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Checkmate: Queen’s Gambit inspires new Calgary chess crowd

When 40-year-old Crystal Lysyk finished watching Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit in just two days, the first thing she did was seek her first chessboard.

She didn’t have to look far; her roommate bought her a set the day after they finished the series together.  

The seven-episode limited series based on a fictional character named Beth Harmon has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Harmon learns the game as a young girl and the series chronicles her rise in the chess world.

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Lysyk had never played the game of chess before. Her roommate had to teach her the basics. Dozens of games later, it’s safe to say the traditional game has a new fan.  

“I never had time to learn the game before, but after watching the series, I was excited to finally just give it a try,” she said, adding it was easier to learn the fundamentals than she thought it would be.

“I’m just learning the basics now, but I’m loving it. I hope to keep playing and get better.”

That’s not to say she plans to play competitively, but for now the series inspired a newfound hobby for Lysyk to enjoy.

Chess chatter is growing

Lysyk’s not alone in being a new player finding enjoyment in the game.

Calgary Chess Club president Steve Sklenka said the series has been stirring up a lot of attention in local chess circles and online. The Queen’s Gambit is even creating a bigger buzz for the game than the 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice, he added.

Steve Sklenka, Calgary Chess Club president. CONTRIBUTED

“I know for a fact there’s been a lot of buzz about it. There are people talking about it from the club, online on chess websites – virtually everyone has an article on it,” he said.

“You can’t escape it. It’s a very popular series and that has to have some kind of positive effect on chess. There has just been too much talk about it not to.”

And has that spotlight prompted some new players into the game? You bet.

“Even though there is (a pandemic), there are new players signing up for memberships, which is good because the club hasn’t been open (because of COVID-19),” he said.

“I’ve had more inquiries and sales for chess sets recently, too.”

He likened the current spotlight on chess to 1956 when 13-year-old chess prodigy Bobby Fischer defeated a grandmaster in what was dubbed the “Match of a Century.” Bobby Fischer went on to become the world chess champion in 1972.

“You couldn’t miss it back then; it was in the papers, the media. Even though there was no internet, it was a very big deal. This maybe isn’t as huge as ’72, but this is the most buzz I’ve seen about chess since then,” Sklenka said.

Still male dominated

In Queen’s Gambit, Harmon leaps into male dominated competition.  Chess is still mostly comprised of male players – including most of the Calgary Chess Club’s 2,100 players. Still, some women are being drawn to the game.

One of Calgary’s highest ranked female players (with a rating of 1900), is Elaine Cao, who recently moved to the city from St. Louis. That city is known for having one of the best clubs in the United States.

Even though she hasn’t been able to play a competitive match yet in Calgary due to COVID-19, Cao is excited for her first match at the Calgary Chess Club when it opens again.

“I was looking at the Canadian women’s top ratings and they are a bit different in Canada, but I’m fairly confident I can break into the top 10, and that’s going to be my objective when we can play again,” she said.

She initially avoided watching The Queen’s Gambit believing it wouldn’t properly reflect the game of chess. Cao finally gave in and said the tournament scenes are “fairly accurate” and she was impressed with the series.

“I like how a lot of people have been getting into chess because of the series. I think it’s really cool there are a lot more people excited about the game,” she said.

Anything that grows the game of chess is a positive, said Donna Bird. Bird is the first female player to ever be on the Calgary Chess Club board of directors. Playing since she was a child, she said the best part of chess is that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you look like.

“It’s getting attention for the game of chess. If there is a way to get people more interested, that’s wonderful.”