Christmas Gifts from Chess & “The Queen’s Gambit”

Recently, Hammersmith Chess Club was contacted by a national radio station. The reporter wanted to speak with female chess players who could share their opinion on the latest Netflix mini-series, “The Queen’s Gambit“.

The interview fell through, but with the festive season just around the corner, here are some thoughts to ponder over. Maybe we can all make someone smile this Christmas.

Spoiler Alert: If you have not watched this series yet, the following article will include quite a few light spoilers!

“Chess can also be beautiful”

These were the words of the protagonist, Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Harmon, a fictional chess genius who succeeded against all expectations on the world chess stage. As I feel the series only covered specific aspects of this mind sport, please find below a few additional reasons why chess can be beautiful:

It is widely known to improve cognitive abilities such as reasoning, making decisions effectively, the capacity to solve problems, the accuracy of performing tasks and many more. Academic research in the sector even examined the effect on social-affective development of children and adolescents (Sala & Gobet, 2016 / Sigirtmac, 2016 / Aciego et al, 2013).

What made me realise that existent research is only scraping the surface is this incredible and very insightful article written by a 22 year old man under the pseudonym Simon, and published by Frederic Friedel @Chessbase (Friedel & Simon, 2020) on autism and chess.

The article mentions past studies that revealed a relationship between autistic people and chess, but also speaks about Simon’s personal experience playing chess and the role of chess in training social skills and encouraging interaction with others.

There’s joy in chess for everyone, no matter what background one comes from, their age, gender, ethnicity, income, health status etc. There is no need to even buy a chess board, when you can easily make one. Some got very creative with it, the latter image reminding me of a chess game in Hangzhou against a talented junior player who drew the board and made the pieces from paper himself.

Credit goes to Martin Shaw







Credit goes to Otechknow

It is specifically magic when it brings together people from all walks of life, who most likely would not have crossed paths otherwise.

Chess can teach us a great deal about life and sometimes acts as a reminder of issues we have yet to tackle. One example is the ‘white moves first‘ rule, first adopted at a chess tournament in New York in 1880 according to historian Robert John McCrary, a reminder of white privilege and its lingering effects.

Another is a more subtle one, related to the role of each chess piece. Each game tells a story and each experience of playing a chess match is unique. Chess has evolved at least at a pace similar to nowadays society, from being used as a training tool for warfare to teaching us the true value of teamwork and collegiality.

Why is chess beautiful to you? Who are you going to challenge for a match this Christmas?

Where is Mr William Schaibel?

In the series, Beth learns how to play chess from the orphanage Janitor, Mr William Schaibel. He also sends her the money for a chess tournament entrance fee. A similar pattern is witnessed in a 2016 movie the “Queen of Katwe“, with missionary Robert Katende coaching and mentoring Phiona Mutesi in Uganda. Robert scrapes together the funding the children of Katwe require to join a chess tournament at a school in Kampala.

While neither Mr Katende or Mr Schaibel were chess experts, they chose to share their knowledge and teach someone else. It makes one wonder how society nowadays would look if more individuals did the same. How likely is it for an orphan to come across a Mr Schaibel? How frequently are children in Uganda or other developing countries receiving guidance from someone like Mr Katende?

Some will ask, why teach another how to play chess? The aforementioned people surely needed different types of support. Here are my two pennies worth:

Granted, Mischel’s Marshmallow Test is still considered a means to measure future success, why not teach young children chess, to help nurture patience and the ability of waiting for that greater reward?

The Marshmallow test was born following an experiment run in the late 1960’s to early 1970’s by psychologist Walter Mischel and his colleagues over a period of several years. The experiment determined that children with the ability to wait for a better reward, rather than immediately accept the one marshmallow or treat they were offered on the spot, were more likely to become successful in the future.

More recent research established that variables such as one’s environment and financial status will considerably affect the results of this experiment and merely teaching someone to ‘delay gratification’ was not meant to guarantee future success (Watts et al., 2018). Which is why teaching chess should be part of the solution, more so since it also creates a safe social environment.

If you know how to play chess, teaching someone else will be mutually helpful. Apart from the universally-known argument that happiness gained from helping others lasts longer, playing chess happens to be a good method to stimulate the brain and keep it active. Research in the area has covered the role of chess in preventing or slowing down Alzheimer’s disease. It has also been used in mental health therapy and more generally, it is just a great creative outlet.

So, if you’re lucky enough to spend Christmas home with your family this year, do invite them to play a game of chess. I feel it is one of those mind sports that really brings generations together and has the potential to reduce loneliness and improve communication.

If you are somewhere far away from your family, chess might be the way to enjoy some great moments with your flatmate(s). It might also be worthwhile looking into volunteering opportunities in your neighbourhood. I recently found out my club mates had previously challenged inmates from Her Majesty’s Prisons to a game of chess. Given the Covid-19 safety measures, this might not be possible right now, but I’m quite sure there are people out there who would love nothing more than a video call and chatting over an online game of chess.

Afer all, as poet John Donne very well said, “No man is an island”. What made “The Queen’s Gambit” series memorable to me was the help and guidance Beth received from her lifelong friend Jolene, from Mr Schaibel, from Benny, Harry, Townes, and from many others. You might also find family where you least expect it.

“Let’s play”

This is Anya Taylor-Joy’s final line as the mini-series reaches an end. The scene is filmed in a Russian park and I found it to be one of the most meaningful and uplifting concepts introduced in the series.

Credit goes to Netflix
Credit goes to Koren Reyes Photography

It focuses on being outside and having fun whilst playing chess – age and gender becoming irrelevant. Given the current situation, it made me wonder why we do not have more/any chess tables outside in the iconic British parks, or in markets and squares. It would surely by an inexpensive initiative, with great social and educational outcomes, especially in a country such as the UK, where low levels of numeracy continue to be an issue.

If you are able to support such an initiative, please get in touch. I’m currently looking into the best ways to reach out to the local government and submit a community development proposal!



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