The Queen’s Gambit : A Chess Revival in Geek Culture?

You don’t have to be a chess nerd to know that The Queen’s Gambit is currently one of the most buzzed-about shows on Netflix. It’s that rare mix of a Netflix original with a classy theme and motif, a strong female lead in the hypnotic Anya Taylor-Joy, enough brainy appeal to rope in the geek audience, and a mid-century setting to rope in Americans.

I was researching the show when I ran across the bio-piece of Walter Tevis, the author upon whose book the show is based. In a nutshell, the whole story is a gender-flipped autobiography with names and games changed to protect the innocent. Then within that article I ran into this quote and…

> “It may seem surprising that a story about a young woman who plays chess could resonate with so many, given chess’s relative lack of popularity in the United States.”

I shouldn’t say it irked me. It provoked me. Yes, I find that a provocative remark about chess suffering a relative lack of popularity in the United States. Oh, don’t worry, I agree that the United States is an anti-intellectual place. I just don’t think we all consider chess to be the definitive hallmark of intellectualism. Every computer and phone platform has had a chess app available from day one. There’s a chessboard in every school classroom game bin and a chess set for sale in every Walmart game aisle. Chess is everywhere in American culture; we just don’t make a big deal of it.

But while we’re here, we have a nice opportunity to revisit some of the highlights in the world’s most popular board game and its intersections with geek culture. Here you go, chess fans!


Really Bad Chess is really good!

Available free for iOS and Android, Really Bad Chess was a minor hit just recently starting from its launch in 2014. It’s a new spin on the classic, via the gimmick of randomly replacing the standard pieces with a chaotic hodgepodge of pieces and no regard for balance. You might start out with 3 queens, 3 bishops, 6 knights, and 3 pawns against 2 queens, a rook, a bishop, 9 knights, and 2 pawns. The pawns don’t even have to start in the front row. Everything else is the same: the board, the rules, the moves, and a computer AI that’s no slouch.

If you’re saying “that sounds like it makes for some ridiculous, even farcical, games,” ding, you are correct. But it’s also fun and casual, and succeeds in making the game fresh because you can throw out those tired old book openings and explore what happens when we turn the board into an 8-move bloodbath. It’s chess directed by John Woo.

I was meaning to slip a mini-review for it into something, so here it is. As for my strategy guide, literally the only consistent advice I can provide is: Watch for opening bishop captures. There are six positions on the front row where if a bishop starts there, it can force a trade on move 1. Watch for the opponent’s opportunities to do likewise. The same can be said for queens, but I rarely encounter them on the front row and you usually don’t want to trade them anyway.

Battle Chess is a forgotten classic

Battle Chess is still available on Steam these days, but its glory days are long behind it. It was a huge hit in the early 1990s PC era, whose DOS version is still playable on good old DOSBox. That said, there was never anything special to Battle Chess’ play value; its AI was notoriously weak, especially on the NES port.

The sole attraction was in the animations. Battle Chess’ pieces are all animated figures, and when they capture each other, they go through an elaborate fight animation. There’s other animations besides battle, like when a knight moves through the ranks. Instead of hopping over, he just arrogantly shoves other pieces aside and they regroup after he moves through. That’s all there was to Battle Chess, but when you went to buy a late-1980s / early 1990s PC, odds were good that Battle Chess was playing in demo mode on the floor models.

Battle Chess got ported to nearly everything with a screen. People would deliberately make sub-par plays just because they hadn’t seen the pawn-takes-queen animation yet. Friends would crowd around and watch. I don’t know how it got so popular from a premise of “mediocre chess engine with funny animation,” except that it made chess feel like D&D. We were just easily amused then.

Chessmaster is the best-selling chess software franchise of all time

There was no mistaking the bearded bard’s face on the box, which became the franchise’s mascot. The Chessmaster series, usually followed by a sequel number such as Chessmaster 2000, was known for being one of the strongest chess engines on the market at the time (long since surpassed), being ported to anything with a chip and a screen, and for having wildly customizable playing styles including “personalities” which would give the AI a bias for attributes like risky plays, defensive king safety, or having a preference for mobile board positions.

There’s not much more to say about the Chessmaster games except to note that it peaked at 5 million copies sold just after the turn of the century. These days, commercial computer chess games are going out of vogue now that we have free open source engines like GNUChess. Otherwise, the Chessmaster series would probably still be thriving.

You can still find used Radio Shack chess games all over eBay

I had (in fact, may still have) that exact model shown in the video. The former retail chain Radio Shack, whose contributions and decline we have thoroughly canonized, offered a series of portable computer chess boards throughout their game-making years. They were cheap, not too fancy, and not all that robust play-wise, but they got the job done for a generation of kids who wanted to sharpen up their moves against human opponents.

This bulky board game kept me amused through many a rainy day, taking four AA batteries in that ridge on the back. For a Radio Shack game, the batteries lasted surprisingly long. It’s also perfectly serviceable as a 2-player board game, of course, which was a nice bonus.

Did you know Chess was also a musical?

Any Brat-Pack fan can tell you that “One Night in Bangkok” was a smash hit that played all over the radio in the ’80s. What even most of us Generation Xers didn’t appreciate at the time was that the song came from an actual Broadway stage musical play called Chess. It’s a drama about professional chess grandmasters, one US and one Soviet Union (which still existed until 1992). The song was a breakaway stand-alone hit, a worldwide chart-topper in 1985, bolstered by this delightfully cheesy music video.

In a way, Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit could be considered a descendant of the Broadway musical Chess, sans catchy Murray Head rapping.

Chess, not popular? I beg to differ!

The thing with chess is that it’s a mostly solved board game. In Western culture, it’s seen as more of a family pastime than a major eSport. It’s one of the canonical games to play with your kids. Now granted, the United States doesn’t go in big for chess as much as some countries, which take their grandmaster tournaments more seriously. Most of us can’t beat a chess grandmaster, but there seems to be this prevailing attitude that compares being a chess grandmaster to memorizing pi to 1000 places. Impressive feat, but not many transferable skills there.

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