The final scenes of “The Queen’s Gambit,” Netflix’s highly successful TV series, take me back to my grandfather’s backyard in 1985 in the USSR.
Elizabeth Harmon, the show’s lead character, is walking down Karl Marx Avenue in Moscow, toward rows of tables laid with chess boards, around which sit pairs of Soviet pensioners focused on the Game of Kings.
Harmon has just won the World Chess Championship, and the pensioners recognize her, embrace her, and hail her success — a genuinely moving moment and an uplifting end to her journey.
Except this is only possible in the imaginary world of the show’s creators. In the real world, while women are allowed to participate in the World Chess Championship, in reality, they play in a separate category and do not compete with men for the title. And I know this. From experience.
No such thing as losing on purpose
When I would go to my grandparents’ home in Khabarovsk, I would find Grandpa Liev and his friends in the yard of the gray building, sitting across from each other and playing chess. Just before I entered first grade, I sat down next to my grandfather and asked him to teach me how to play. Liev, who was considered an excellent player by his friends, took the task seriously.
Grandpa Liev replied that there was no such thing as losing on purpose in chess, not even to children
After teaching me all the moves, he began beating me mercilessly time after time. I remember being upset by losing constantly and asked why he couldn’t lose to me just once, so that I would feel what it’s like to win, as I was only 5. Grandpa Liev replied that there was no such thing as losing on purpose in chess, not even to children, and that if I want to win, I must do it on my own. The longed-for victory arrived within less than a year.
The game fascinated me. I wanted to play all the time and offered a match to anyone I met, regardless of their age. As luck would have it, as soon as the school-year began, the city’s chess club coach came to my school to recruit children, and I immediately signed up.
For the first time, I felt true joy and infinite interest in something that I was doing. I attended every tutorial, learned fast, and discovered I had abilities and talent. I loved winning and was willing to devote myself to a routine of training and tournaments.
This was a period when chess was not only a sport, but also part of USSR culture. Garry Kasparov, the most famous Soviet chess player of all time – who also advised Netflix during the filming of “The Queen’s Gambit” – had just won the world championship. My friends and I talked about chess, dreamed about chess, and adored anything to do with chess.
My parents didn’t share my enthusiasm.
In parallel to the chess club, I was also signed up for piano lessons. Doing so meant not just an extracurricular activity, but attending another school for all intents and purposes, with intense and demanding classes in the afternoons. Already in the screening stage, when it was made clear to me that I was terribly off-key, I realized it was not for me, and, over time, even my initial childish curiosity in piano faded.
But my parents wanted a musical diploma and made it a condition for me joining whichever club I chose in my free time. So I did what I was required in both schools – regular and music – and practiced chess in the little time I had left.
Girls at the end of the table
Just like the protagonist Harmon, and as with any beginning chess player, I arrived at my first chess tournament “unranked.” Victories in such official tournaments provide ranking. But unlike the tournaments seen in the TV show, our tournaments were not individual. We played as a club team against other clubs.
I remember my first tournament: a large hall with rows of long tables, each table with five chess boards. The best players from both teams were placed at the first board. The next-best players were placed at the second board, and so on. The fifth board was reserved for the weakest players — or the girls on the team. To this day, that is how it works in group chess tournaments around the world.
Even then, as a 6-year-old girl, I couldn’t understand why there was a different category for women in the individual tournaments – the Women’s World Chess Championship has been running every year since 1927 – even though this wasn’t a physical sport, but a battle of the minds. In addition, there were very few girls in the group competitions I took part in – maybe a fifth of participants – meaning I played mostly against the weaker boys from the opposite teams.
Every time I sat in front of a player I didn’t know, I would quickly try to assess his level of play, to gain an initial impression: Does he look weak?
Our club was different, though. My two best friends, Katia and Elena, and I were among the best players in our club and we were regularly included in the tournament team – including for inter-city competitions, to which we were flown. We were a strange team with a female majority – three girls and two boys – but regardless of our ability, the three of us played as usual – at the long tables’ lower three boards.
One of the most significant life lessons that chess taught me was not to underestimate my opponent. Every time I sat in front of a player I didn’t know, I would quickly try to assess his level of play, to gain an initial impression: Does he look weak? Is he confident? I would judge him at every move, at the expense of focusing on my game.
While initial impressions can be misleading in any interaction, they can also be lethal in a game of chess. More than once, I jumped to conclusions and didn’t pay enough attention to my upcoming moves, making crucial mistakes and losing games because of it.
Sublime moments of elation
I was always very excited by tournaments. Losing was unbearable, but victories led to sublime moments of elation. Unlike the TV show, in which the lead character is portrayed as making a profitable income off her winnings, on the Soviet city level, there were no prizes at all, nor any thought of lucrative gains. Sportsmanship and the precious ranking were the only motivation.
Just like the games that Elizabeth Harmon played against strong opponents, all the contestants would crowd around my board and watch the game in suspense
The most memorable and exciting moments were the long, suspenseful matches that continued even after the other team members had finished theirs, and where the outcome of my game would determine the fate of the entire club. Just like the games that Elizabeth Harmon played against strong opponents, all the contestants would crowd around my board and watch the game in suspense. Those are rare moments that require great concentration and attention, and are accompanied by great exhilaration.
When I watched the series and saw the support Harmon received from her stepmother, who accompanied her to her tournaments, I wondered why my own parents had never come to see me play in any tournament, and noted that they did attend every one of my piano recitals.
As I won tournaments, I began to score points and rankings. At age 11, I achieved my second level — ranking begins at level four and goes up to level one. This is followed by the master level and, the highest level, grandmaster — the highest title a chess player can attain apart from world champion. My coach, Sergei, was ranked level one, and my guess is that if I had continued practicing and playing, I would have reached his level within two years.
But then came the tournament in the winter of 1991. It was intense and I barely managed to combine it with the life of an 11-year-old student in two schools, without any concessions. In the evenings, I would take a bus to the other end of town, play chess, and return home in the snow and darkness to do homework and other chores.
From that day to this, I’ve not understood why I didn’t tell my mother, why I wasn’t able to tell her, that what was important to me was chess — and not piano
During that competition, I became sick and was hospitalized with pneumonia. It was clear I could no longer fight on all fronts; something had to give.
I remember how heartbroken I was after talking to my mother. With great compassion, she explained to me that my load was heavy and unhealthy, and that it was time for me to stop playing chess and concentrate on what was really important. From that day to this, I’ve not understood why I didn’t tell her, why I wasn’t able to tell her, that what was important to me was chess — and not piano. I simply abandoned what I loved so much, and continued to play the piano, unhappily.
Girls should play piano
Because I was writing this article, I took advantage of the opportunity to discuss the issue for the first time with my parents, who still live in Russia. On a video call, I asked them directly: “Why did I leave the chess club and not the piano?” They both went silent.
“I think we saw chess as a hobby, and playing the piano as a profession,” my father finally replied. “Apart from that, it was the norm back then that girls need to play the piano.”
“Why did you never come to see me play?” I asked.
“It was open to the public?” my mother replied, surprised. “I don’t remember being invited. But in general, I admit I didn’t take chess seriously. It was just a game – like board games or card games – unlike piano, which was considered highly prestigious.”
I know my parents acted out of concern for my future and a desire to provide me with the best education, but the choice they didn’t give me – to continue the “hobby” I loved so much at age 11 – deeply affected my entire life.
In Harmon’s story, she triumphed against all odds, but it is a fairytale. My story is closer to the prevailing reality of women in the chess world. I was not steered in that direction and was not supported by my parents, who fell victim to traditional, gender-biased opinions. I am certain that, had I been a boy, I would not have been sent to play piano.
Chess – then and now – is considered a “male” occupation requiring composure, sharpness, sophistication and competitiveness, traits that are traditionally attributed to men, and not to women. It is no wonder, then, that no woman today is ranked among the top 100 chess players in the world.
My love of chess continues to this day.
For years the game served me as a lifeline in complex social situations.
During my army service as an IDF teacher, I was sent to a summer camp of the Habonim Dror youth movement in France, where I had a hard time finding a common language with the other instructors – my French was not good enough and they did not speak English. The only way I was able to fit in and survive socially for a month was through the chess games we played in our free time.
In 2012, I worked on director Halil Efrat’s documentary film, “Album 61.” During filming, we accompanied Boris Gelfand, Israel’s most successful chess champion ever, to the world finals held in Moscow. Gelfand was the first and only Israeli so far to contend for the title. He did not win, but for me it offered some closure.
Although I experienced the summit of the chess world through the lens of the camera and through the world of cinema, I was able to connect with the 9-year-old girl I was when I dragged my father all the way to Moscow to watch the world championship, which took place in the capital then as well. I sat in the dark hall, inspired, and knew that this game would always be a part of me.
The Netflix blockbuster’s primary greatness is the widespread interest it is arousing in chess, especially among little girls and young women
The movie about Gelfand won the Best Director prize for documentary cinema in the 2013 Jerusalem Film Festival. It managed to magically convey the spirit that possesses the chess players, their passion to win, and the emotional story of the protagonist. It is a documentary film; The Queen’s Gambit is a fantasy series. And yet, the Netflix blockbuster’s primary greatness is the widespread interest it is arousing in chess, especially among little girls and young women.
Since the series aired, I renewed my connections with my friends from our childhood’s chess club. Many of them continued to play chess after I quit. We have now resumed playing against each other, online.
I was happy to discover that I can still lose honorably. And sometimes even win.
The writer is a reporter for The Times of Israel’s sister site, Zman Yisrael, where this article is published in Hebrew.