WEST JORDAN, Utah (ABC4) – The Netflix limited series “The Queen’s Gambit” pushed the ancient game of chess to the front of pop culture.
All around the world, the series has both given a little break from the COVID pandemic and created curiosity about the strategy game.
According to Deadline.com quoting Nielsen’s new report, “The streaming show has been number one for three weeks and 1.4 billion minutes of the show has been viewed.”
The Queen’s Gambit is the story of a young woman who becomes a top chess competitor. The show is framed around her battle to be a champion while fighting her addictions and the misogyny of competitive chess. Viewers have been transfixed by Anya Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of Beth Harmon, a character with striking similarities to real-life chess champion Bobby Fischer.
Chess is believed to be a derivative of an ancient Indian game, ‘chaturanga,’ created sometime before the 7th century. Each player starts with 16 pieces that move differently, with the object being to checkmate the opponent’s King by placing it in an inescapable threat of capture.
The game’s visibility worldwide has been supercharged by the new television program. Inspiring curiosity and other projects, like the picture below for a local barbershop in Sakhalin, Russian that was shot just for fun.
The game’s high visibility moment is not wasted on Utah’s chess players who have suddenly seen their game become the “it” game of the moment. No batteries or power cords needed.
Meet the Mlynar family, mom Valerie and her three kids, Aurelius, Seraphina, and Amadeus. All tournament chess players. Valerie explains with a fun smile, “Yes, the four-syllable names are a family tradition,” started with their older sister Caliope.
“I saw it, I thought it was a great series, I wish it was a little more appropriate for kids,” says Valerie Mlynar. “I thought they did a great job of portraying the chess world; they romanticized a little bit, and it’s encouraging a lot of people to play chess now, and that’s not a bad thing.”
For the family, chess was played just for fun…at least in the beginning. Then Aurelius and Seraphina were invited to a chess camp by a friend. They decided to go and have been playing and competing ever since.
Aurelius says the new attention to the game has been nice because “interest is not what it used to be because the pandemic hit it hard.” Seraphina’s adds, “It’s pretty stunning because people, nobody has taken an interest in it, they think it’s boring when it’s really not.”
With the pandemic, a lot of chess has moved online, and now you can connect with people worldwide. The Mlynar’s feel even though online is nice, nothing is better than sitting across from someone and playing.
The family is coached by former Utah chess prodigy Kayden Troff, who grew up playing the game much like Beth Harmon in the series, minus the addictions and lack of family support.
Troff says the rating system Beth Harmon faces in the Queen’s Gambit is a very real thing.
Troff explains, “Ratings outside of the chess world is very foreign but inside everyone knows about it, the U.S. has their own rating system, and it’s just a way to set up tournaments and put people together around the same section, it allows you a way of knowing where you are at.”
Troff is a proud coach of the chess-playing family, and you can see when he speaks about the game how much he loves it. He says his philosophy is to be involved. He wants it to be hands-on for his players “and if they have any questions, reach out to me.”
In the series, Harmon meets resistance from the men to let her play. Seraphina didn’t meet that type of resistance but she has been the only girl in some tournaments. She said playing against the men and boys did not phase her.
Her daughter being the only girl competing, was the motivation that drove her mom to start playing. “We came to pick her up (Seraphina) at a tournament in New York City. I asked, ‘were you the only girl in the entire tournament?’ Seraphina said she was.”
Valerie says, “I thought I wanted to start playing just to show my kids and maybe some others that women could play too.”
ABC4 asked Seraphina about playing against the men.
“How did you do?”
“I normally do pretty good, yeah,” she says.
“Did you beat them?”
The family’s smiles showed how proud of her they are.
The family plays against competitors of all ages, including on one occasion three of them playing against an outstanding blind player in his 70s at the same time.
What do all of them love about the ancient strategy game? The coach says patience and focus.
Mom sides with the coach.
Arelius says it’s the strategy.
Seraphina says focus and strategy because of the waiting.
And Amadeus? He says it’s helped him make friends. Not by winning, but by losing to them.
And just in case you want to know? What is the Queen’s Gambit? It’s moving the pawn in front of the queen two squares forward.
Aurelius points out, “you don’t move the queen.”
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