In the latest Netflix smash hit, The Queen’s Gambit, artful fiction blends with a stunning, on-the-nose real life accuracy. Beth Harmon is a fictional chess prodigy, while Berlin locations impressively double for Kentucky, Paris, Moscow and other cities – but the depiction of every game of chess featured in the series, every move, is unerringly accurate.

The fictional games for the show were designed by chess coach Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparaov, probably the most famous chess player of all-time, and the actors learned every move. Chess is a tough game to get your head around, and most Netflix viewers surely don’t understand the significance of *1. d4 d5 2. c4, the chess opening known as The Queen’s Gambit, and one of the oldest moves in the game.

“Essentially I learned all of the sequences like dances and because I’m a dancer,” says Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Beth. “That was helpful in terms of remembering how everything worked out.”

Hugely impressive stuff, but how will this stunning portrayal of the noble game play out in real life?

Will we see a new chess boom?

Since the show’s release on 23 October, interest in chess has surged. According to eBay, there was a 273% increase in searches for “chess sets” on the online auction site in the 10 days following the show’s debut on Netflix – which, for context, works out at one search every six seconds – while mobile chess games have been topping search results in various application stores, and daily downloads growing exponentially. With the UK and much of Europe in a 2nd lockdown, it seems chess has become a go-to pursuit.

The truth is, however, chess was enjoying a new surge in interest even before The Queen’s Gambit became the latest Netflix phenomenon thanks to popular streamers on Twitch. Web users watched a staggering 41.2 million hours of chess on Twitch between March and August this year – four times more than the previous six months.

Is chess even a sport? Karpov v Kasparov says yes!

A sedentary game, chess is not recognised as a sport in the UK and receives no public funding. But its highly competitive element cannot be denied, and its physical demands are greater than one might imagine. Peak mental condition undoubtedly requires being in good physical nick, with players having to concentrate intensely for up to seven hours. As stress and tension inevitably builds, blood pressure, pulse and respiration rates all increase, so much so that contenders for world championships deploy nutritionists and fitness coaches.

Those demands were laid bare in the 1984 World Championship match between defending champion Anatoly Karpov and then-challenger Garry Kasparov. Karpov was a classical stylist, and champion since 1975, while Kasparov was the young dynamic risk-taker. Karpov started like a house on fire, and after nine games Kasparov found himself 4–0 down in the first-to-six match. 

Karpov and Kasparov shake hands before another titanic tussle

The titanic battle – big news at the time – then saw a series of 17 successive draws. Kasparov lost game 27 to go 5-0 down only to then fight back with another sequence of draws until game 32, when Kasparov earned his first-ever win against the champion to pull it back to 5-1. Kasparov, in the face of unrelenting pressure, had been forced to abandon his attacking instincts and play extremely conservatively and carefully, slowly sucking the venom inch by inch from his lethal opponent.

After Kasparov won games 47 and 48 to make it 5-3 to Karpov, the President of the International Chess Federation, Florencio Campomanes, terminated the match without a result, citing the players’ health, with Karpov losing 10kg over the course of the abandoned match. The struggle had lasted an unprecedented and frankly incredible five months – five wins for Karpov, three for Kasparov, and a scarcely-believable 40 draws.

Socially distanced competition!

And so, in the midst of another lockdown, maybe the sedentary pleasures of a gripping Netflix series can bring some real life, positive benefits.

Nouman Qureshi, Toys Category Manager at eBay UK, said: ‘We’re seeing shoppers turn to more traditional forms of entertainment during this second lockdown. This includes a big uptake in the classic game of chess, which if things continue as they are, we might all be pros at by December 2.’

Indeed. With a lockdown well underway and sport fanatics starved of competition, why not buy a board and play with the family, or perhaps give online chess a try, and channel your inner Beth Harmon? After all, socially-distanced competition is, for now at least, where it’s at.

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