World Chess Day: Why an ancient game still fascinates

22 Jul

Covid lockdowns also attracted many to the board. The chess hype has since faded but lives on.


Global chess boom

Two years ago, the ancient game, invented around 600 AD, experienced a revival thanks to the 2020 Netflix series "The Queen's Gambit" about Beth Harmon, an orphan who becomes an internationally successful chess player. Internet searches for chess rules exploded, while there were reported record sales of chess sets and beginner books.


Chess under lockdown

Worldwide, restrictions during the COVID pandemic lured more people to the chess board. A welcome change of pace during lockdowns, people soon became hooked on the humble chess game. Most people play in private, much to the regret of the German Chess Federation, which would have liked to see more members in the clubs — where future professional competitors might be discovered.

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Professional advice from a world champion

Maybe like Garri Kasparov? He held the title of World Chess Champion from 1985 to 1993, after which he parted company with the World Chess Federation (FIDE) because of a dispute. The Soviet-born player officially ended his career in 2005, still at the top of the world rankings. He helped out behind the scenes in "The Queen's Gambit": He designed the games and acted as an advisor.


Berlin provides various backdrops

Although the series is largely set in the US, most scenes were shot in Canada and Germany. Berlin in particular served as a filming location due to its various backdrops. The orphanage where Beth grew up and learned chess was not located in Kentucky, but rather in the outskirts of the German capital. Filming also took place in the Friedrichstadt-Palast, the Bode Museum and the Altes Stadthaus.


Chess tutoring

Most of the cast couldn't play chess before filming began, so a hand double was desperately needed. However, leading actress Anya Taylor-Joy became an ardent chess fan during production — probably because she learned the game from one of the best chess players of all time.


German hand double for Beth Harmon

The hand double for lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy, who played Beth Harmon, also lives in the German capital. Chess grandmaster Filiz Osmanodja (12 years old in this photo dated 2008) provided the right moves on the board in close-ups of the hands. The now 24-year-old had to learn 18 chess games by heart for the role she garnered via an invitation on Facebook.


Novel becomes bestseller - again

The series was based on a novel under the same title. The book has also benefited from the series' success. Written by American author Walter Tevis, it made it onto the New York Times bestseller list 37 years after its original publication once more. Tevis, however, did not live to witness his book’s renaissance. He died of cancer in 1984 - one year after "The Queen's Gambit" was published.


Heath Ledger had planned film adaptation

Long before Netflix discovered "The Queen's Gambit," the late Heath Ledger had been planning a film based on the book. It would have marked the Australian actor's debut as director. An avid chess player himself, Ledger was fascinated by Tevis' novel. He had intended to cast Elliot Page for the role of Beth Harmon. Ledger died in 2008, before the project even took off.


Chess legend as role model?

The role of Benny Watts — Beth's competitor, mentor and lover — and Beth's rise to fame are both reminiscent of US chess prodigy Bobby Fischer's life. He defeated Russia's Boris Spassky in the 1972 "Match of the Century," effectively ending Soviet dominance in chess. It was perhaps the last time the game thrilled so many people worldwide — until now.


Queen's Gambit: One of the oldest chess openings

The title of the novel and series is based on a chess opening of the same name. The Queen’s Gambit is one of the oldest proven move combinations of its kind. It was mentioned in the late 15th century in the "Göttingen Manuscript" and is still played today by chess players worldwide. Beth Harmon also plays this opening in the series finale.


Author Felix Schlagwein

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