This year has provided endless twists and turns, from a global pandemic to the first Irish-American president since JFK. Not even the most gifted of psychics could have predicted the happenings of 2020. And they most definitely could not have foreseen that a show about chess would turn out to be the most successful scripted limited series ever produced by Netflix.
Thanks to The Queen's Gambit, chess is having a renaissance and making moves on the board of pop culture. The seven-part series – watched by 62 million people in its first month on the streaming site – tells the story of Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphaned chess prodigy who is on a quest to become the greatest player in the world. Since its release in October, Google searches for "how to play chess" have hit a nine-year peak, while online auction site eBay revealed a 273 per cent surge in searches for "chess sets" in its aftermath.
However, chess obviously isn't a new phenomenon. Its origins are uncertain, but the earliest iteration of the game is believed to have originated before the 6th century AD. Millions of people play the game across the globe with countries like Russia and India leading the way in terms of interest and numbers, but what about Ireland?
Although popular, the chess community here is small – though numbers are on the rise thanks to lockdown, The Queen's Gambit, and some talented players making waves internationally. One of those is 20-year-old UCD student Diana Mirza from Limerick. In 2017, Mirza won the World Schools Under-17 Chess Championship, making her Ireland's first world chess champion. Playing since she was five years old, Mirza grew up with the game. "My dad is a chess teacher, and after school, I would go with him and picked it up and started playing competitions," she says. "My parents are Romanian, and chess is huge there, so when we would visit, I would play my grandad and in the parks too."
Becoming a world champion doesn’t come without work and dedication, and as a youngster, Mirza trained harder than most to reach the top level. “When I was younger, I probably didn’t enjoy it as much because my dad always wanted me to get better,” she explains. “I had to practise my chess if I wanted to play outside. It felt like more of a chore but became a routine. And it did stick with me because that period from five to 10 years old has helped me become the player I am today.”
Someone else who knows what it takes to be the best is Alexander Baburin, Ireland's only grandmaster – the highest title a chess player can attain. Baburin grew up in Soviet Russia, where chess players held celebrity status in the 1950s and 1960s. He says the Russians' depiction as the most fearsome of chess opponents in The Queen's Gambit is true to life. "Chess players were like rock stars. Games were reported on television, people recognised them, and they had certain privileges," he explains. "It was a creative profession, an escape for people, and wasn't too political."
Living in Dublin for the past 20 years, Baburin gained his grandmaster title in 1996 after years of dedication. “I was 29 at the time, so nowadays that is considered late, and at that stage, it was probably after about 20 years of playing and studying chess.” He notes that not all chess players can become grandmasters. “Unfortunately, some people never make it. It’s not easy. The amount of work and time somebody puts into the game plays a part but a lot of it comes down to pure talent.”
For the top-tier players of the world, chess can become a lucrative career. Magnus Carlsen and Viswanathan Anand both made $1 million in each of the past two years from winnings alone. Carlsen also signed a controversial two-year sponsorship deal with sports betting firm Unibet at the beginning of 2020.
“I would imagine that from tournaments, some players are probably making about €100,000 to €200,000 a year,” Baburin says. “But we are talking about the best players. So, it’s not like soccer or basketball, for example. Most people just play it because they love it.”
International chess tournaments are high-stake events. Players need to be skilled not only in the moves but in the psychology of the game too. Mirza says advance preparation is key on everything from your own strategy to your opponent’s. “When you get to a higher level you can study your opponent well because there is a full database of games online,” she explains. “But there are also a lot of psychological factors that go into it. You can’t show you are nervous. And you can plan your openings as much as you want, but you never know what the other player will do.”
The Queen’s Gambit added a Hollywood shine to competitive chess, but is it as glamorous as the show makes out? “It depends on what tournament,” Mirza says. “Junior events aren’t that glam but bigger tournaments definitely can be.”
While some competitions are held in small halls, others can take players across the globe. Mirza and Baburin have both been given incredible travel opportunities because of the game. “It brought me to places where I probably would never have visited,” Baburin explains. “I’ve played in places like Alaska, Hawaii and Japan because of it. So I’m very grateful for chess.”
Baburin is a chess teacher in schools and vice-chairperson of the Irish Chess Union, giving him a bird's-eye view of Ireland's chess scene. He says numbers are growing. "There are more juniors playing chess, and some of them are becoming quite serious about the game," he says. "We also have a national team that goes to the Chess Olympiad every second year, and there are tournaments all over the country."
Mirza believes the game has become more popular because of lockdown and the uptake of online chess. She runs a successful chess account on video live stream platform Twitch – where 41.2 million hours of chess were watched from March to August alone – and plans to start a YouTube channel.
“I want to keep streaming because I see how successful it’s getting. It’s especially growing after The Queen’s Gambit,” she says. “So many of my friends didn’t care about it before, but since they watched the show, they think it’s cool and want to learn.”
Mirza also hopes the show will get more women involved in the game. From the beginning of the series, it’s clear the heroine is a woman in a man’s world. In real life, sexism in chess is still a serious issue. “I have gotten a lot of comments from male players. I think every girl has,” Mirza says. “Even now, it’s still sexist if you talk to the right people. They will say ‘girls aren’t as good’ or ‘she’s just a girl, she can’t play.’ Sometimes I was the only girl playing in a room full of men. I thought I wasn’t good enough, but now I know better and block it out.”
Alice O’Gorman from Dublin is secretary of the European Chess Union’s Women’s Commission and has carried out significant research in the area. “As ages increase, the percentage of women playing decreases, showing girls have a much higher dropout rate than boys,” she explains.
“The most successful initiatives to keep girls playing are female-only camps and training. Because this allows them to be in a non-male-dominated environment and form friendships with other girls, making them more likely to continue playing.”
O’Gorman, who is a chess player herself, says she too has been subjected to gender-based remarks. “When I was starting out I got a lot of negative comments,” she explains. “And it is quite intimidating. I think to progress, there has to be more education and a plan to make tournaments nicer places for girls to go.”
Like all sports, higher numbers of female involvement are linked to increased visibility of women and an overall cultural shift. This is something Mirza is aware of as her career continues. “There wasn’t a visible female presence in chess when I was growing up,” she says. “But I’m happy to be an encouragement for other girls because I already know three who have started to play because of me.”
For those who want to start playing the game, Mirza and Baburin's advice is to buy a set and then visit the Irish Chess Union website (icu.ie) for information on local clubs. Alternatively, online resources such as chess.com mean everyone can study the game from the comfort of home.
In the future, both hope chess will be implemented more in schools through initiatives like Moves For Life. They encourage anyone to take it up, feeling it has equipped them with life skills they wouldn’t have learned anywhere else. For Baburin, it taught him the “beauty of logic”. And for Mirza, chess taught her confidence and opened up a world of possibilities. “I cannot recommend it enough,” she says. “It’s like creating your own universe on the board.”
Diana Mirza will appear on RTÉ 2’s After School Hub on Monday 7th December from 3.20pm