Deducing The Poker-Chess Aspect in New Netflix Hit, The Queen’s Gambit


‘Anger Is A Potent Spice. A Pinch Wakes You Up. Too Much Dulls Your Senses’ – One of the many quotes you’ll find in Netflix’s newest hit, The Queen’s Gambit, the mini series that depicts a behind the scenes look at the inner workings of the chess world. The obsession with competition, dedication to improvement, and doing what it takes to be the best are some of the themes on display in the binge worthy hit. And as it turns out, all this is not so far from that of poker.
Adapted from Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, the show narrates the fictional story of chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon, beautifully portrayed by Anya Taylor Joy, as she battles through her childhood struggles and breaks through into the upper echelons of the chess world.
We’ve also talked about the correlation of chess and poker in many of our previous articles. And if you have watched the show, you’d know the mutual understanding between the two. In fact, even Jennifer Shahade, a two-time United States Women’s Champion, Women’s Program Director at U.S. Chess, and perhaps, better known to poker players, as ambassador for PokerStars also knows a thing or two about the correlation between the two.
“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 in a way, it 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 the ones who play 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 you meet on 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. The Queen’s Gambit does just that for the world of chess.
If you’re a chess person, or even if you’re just interested in learning more about it, you can watch the show twice. Once for the story, and second to look at all the games, and to see what happened in the games. Kind of how you’d do for poker documentaries, shows and movies. The main thing they nailed was 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. That, right there, has a good 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. Its also pretty understandable that the approach to the game, to getting better, is very similar. No matter what amount of time you put into poker or chess, there’s a different strategy to improving, and its similar for both games. In poker, you study your opening ranges, you study your late tournament ICM, and shoving ranges, because you know that its going to come up, 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 recently come up to the surface, more than ever, especially in the midst of the global pandemic. There are so many factors to it – part of it is the depiction of the games, and obviously now with shows like 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 a player of excitement on top of the other inherent interesting things about getting to see people’s hold cards,” says Shahade. “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. Plus its visually rather simple, as well.”
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 again as Elizabeth Harmon often times finds herself alone in her chess journey. However, there’s a lot of great enthusiasm for top women players. There can be some extra opportunities, but there can also be a lot of resentment and sometimes harassment. It really hones a personality type and that’s great because the women you meet from chess and poker are usually really tough and strong.
“When chess was first born, the queen was the weakest piece on the board,” says Shahade. “She could only move one square in each direction. Then, as the game evolved, they realised 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 we play now.”