RETROSPECTIVE FEMINISM: THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT AND THE WOMAN CHESS PLAYER THAT NEVER WAS

Like half the planet, I’ve been watching these days Netflix’s mini-series The Queen’s Gambit (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt10048342) and enjoying it very much despite my total lack of interest in chess. Written and directed by Scott Frank, the mini-series adapts a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, a truly interesting American author. Some of his titles may ring a bell, for they have been adapted for the cinema screen: The Hustler (1959) and its sequel The Color of Money (1984) and The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963). I strongly recommend Mockingbird (1980), on which I wrote here a few years ago (https://blogs.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/2015/10/18/walter-tevis-sf-masterpiece-mockingbird-the-end-of-literacy/). I have not read The Queen’s Gambit, but it seems to have been inspired by Tevis’s own passion for chess (he was an advanced amateur player). Apparently, Tevis wrote in his author’s note that “The superb chess of Grandmasters Robert Fischer, Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov has been a source of delight to players like myself for years. Since The Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction, however, it seemed prudent to omit them from the cast of characters, if only to prevent contradiction of the record.”

The problem with the novel, however, is not so much that it is a work of fiction about a female chess player, Beth Harmon, who never existed but that it is set in a parallel world in which women (or at least one woman) can aspire to be the best world player. In The Calculating Stars (2018) by Mary Robinette Kowal women are part of NASA’s first missions already because a meteorite strikes the USA in 1952 and colonizing the Moon and next Mars becomes urgent. That, of course, is a science fiction novel. Tevis’s novel and the Netflix mini-series are presented, in contrast, as mimetic fiction but we are never told about the reality of women’s chess players in the 1950s-1970s period that the plot covers. Beth Harmon, in short, is as fantastic a creation as any of Kowal’s lady astronauts but, somehow, we are made to believe that she is more real, which she is not. Beth appears to be a peculiar case of what I will call ‘retrospective feminism,’ that is to say, a female character who achieves something of historical relevance for women at a time when no woman could aspire to the same feat. I’ll argue that this is both positive and negative: positive because it attempts to rewrite history, negative because it is an impossible rewriting and seems to highlight women’s shortcomings instead of our achievements.

As I have noted, I’m not interested in chess because, generally speaking, I’m not attracted to games and much less to those that involve any type of earnest competition. I had to learn from scratch then the basics about how the chess world works by watching the series and doing some quick research online. So, for you to know the current world champion is Magnus Carlsen, a 30-year-old Norwegian, and the current woman world champion is Ju Wenjun, a 28-year-old Chinese citizen. Yes, there are separate championships for men and women, though the men’s makes no reference to gender because, in principle, it is open to women. Chinese player Yifan Hou, 24, the youngest woman to earn the Grandmaster title (aged 14) is the top-ranking female chess player in the world and the only woman in the World Chess Federation’s Top 100 players (currently in position 88). So you see how fantastic Beth Harmon is.

An article in The Conversation by Alex B. Root called “Why there’s a separate World Chess Championship for women” (https://theconversation.com/why-theres-a-separate-world-chess-championship-for-women-129293) manages to be confusing rather than convincing as regards this matter. Root writes that “segregated tournaments allow those playing to get media attention, benefit financially, and make friends with people with whom they share some similar characteristics. Separate tournaments don’t speak to whether there are advantages or disadvantages”. Not convincing… Then, he notes that with about 15% of young players being female in the world, this means that because of the “smaller base of females” there are “fewer women than men at the top of the chess rating list,” which is even more unconvincing. If things were fair, there should be 15% of women players in the top 100, not just one. Only-women tournaments, Root suggests, “may make chess more attractive to girls and women.” Do they…?

The world’s top female player ever, Hungarian Grandmaster Judith Polgár (retired since 2014), totally disagrees with gender-segregated chess. She was at her peak the eighth best world player and famously defeated among others, Magnus Carlsen, Anatoly Karpov, Garry Kasparov and Boris Spassky. In an article published last year, Polgár expressed very vocally her opinion that women’s chess limits the chances of women players to do their best. “I always knew,” she declares, “that in order to become the strongest player I could, I had to play against the strongest possible opposition. Playing only among women would not have helped my development, as since I was 13 I was the clear number one among them. I needed to compete with the other leading (male) grandmasters of my time” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/30/chess-grandmaster-women-only-tournament-play-men.) In the school and the children’s tournaments she runs there is for these reasons no gender segregation.

Reading, however, about why women lose at chess in non-segregated competitions I came across two very interesting pieces. One is an article by Omkar Khandekar about India, the nation were chess was born. He quotes Koneru Humpy, a top female Indian chess player, who simply thinks that men are better at chess. She and other players Khandekar interviewed “pointed to a combination of systemic and societal factors, and a dollop of sexism, that hold back women from realizing their potential in chess. Lack of role models, lack of financial security, male gatekeepers in chess bodies and an overwhelming pay gap in the sport were further deterrents”. Yet, many added that “the game needed some innate traits, and that crucial ‘killer instinct,’ which most women ‘lacked’.” The author of the article believes that it is rather a matter of being historically disadvantaged and thinks that women have progressed spectacularly in recent years, and will eventually catch up with the boys. But not yet. Kruttika Nadig, a top female Indian player, notes that “Fortunately I didn’t experience sexism in the chess world. But for some reason, I found women are a lot more cagey. It was hard for me to find female practice partners. (I would find) guys working with each other, playing with each other… but not that much camaraderie among women.” In her world, Beth Harmon is totally alone, the one woman among men (both allies and rivals) but it must be said that she does nothing to connect with other women; and there is one at least asking to be her chess friend.

This leads me to the other article, which deals directly with The Queen’s Gambit and can be found on Vanity Fair (https://www.vanityfair.com/hollywood/2020/11/queens-gambit-a-real-life-chess-champion-on-netflixs-new-hit). Jennifer Shahade, a two-time U.S. women’s chess champion and author of Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport and Play Like a Girl!, explains that there are many female child players of chess until around the age of 12, when they start quitting. Chess, she says, is social, “So if you’re a girl and you don’t have other girls who are playing at your same age range and level and city, it can start to be less interesting. You might just gravitate toward another sport where you have 10 friends.” This is still a partial explanation: for whatever reason, and unless they are committed, girls seem to start identifying chess as a boy’s game in their teens, possibly when they realize that if they want to go further they need to play in earnest and face the boys’ pressure. “I think”, Shahade claims, “there are two parts to the world. [One] part is very excited to see girls and women play. And then there’s also some undercurrents of resentment. Especially as chess moves online, there are a lot of nasty comments written about girls and women.” The Netflix series, with its insistence on the importance of having a team of friendly, supportive players helping you, may certainly encourage girls, and boys, to see matters very differently. But like any other area formerly dominated by men, it’ll take time to make things more equal.

It is certainly gratifying to see Beth receive lessons and support from men who do care about her but several matters are less gratifying. To begin with, Beth is dependent since childhood on a sedative similar to Librium which, quite incongruously, is linked to her ability to visualize chess matches in her head. The series corrects the representation of this and other addictions eventually to end up claiming that Beth’s talent is not their product. Yet, I worry very much that a young girl, as orphan Beth is when her story begins, possibly around 8 or 10, might believe that there is a link between being a talented player and being an addict. Another complicated matter is Beth’s relationship with her adoptive mother Alma (she’s adopted in her early teens), herself an alcoholic. Alma supports Beth eventually but only because this brings in substantial earnings from the tournaments that the girl plays. Alma and Beth bond in unexpected, interesting ways but the mercenary nature of Alma’s investment in her daughter’s success is not too positive.

Finally, there is the matter of clothes… You may visit now the virtual exhibition ‘The Queen and the Crown’ (https://www.thequeenandthecrown.com/) at the Brooklyn Museum and marvel at the costumes designed for both Netflix series: The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit. The progress of young Beth Harmon in the world of chess is marked by her gradual physical transformation, not only from child to woman in her twenties but also from terribly dressed ragamuffin to sophisticated 1970s fashion victim. She seems to invest, indeed, most of her earnings in designer clothes. This metamorphosis is a pleasure to watch but it is also a painful reminder that intelligent women characters need to look good to be accepted by TV audiences. The actress who plays Beth, Anya Taylor-Joy, is not an average beauty but she is attractive enough to have worked as a model. Ironically, Beth’s French model friend Cleo tells her that she could never be a model because she looks too clever… It’s a no-win situation.

Going back to the initial question of retrospective feminism, I’m pleased that Netflix has made The Queen’s Gambit and young girls may see in Beth interesting possibilities. I cannot call her a role model because of her many addictions but she’s an amazingly interesting character. I’m just sorry that the chance has been missed to tell Judit Polgár’s real-life story, or the story of the other women trying to compete with the men in the world of chess at the highest possible level. All my encouragement to them.

I publish a post once a week (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. Visit my website https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

2 thoughts on “RETROSPECTIVE FEMINISM: THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT AND THE WOMAN CHESS PLAYER THAT NEVER WAS

  1. Excellent post about the Queen’s Gambit. I just wanted to respond a bit as I think about this “gender in chess” issue a fair amount.

    I am Hugely in support of chess being taught more to young people, as I think it can be a fundamental building block in teaching persistence, skill building, critical thinking, healthy competition, sportsmanship, and ingenuity. It is a perfect game in so many ways, and can be thought about infinitely. I’ve seen a couple small tournaments with young people gathered, quietly focused, respectful, and incredibly talented and it makes me want to cry a little bit. I feel the same way about martial arts, which was a big part of my childhood. I play chess every day, and seem to have an anti talent for it. I think the critical engineering type thinking and spacial visualization is in some ways opposite to the way your average English major thinks. I can’t help but give little narratives to my pieces sometimes when they are attacking and retreating. (My brave knight is retreating into the castle to rendezvous with the queen and start a flank on the evil dark square bishop)

    As far as gender goes, I think chess might be the single best battleground for testing nature versus nurture theories about the differences between men and women. It is a strictly egalitarian, mental game, and requires intense studying, memory, creativity, and persistence to rise in the ranks. A couple basic ideas in both nature and nurture categories.

    Nature: I think I’ve mentioned this to you in another email, but there is some fairly convincing evidence that men tend to lie in the extremes of most endeavors. More likely to take risks, possibly due to testosterone. More likely to be obsessive. And from my perspective, more likely to strive for Ridiculous achievement in a given domain because men are considered more attractive based on achievement than women are, and are also more likely to be disposable if they do not achieve. This is an argument people make about humor as well. Men Have to be funny to be attractive whereas women don’t necessarily, and so one is more likely to work on it than the other. (Loving the current movement in female stand up)This is a much bigger debate all around, but I think there is at least some truth in that. Mastering this one game to the level that the pros do is absolutely Insane behavior. Outside of literally the best player ever in Carlsen, Very few people make what would be considered an above average living from chess. That is changing a bit with the rise of live streaming, but it’s still a ridiculous undertaking, so I’m not sure it’s in Anyone’s best interest to pursue it at the highest level.

    Nurture: There is of course the boys club, which the show addresses quite thoroughly. Boys are encouraged to be more competitive and to be more vicious and to nurture that killer instinct. As a high school boys basketball coach, I have likened diving on the floor to get a loose ball to being trapped in the room with another man and only one of you can come out alive. Who wants it more? Do you have that beast inside of you? I am not sure I could professionally get away with giving voice to that concept if I was coaching a girl’s team.

    The problem with feminism in the context of chess is that for many, it will not be “solved” until 50 of the top 100 chess players are women, and if even 5 percent of what I brought up in the nature section is true, that will never happen. And this is why I am skeptical of equity in many regards.

  2. Thank you Jessiah, I really appreciate your comments.Chess competitions might be a case of ‘ridiculous achievement’ by males as you say, or simply a territory that women have not explored sufficiently. I am amazed, for instance, at the growth of interest in football among girls and who knows whether ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ can significantly alter the field of chess as it is right now. Equality does not mean, in my view, that there should be 50% of women among the top chess champions but that a woman who tries to make it that far should find no sexism in her way. Likewise, men who wish to enter domains considered feminine, such as synchronized swimming to give a random example, should be welcome and not discriminated against for being men. It will be interesting to see how the field of chess evolves, in any case. Thanks again!

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