Hong Kong response muted as ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ takes chess world by storm

Nazvi Careem, South China Morning Post

Posted at Nov 24 2020 06:33 PM

Anya Taylor-Joy in 'The Queen's Gambit.' Image courtesy of Netflix

Netflix drama miniseries The Queen’s Gambit has spawned a global surge in the popularity of chess, with daily app downloads up 63 per cent, eBay chess set inquiries rising by 250 per cent and a five-fold increase in new players on chess.com.

In Hong Kong, though, where organised events have been limited by Covid-19 restrictions, the interest has been muted – with more inquiries about the show from the media than the public.

“We’ve had calls about this series,” said KK Chan, president of the Hong Kong Chess Federation (HKCF). “But more from news people than the public or members. They want to know the same thing, if more people are taking up chess because of the series.

“The series is excellent, it has a lot of psychological aspects to it and there are some special chess moves. Many people didn’t realise chess was like this.

“But because of the coronavirus, we’re not open. There are restrictions as to how many people can be in a room and we can’t hold any meetings,” said Chan.

The Queen’s Gambit stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, who was raised in an orphanage and goes on to become a chess phenomenon in the 1960s. The seven-part drama has been watched by 62 million households around the world since it premiered in October, according to Netflix, becoming the streaming site’s biggest scripted limited series.

Chess experts have praised the show, saying the games are realistic and an accurate reflection of chess culture. Some of the top women’s players said they hoped more girls would take up chess after watching the show, though scenes depicting drug use, occasional expletives and sex makes it unsuitable for young children.

Chan said 29 players had entered a tournament scheduled for Monday (November 23) but the event had to be cancelled because of the government ban on large gatherings.

“The government wrote to me saying we can’t hold it,” said Chan. “It’s not the first time, it’s the fourth time. Every time we want to run an event, one or two days before, we have to cancel it.

“This is a very different year. Everything is happening remotely [online]. Very rarely we get new people who are interested in chess.”

Hong Kong took part in the 2018 World Chess Olympiad in Batumi, Georgia, finishing outside the top 100. The women’s team featured Joy Ching Li, who was 10 years old at the time and won a handful of games.

“There are no grandmasters in Hong Kong,” said Chan. “Nobody wants to dedicate their lives to chess.”

Alberto Muniz, head of training at the Caissa Chess Club in Hong Kong, said it was difficult to gauge how much impact The Queen’s Gambit has had in the city, but he agreed that the games portrayed were expertly choreographed.

“We all agree that this is one of the most realistic descriptions of chess, even from another era,” said Muniz, whose club has been in operation since 2012. “The show had two professional chess advisers, one of them one of the best players of all time, if not the best, Gary Kasparov.

“The games were realistic, some of them copying famous games, some adaptations that still make sense for us chess players.

“On so many other shows where chess plays a central part, there is little concern about the pieces’ positions or if the commentary makes sense.”

While online chess is becoming increasingly popular, Caissa members prefer to play at its centre in Sheung Wan when Covid-19 restrictions are eased.

“We are lucky that chess fits very well in the online world. However, group interaction has a motivating factor, so most of the players normally prefer to come to the centre when the situation is not too bad,” he said.

“It might change again, of course [with the fourth wave of infections]. We are implementing quite a few hygiene policies, but each person or parent feels differently about that.”