On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
The Netflix miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, an orphaned chess prodigy who rises to the top of the chess world while struggling with drug and alcohol dependency.
The acclaimed show was released in October. By November it was Netflix’s most-watched scripted limited series to date. And by December, getting your hands on a chess board was like buying toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic: they were flying off store shelves because of the success of the show.
So, does the chess play in “The Queen’s Gambit” ring true to chess players? And what is a Queen’s Gambit anyway? We’ll ask Grandmaster Jennifer Yu, the 2019 U.S. Women’s Chess Champion.
Produced by Kurt Gardinier
- Jennifer Yu U.S. Women's Chess Champion & Grandmaster; @jenniferryu
KOJO NNAMDIWelcome back. Have you seen the Netflix show "The Queen's Gambit?" What did you think of it? That miniseries, "The Queen's Gambit," stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, an orphaned chess prodigy who rises to the top of the chess world while struggling with drug and alcohol abuse. The acclaimed show was released in October, and by November, it was Netflix's most-watched scripted series to date. And by December, getting your hands on a chessboard was like buying toilet paper at the beginning of the pandemic. Chessboards were flying off store shelves because of the success of this show.
KOJO NNAMDISo, does the chess play in "The Queen's Gambit" ring true to chess players? And what is a Queen's Gambit, anyway? Joining me now is Jennifer Yu, the 2019 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and a Woman Grandmaster. She joins us from her parent's home in Ashburn, Virginia. Jennifer, thank you so much for joining us.
JENNIFER YUHi. I'm happy to be here.
NNAMDIJennifer, I just introduced you as a Woman Grandmaster, which is quite a title. What does being a Woman Grandmaster in the chess world mean?
YUSo, in the chess world, there's different levels of titles. So, in order to become one, you have to kind of accomplish a couple requirements. And so, to become a Woman Grandmaster, I had to get these things called norms, for a Woman Grandmaster. So, once I got those, I got my title. And there are a few titles higher than that, so I'm still trying to get higher titles.
NNAMDIYeah, one of the higher titles, it's my understanding, is becoming an International Grandmaster. What's left for you to achieve that title?
YUSo, there's actually a slight difference between International Master and Grandmaster, which is what people call International Grandmaster. So, it's very detailed, but I'm very close to getting International Master, but I'm not quite there yet. For International Grandmaster, it's a little bit farther, but hopefully sometime, in a few years, I can get that.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Jennifer Yu, the 2019 U.S. Women's Chess Champion and a Woman Grandmaster. Jennifer, you won the 2019 U.S. Women's Chess Championship. What was that like, and what were your expectations going into that tournament?
YUWell, I didn't expect much going into the tournament, because I'd been playing in the U.S. championships since I was 13. So, that was my -- I was 17 when I played the 2019 U.S. championship. And I played the tournament before, and it didn't go so well.
YUSo, when I was playing at the tournament, I just kind of wanted to play my best chess, not think about the result much. Things ended up working out for me, and I can say that that result kind of changed my life, because I never really thought I could win that event. I mean, it's the U.S. championship, (laugh) so it just kind of showed me that I have a lot more potential than I realized.
NNAMDIWell, you should've realized that long before. Let's go back to a tournament that you won a few years earlier, in South Africa. You won the gold medal there. How significant was the win for you and for the United States?
YUYeah. So, in that event, I played the World Girl's Tournament for 12 and under. And I ended up winning that tournament, and I believe it was the first time a gold medal was won by a girl for the United States in 27 years, or something. So, yeah, that was very surprising. And I also didn't expect that much, because I was younger then. So, I was 12 when I won that, and back then, chess was kind of just like a hobby, sort of, for me. Like, I did a bunch of things. Like, I did piano, played a few instruments, sports. So, it wasn't just chess.
YUAfter that, chess started becoming more important to me. And I realized that I have more potential there. (laugh) I still didn't expect that I would win the championship, of course, but, you know, I just thought that I have a future in this.
NNAMDIAfter playing musical instruments and after performing in sports, what age were you when you won your first tournament? Well, what age were you when you started playing chess, and what age were you when you won your first tournament?
YUOh, I actually don't remember what tournament. I would think it was a national girl's event. I can't remember exactly what it's called, but it was -- I think I was around in third grade or fourth grade when that was the case. But I started playing chess -- my first tournament was when I was seven.
NNAMDIOkay. Here, now, is Kathleen Donahue in Washington, D.C. Kathleen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KATHLEENHi. Can you hear me?
NNAMDIYes, we can.
KATHLEENHi. How are you, Kojo? It's nice to talk to you again.
KATHLEENNice talking to you too, Kathleen.
KATHLEENKurt had asked me to call in just to say from a game retailer's standpoint about chess sales in December as a result of "Queen's Gambit." So, I can definitely tell you December was a little bit different this year, thanks to the coronavirus and everything. But all of a sudden -- we always sell most of our chess sets in November and December throughout the year. That's just when chess sells. But this year, we sold almost twice as many chess sets as we did last December. And I think we probably would've sold more, but everybody in the whole country ran out of chess sets.
NNAMDIWow. Kathleen, thank you for your call. I know you, but who is this Kurt person that you refer to who said you could call in?
KATHLEENOh, the guy who works for you, I think. One of the guys had asked me, because I own Labyrinth.
NNAMDI(overlapping) I know who it is. It's Kurt Gardinier, who's the producer for this show, as a matter of fact. I was just kidding you, but, Kathleen, thank you very much for your call. Here, now, is Diana in Falls Church, Virginia. Diana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
DIANAYes. Hi, again, Kojo. It's not my first time. I'm an avid listener to your show, and thank you for taking my call. Yes. I watched the series. I didn't realize it was a series, so I watched the whole thing all at once. I thought it was a movie. And so, I just couldn't stop watching it.
DIANAI always loved chess sets, and I know how to move the pieces. I'm not a good strategist. I don't know, really, how to play it very well. But I love the game. I think it's a very important, intelligent game. And I wish they made more movies like that, more series like that. You know, it's a very enticing, very intelligent thing. I loved it, so that's my comment.
NNAMDIDiana, thank you very much for your call. Jennifer, you grew up in Ashburn, Virginia. What was growing up there like, and are there chess players in your town that can compete with you? Who did you practice with?
YUSo, playing chess in this area is very nice, because there's a lot of tournaments in the DMV kind of area. And also, it's very close to Philadelphia, where there are a lot of big events. There used to be a few chess clubs also in this area, but I'm not sure if they're still around now. But, in Ashburn, there's not as many chess players, but in Fairfax, there's definitely quite a few. So -- which is very nice, because going to these local events, you can just kind of compete. And, also, growing up, you compete with a lot of the same people, and then you end up making a lot of friends. So, I still have a lot of those friends that I made when I was nine or 10.
YUBut I feel like nowadays, a lot of the people I play in tournaments, they're also from different parts of the country or sometimes different parts of the world. Because once you get to higher levels, bigger tournaments are usually in, like, big cities, so Philadelphia, for example, and sometimes in D.C.
NNAMDIWell, let's talk with somebody who's actually played with you. Here's Maggie in Blacksburg, Virginia. Maggie, your turn. You're on the air.
MAGGIEHi. Thank you for having me. I'm a long-term friend of Jennifer, and we both grew up playing chess together in Northern Virginia. She asked me to come here today to talk about, like, my experience with her and how it relates to "The Queen's Gambit." Both Jennifer, like she said, we've grown up playing around these chess clubs in Northern Virginia, going to Philadelphia. Every year, I would go to Chicago to play in the All-Girls National Tournament and make a lot of friends there.
MAGGIEIn relation to "The Queen's Gambit," it is really similar to how chess is portrayed in real life, as a female in the chess community, especially in that first episode, where she walks in and the whole room is full of men, and she's paired with another female. I definitely resonate with that. They kind of look down on you for being a girl, at first. That's what it was like I was really young. But after gaining -- being higher rating, they start to recognize you. And that's when Jennifer is especially recognized throughout the world. She's very humble about her title, so give her a lot of credit for that.
NNAMDIWell, how humble are you, Maggie? Can you beat Jennifer?
MAGGIE(laugh) No, I cannot.
NNAMDI(laugh) But have you played her?
MAGGIEI've been playing for around 10 years, but I stopped playing competitively four years ago. So, I don't play as much now, but definitely after "The Queen's Gambit," so many people have been wanting to play. So, it's kind of rekindled this passion I have for chess, now.
NNAMDIMaggie, thank you very much for sharing that story with us, as a friend of Jennifer. Jennifer, I know you and many people -- and I watched it last night, I've seen "The Queen's Gambit." But for those listening who have not, here is a short clip from the Netflix miniseries. And for those of you who have seen the show, this is a scene from episode 2. It's the final match in the Kentucky State Championship in Lexington between Beth Harmon and Harry Beltik. Here you go.
ANYA TAYLOR-JOYDo you see it now? Or should we finish this on the board?
HARRY MELLINGSon of a (censored).
NNAMDIJennifer, what did you think of "The Queen's Gambit," and did the chess they play there ring true to a chess champion like yourself?
YUI personally loved the show a lot. I thought it displayed -- like Maggie said, it just kind of showed the chess world in a pretty accurate way. It's not completely perfect, but I think it's the closest that it can be. The chess that they played on the screen was actually very accurate, which is surprising, because usually, in these kinds of movies, there's always a little bit kind of like moving magic going on, and the chess isn't very realistic.
YUBut I believe that they actually have two Grandmasters that were chess consultants, and that kind of showed on the screen. So, like, for example, in that clip that you just played, it's not the most accurate because, for example, in a tournament, you wouldn't really talk to your opponent at all. It's not really allowed. But, I mean, it's mainly for dramatic purposes, I believe, but these kinds of moments don't really happen in real life. But I think that they did a very good job in portraying it on the screen.
NNAMDIBut even though you're not allowed to say it, is that a moment you experience? Do you see it now? You just see it now?
YUYes, actually. So, a lot of times, especially when you're trying to, like, solve, like, a puzzle or something, where you can just look at a board for a very long time and you just don't know, like, what the move is. You just can't see it, like they put it. And then once you do see it, like, either you solve it yourself or you're told it. It's like something that you can't unsee. Like, you can try to, and then forget about it, but it's just always there, which is kind of an interesting concept.
NNAMDIWell, let's pursue that for a second with Max in Washington, D.C. Max, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAXThank you for taking my call, Kojo. This is a nice setup because my question was, for your guest, how do you envision a board in a highly competitive situation? Is it one move at a time or a series of moves at a time, or do you envision groups of pieces moving like plays in a football game or something like that? I've always been curious to ask highly competitive players this question. How do you envision a competitive game?
YUSo, probably the most accurate answer is every position is different, but you give a general kind of answer, a lot of chess is just pattern recognition. So, a lot of times, you just see a position and you know exactly what you need to do because you've seen that position maybe, like, hundreds of times before. So, once you kind of get that pattern recognition in, you just sort of see the board, and there are certain moves that make sense, immediately. So, those are kind of, like, the intuitive responses. Oh, I can probably go here, I can go here, I can go here.
YUAnd then once you kind of get, like, that big picture idea going on, maybe it's like, oh, I have to do something towards my opponent's king, or I have to develop my pieces. Once you kind of get a basic idea of what's going on, then you can start coming up with moves that you want to calculate. And calculation is just sort of like -- it's just kind of a tree . So, I see my move, what are my opponent's possible responses to it? And then once I see the possible responses to it, what are my possible responses to it? And it just branches out.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Max. And here's Charlotte in Falls Church, Virginia. Charlotte, your turn.
CHARLOTTEHi, there. I have a question about how good of a chess player Beth Harmon actually was. And separately, have you started dressing like her? Because her fashion sense in that series is amazing. (laugh)
YUI would love to dress like Beth Harmon, but, you know, these days, it's just kind of throwing on a pair of sweatpants and call it a day. (laugh) But so, like, from her games, I mean, I'm not really exactly sure what her level would be. She's a strong player, but -- so, like, from her chess journey towards the end of the show, where she -- well, I'm not sure if I'm allowed to say the end of the show.
NNAMDINo, please, don't give it away.
YUYeah, I can't give it away. Can't give it away. But, like, from her strength, I would assume that she's the Top of the World, which may be very strong, obviously. But, like, from her games, it's also different, because I think this show takes place in the '50s, and the Top of the World in the '50s is different from the Top of the World now. So, since we...
NNAMDI(overlapping) Well, I'd like to talk about that for a second, because during the timeframe of "The Queen's Gambit," the '50s and the '60s, the chess world was dominated by the Russians. Is that still the case you're saying is a little different now? And where are the other top players in the world coming from, these days?
YUThe Russian players are still very strong today. Probably because for, like, years, now, there's just always been very strong players. Because back then, in the '50s, it was definitely true. The Soviet Union was just dominant in chess. I mean, so there's the very famous Robert Fischer, or Bobby Fischer, which a lot of people probably heard of. He was the American chess player that won the world championship against Boris Spassky. So, it was kind of seen as, like, a Cold War sort of thing, the American playing the Soviet Union.
YUSo, that was, like, the one, like, breakthrough, but through it all, like, the Soviet, like, stronghold on chess. And nowadays, because of, like, kind of computer advancement and these kinds of things, you don't have to come from a country that is strong in chess to become a good chess player.
YUFor example, the current world champion right now, Magnus Carlsen, he's from Norway, which is not usually seen as one of the top chess countries. But there are also still very -- countries known as strong as -- sorry, countries are strong in chess such as, like, Russia now, China, India and U.S., too.
NNAMDIYou've played a few of those top players, it is my understanding, online, but not in person. Is that correct?
YUYeah, I've played some Grandmasters over the board, but I haven't played the Top of the World players.
NNAMDIHow is it different when you're playing online from when you're playing over the board?
YUIt feels like a different game, to be honest, because online, you don't really see your opponent in front of you. And a lot of chess is psychological, so that kind of changes that aspect, because you're just playing on a screen. And there's also some things that you can do online that you can't do over the board. For example, online, you're allowed to do this thing called pre-moving, where you make your move before your opponent makes their move. So, it's kind of like guessing which move they make. And then it's very important when you're low on time. And online games are usually faster than over-the-board games.
NNAMDIOkay. Here now is Ray in Fairfax, Virginia. Ray, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
RAYHi. Hey, I'm just curious. An odd question. Do you like baseball? The only reason I ask is I always thought that a great chess player would make a hell of a baseball manager.
YUWell, I don't really follow baseball, so, I mean, if I watched it, I might like it. But I don't really follow it all that much.
NNAMDIYeah, I think our caller was referring to the whole issue of strategy in baseball. Here's Jeff in Reston, Virginia. Jeff, your turn.
JEFFHi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I am a cofounder of the George Mason University Chess Club. It was a big chess club when I was in school. They went on to win many state championships, and we had challenges from the Ivy League. And the Russians actually came to visit us, as well. I wanted to comment that I did have the chance to teach a lot of kids in the Fairfax County school system how to play chess in an afterschool program.
JEFFAnd I remember that there was a lot of pressure, you know, to compete in tournaments. You know, parents want kids to really progress and to be challenged, and so on. But one of the things that I try to instill in the chess club that I ran at Mason, as well as in the school systems, was the value of just having a conversation over the board. You know, like, it's a very social game when you can sit down and play with someone. And it's something that I was able to take with me as I studied abroad, to sit down and play people from around the world, as well.
JEFFSo, the game teaches you a lot of life skills beyond just getting in a tournament. While it's inspiring, I hope people also get to appreciate, you know, just the over-the-board play.
NNAMDIWell, in the tournaments that Jennifer's been playing in, no conversation across the board is occurring (laugh) in those tournaments. But I do understand your point. Thank you for your call. Jennifer, talk a little bit about that, moving around the world and talking to a lot of different chess players that you're not necessarily playing at the time. Does that help you?
YUYeah, I definitely agree with him saying that you can learn a lot of life lessons through chess. And meeting a lot of different people definitely helps, as well. So, like earlier, when Maggie called, we kind of grew up together playing these kinds of events. So, I have a lot of these lifelong friends that I met through chess. And I know a lot of, like, the players all across the country and across the world just from seeing these kinds of -- just going to these kinds of events. And I think it's a very valuable thing.
NNAMDIOur producer titled this segment, "What is a Queen's Gambit Anyway?" So, what is a Queen's Gambit, anyway?
YUSo, a Queen's Gambit is actually an opening in chess. So, an opening is the beginning phase of the game. And these are usually well-known lines that chess players know. So, you learn them, and you memorize them. And then you can use them against different opponents. And it's just almost all memory in the beginning phase of the game. And a Queen's Gambit is at a line for black. So, if white goes a certain move order, a black can place everywhere against it. So, it's not as exciting as it sounds, because I think it's got this very nice name, but it's just an opening in chess.
NNAMDIIs it an opening you use, typically?
YUI do use it. Since it's a black opening, it means that if your opponent plays as white, you can choose to do it. So, I play this maybe like 50/50 with another opening. Once you start playing chess more, you usually want to expand the openings that you know, because your opponents start preparing for your openings. So, it's nice to kind of throw them off their feet, at times.
NNAMDIWe don't have much time left, but Margarita, in Washington, has a fascinating question. Margarita, your turn.
MARGARITAYes, thank you. I was wondering whether or not you've ever played a computer, a chess computer game. And if so, can you recommend a good game for solo players right now?
NNAMDIOnly have about 30 seconds left, Jennifer.
YUSo, on these online websites like chess.com, they do have different kinds of computers. I usually don't practice against computers, because they make a lot of inhuman moves. (laugh) And if you -- which makes sense, but people won't make those kinds of moves, because it's not intuitive. And also, like, any computer now, at its highest level, is completely stronger than any human can ever be. So, like, if you have a computer on your phone, it's going to be stronger than a world champion. So, it's kind of difficult to practice against one.
NNAMDIJennifer Yu is the 2019 Women's Chess Champion and a Woman Grandmaster. Jennifer, thank you so much for joining us. This segment with chess champ Jennifer Yu was produced by Kurt Gardinier. Our conversation about the aftermath about the Muslim ban was produced by Lauren Markoe.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow, is highspeed rail from D.C. to Baltimore really going to happen? And what about expanding the Beltway? We'll get the latest on Maryland's transportation initiatives with Washington Post reporter Louis Lasso and WAMU transportation reporter Jordan Pascale. That all starts at noon, tomorrow. Until then, thank you for listening, and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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