When I was seven years old, I was quoted in a local newspaper for winning first place in a chess tournament. The first question I got asked: “Tell me, Ashley, what was it like beating the boys?”
Let’s be clear: As a viewer, I loved the show. From its choreography to its score to its keen accuracy on chess moves (Grandmaster Garry Kasparov consulted on the film, so it was destined to be accurate), it is a brilliant work of art. As a female chess player, however, it fell short.
Don’t get me wrong—I’m glad that chess is on the rise. More people are buying chess sets than ever before, and there is a rise in participation across the country. The Queen’s Gambit is Netflix’s most-watched limited series only three months after its debut.
In fact, I’m excited chess is getting the light it deserves. Chess is not used to being in the spotlight. Most chess players agree that any press is good press for chess.
The Queen’s Gambit is impacting the chess world in numerous ways—but not all positive. When you are a female chess player, no man is going to kiss your hand after you beat him in a match. He won’t give you a big old hug like Vasily Borgov did to Beth Harmon in the final episode of the series. Speaking from my own experience as a female chess player, some men are going to pick up the board, throw it in your face and call you a creative name that begins with a B.
How do I know this so well? Well, I experienced it: When I beat a friend of my brothers in a chess tournament, he didn’t shake my hand. He lightly flipped the board over and walked away. No “good game” or kiss on the hand. I wasn’t expecting what Beth got in the film, but I was expecting some sportsmanship.
There is no romanticizing it: Boys will call you names, tell you that you’re too emotional to play because you are a girl, or that girls can’t play chess at all.
Some female chess players disagree—like Jennifer Shahade, three-time U.S. Women’s Champion and my mentor in chess education, who admitted to me she didn’t mind how women were represented in the show.
“The Queen’s Gambit was a brilliantly rendered fantasy of a chess world where a talented woman is universally respected and supported. Some critique it for that, and I agree it’s an important talking point, but I don’t see it as a weakness!” said Shahade. “I enjoyed watching a model of how much better the world could be if we treated everyone, no matter where they came from or how they looked, with respect.”
Here at Ms., our team is continuing to report through this global health crisis—doing what we can to keep you informed and up-to-date on some of the most underreported issues of this pandemic. We ask that you consider supporting our work to bring you substantive, unique reporting—we can’t do it without you. Support our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.
I agree: Not everything has to be realist. Shahade has built her entire career in the chess world, inspiring young women to do the same. But I do not want the world to think that women experience perfect paradise in the chess world.
When I was seven years old, I was quoted in a local newspaper for winning first place in a chess tournament. The first question I got asked: “Tell me, Ashley, what was it like beating the boys? They must’ve not been too happy.”
No, they weren’t too happy. In fact, people being shocked that a boy lost to a girl overshadowed my own victory that day.
I’m not the only one who is upset about how the series portrayed women. In an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, women’s world champion and grandmaster Susan Polgar discussed her experiences playing in the male dominated sport.
According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Polgar “shook her head while watching the support Beth received from male chess players in The Queen’s Gambit, as opposed to the sexist comments, hostility and sexual harassment she recalls as commonplace.”
“Some male program directors refuse to shake my hand or congratulate me, even though my team has won more than other teams combined,” Polgar said. “Or maybe because of it.”
Polgar, often considered one of the best chess players in the world, faced sexual harassment and hostility. That is the real life of a female chess player—not the supportive brotherhood Beth experiences.
Beyond competitions, chess leadership continues to be male-dominated. White males lead chess clubs across the country—including the club in my backyard of Pennsylvania.
Are there females capable of taking over in that role in the community? Of course, but nothing changes because women are just tired of dealing with a group of old, white men thinking they know more about everything.
Carina Chocano, author You Play The Girl: On Playboy Bunnies, Princesses, Trainwrecks and Other Man-Made Women, says she wants to live in the world of The Queen’s Gambit. As a woman, I can assure you you don’t.
Don’t believe me? Even Polgar told Ms. Beth Harmon’s journey is fantasy.
“I think the show created a big positive impact for chess. For that, I am very thankful,” said Polgar. “However, what Beth Harmon had to face (in terms of sexism) is like a Sunday picnic compared to what I had to face for decades.”
The coronavirus pandemic and the response by federal, state and local authorities is fast-moving. During this time, Ms. is keeping a focus on aspects of the crisis—especially as it impacts women and their families—often not reported by mainstream media. If you found this article helpful, please consider supporting our independent reporting and truth-telling for as little as $5 per month.