The obsession with competition, dedication to improvement, and doing what it takes to be the best. These are just some of the themes on display in Netflix’s new binge-worthy hit The Queen’s Gambit, the mini-series that depicts a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the chess world – a world, it turns out, that is not so far from that of poker.
Adapted from Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name, the new TV show tells the fictional story of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy, as she battles through her childhood struggles and breaks through into the upper echelons of the chess world.
Jennifer Shahade knows a thing or two about the correlation between chess and poker. Shahade is a two-time United States Women’s Champion, Women’s Program Director at U.S. Chess, and, perhaps better known to poker players, an ambassador for PokerStars.
“I loved it, because it showed a different side of chess,” Shahade said about the series. “The glamorous side, the grown-up side. So many of the movies and series about chess are about scholastic chess and the triumph. And I love those movies, but I really liked that this was a different side of it. Yes, it’s not suitable for children. And in a way, I feel like, sets it apart from all of those other chess content pieces, and makes it into something that could potentially build a bridge between people who play chess as children and people who play chess later in their life.
“It’s kind of like the poker side of chess. It’s the travel, the glamour, the relationships between the people that you meet on the tour. The individualistic side of it.”
Depiction of poker in movies and TV has a tendency to be unrealistic with famous scenes setting up improbable hands for impossible stakes. While still entertaining, for poker players movies like Rounders endures due to how true it speaks to the culture of the game. For Shahade, The Queen’s Gambit does just that for the world of chess. A realistic portrayal of the study, the friendships, and the game itself. Part of that, she credits to production consultants like Russian chess Grandmaster Gary Kasparov and renowned chess author and instructor Bruce Pandolfini.
“If you are a chess person, or even if you’re just interested in learning more about it, you can kind of watch The Queen’s Gambit twice. Once for the story, and second to look at all the games, and see what happened in the games. So it’s amazing that you get to have this dual viewing.
“I think the main thing is that they nailed the emotion and the intensity of the intellectual struggle. The ability to just completely focus on the chess, and try to find the correct moves, and how that almost gives you this brief period of ecstasy where you’re just absorbed in your own thoughts. And that also has some correlation with poker as well, especially heads up poker.”
In 2010, the International Mind Sports Association officially recognized poker as a mind sport, putting it, categorically, on the same level as chess. For those that enjoy both games, it makes sense as there’s plenty of similarities when it comes to succeeding. A Venn diagram of the qualities that top players in both games possess would have plenty of overlap and for Shahade, one doesn’t have to look too deep to see how the games compare.
“I think the approach to the game, to getting better, is very similar. No matter what amount of time you have to put into poker or chess, there’s a different strategy to improving, and it’s similar for both games. You look at what types of situations are going to come up most frequently, like in the Sicilian Defense, or the Queen’s Gambit opening. You study those, and you also study this stuff that might happen at the end of the game, which we also saw, the rook and pawn endgame.
“Well in poker, there’re corollaries to that,” she said. “You study your opening ranges, you study your late tournament ICM, and shoving ranges. Cause you know that it’s going to come up, and so if you study it, you’re definitely going to get better. That’s the kind of things you’re also looking for in chess.”
Poker and chess have also shared a recent resurgence in interest in the midst of the global pandemic. With nearly a million followers on Twitch, the chess category brings top-tier players and fans together to watch games and discuss strategy in the same way poker fans tune in to players like Lex Veldhuis or to watch matches like the Polk-Negreanu challenge.
“There’s been a huge chess boom over the last 10 years even. But it’s obviously accelerated in the last six months, and the last year,” Shahade said. “There are so many factors to it. I mean, part of it is its depiction and movies and TV, and obviously now The Queen’s Gambit. A lot of it is streaming on Twitch, chess is really well-suited for streaming, much like poker.”
“Fellow PokerStars pro Fintan Hand had a great thread on why poker and Twitch are such a natural marriage, because of the fact that you can actually watch people play for real money, and that adds that layer of excitement on top of the other inherent interesting things about getting to see people’s hole cards,” she said. “Chess is a really good fit for Twitch too because the games are so fast. So you can really chunk it up, you can play a game, then interview someone, play a series of 10 games against your top subs. There are so many things you can do in a game that is so fast, where you literally can finish a game in one minute. And then visually it’s rather simple, right? There’s just a square, and so I think that also allows for some really beautiful layouts. That really contributed to its growth.”
Aside from gameplay, poker and chess also share the quality and challenges of being a male-dominated industry. The Queen’s Gambit showcases this time and time again as Beth Harmon often times finds herself alone in her chess journey. Shahade, who has excelled in both chess and poker, understands what it means to succeed in these fields.
“I think both of them are somewhat similar in that there’s a lot of great enthusiasm for top women players. There can be some extra opportunities, but then there can also be a lot of resentment and sometimes harassment,” she said. “It really privileges a personality type that’s strong and likes positive attention and is able to withstand negative attention. And that’s great because the women you meet from chess and poker are usually really tough and strong people.
“That said, I think that there’s also a lot of space in our worlds for more sensitive people. It’s not like it’s the only positive personality type is to be super strong, and like positive attention, and not care about negative attention. No, people who are a little bit shyer and more sensitive, we want them too. You want that diversity of personality. And so that’s what I struggled with in both games, that the women who end up succeeding are often extremely successful, and really inspirational.
“But if we just look at them we don’t really get the answer, because we have survivorship bias. What you really need to do is look at the people who aren’t there, because they stopped playing, because they’re more sensitive to harassment, which is totally legitimate. They might’ve had a bad experience, they might not have the same support system, who knows? It’s not my job to psychoanalyze it, but the point is they’re not there, and these games could give them a lot of amazing things in their life, so we want to keep them. That, I guess, is something that in both fields, I think we have to do better of. Not falling prey to the survivorship bias when we analyze how to get better.”
As both industries strive to be more inclusive for women, Shahade has found a position that has allowed her to be an example and proactive in reaching out to women in chess including starting The Madwoman’s Book Club which was inspired by the chess queen.
“When chess was first born, the queen was the weakest piece on the board,” she said. “She could only move one square in each direction. Then, as the game evolved, they realized this game was kind of boring, it took too long, so they made the queen the most powerful piece on the board. There was some resistance to it at first, they called it the ‘crazy woman’ or ‘mad woman’s’ chess game at first, and then it became the game that we play now.”
“So I always think that it’s funny that people have this resistance to powerful women that actually end up making the game better.”