For lack of a chess set — The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

There are many gut wrenching aspects to the first two episodes of The Queen’s Gambit, a mini series released October 23rd, 2020 on Netflix.

There’s something for any kind of viewer, but for me it’s a prodigy going six years without having a chess set! Not even the adoptive parents can provide one.

Reality is a bit less brutal: chess is an abstract strategy game, the pieces can be anything.

If you find yourself incarcerated, hospitalized, orphaned or otherwise horribly impoverished, you can still play chess without having to stare at the ceiling all night. All you need is a pen and a piece of paper. Draw a big square, put 7 evenly spaced horizontal and vertical lines inside and shade the grid pattern.

Make that board and the 64 squares inside of it as big as you can, as you want the pieces to fit. When drawing your pieces, keep the square sizes in mind and draw the figurines from memory. Shade the 16 pieces for one side, leave the paper colour after outlining the others.

I did this once on a camping trip, despite my horrible art skills, I was happy with the result (could tell the pieces apart) and was able to get someone else to play. I wish had a photo for you, I was proud of that set.

Years later I replicated this idea by creating a printed paper chess set design as a promotional idea for the Rudolf Rocker Chess Club.

In this YouTube video you can see Jamie and I demonstrate 3 minute blitz with the paper set. I’d recommend a longer time control (or none at all), the knights are hard to move!

Do you have children, grandchildren, nephews, nieces, and younger cousins who have not yet been bitten by the chess bug and might not have a set at home? Print them some paper sets as stocking stuffers. The next potential prodigy might be right under your nose and just needs a 10 cent trigger.

(There’s even talk of a longer winter school break here in Manitoba this year….)

You probably shared Beth’s rage when the high school teacher and club player gave her, a reported prodigy, a doll. In his defense, he hadn’t yet seen the wunderkind play first hand when he made that purchase. So, it’s even more unforgivable that after having seen her talents and having invited her to give a simultaneous exhibition (simul) another, that he had no paraphernalia waiting for her as a thank you when she attended.

As a further example of the show’s excellent attention to detail, we see some pretty low quality sets at the high school simul. To me, part of the tragedy of the first episode that the only thing she takes home is a box of chocolates instead of some garbage plastic pieces and a board better coloured for checkers.

Harmon has one more close brush with earlier set access. The headmistress suggests there could be some pieces in a game closet. Certainly worth a look. You would be surprised where you might find neglected chess sets. If these existed, you’d likely find missing pieces. No problem, combine sets, borrow from other board games, recruit some salt shakers, and make some paper pieces if you have to.

Realistically, after the headmistress takes chess away, I don’t see how anyone could have held interest in the game for so long with only Modern Chess Openings (MCO) as their connection to the world of chess. I’ll come back to that in another article, but I would say now that’s one of the worst possible book to dump on a new player as their first.

Had Mr. Sheibel wanted to be sneaky, he could have kept the fun going by playing co-correspondence style, passing on one move at a time quietly by voice each time he runs into Beth, perhaps consulting some better players by phone and mail.

“Pawn to king four!”, Beth could have whined at the custodian on his ladder instead of “help me!”. “Pawn to queen’s bishop four, and keep your voice down” I imagine.

Or even openly propose correspondence chess after the headmistress has had a year or two to get over the ban inducing incident.

This is one of the many beautiful thing about chess, it doesn’t exist on a board, it lives in the ether and it lives between our ears, and this miniseries beautifully captures that.

— Mark Jenkins

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