that, Polgár thinks the time is ripe for parents to feel comfortable giving girls chess boards as presents. Coaches, she adds, should inspire girls to play at their level, instead of being held back by their gender.
"I want them to give the same inspiration and the same possibilities and opportunities for girls as boys. If the coaches see a talented seven-year-old girl, please don't tell them that they can become the world champion between ladies. Tell them that they can be the best in the world".
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