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Chess captures new fans thanks to the pandemic and 'The Queen's Gambit'

A combination of COVID-19 lockdowns and the Netflix series 'The Queen's Gambit' has local chess players embracing chess as a way to pass the time.

New interest in ancient game also fuelled by online tutorials, play over the Internet

Anya Taylor-Joy's portrayal of Beth Harmon, an orphan who becomes a chess prodigy, is helping spur new interest in the ancient game. (Phil Bray/Netflix)

As the only woman at Western University's chess club, Michelle Corredor was elated when the Netflix series The Queen's Gambit made its debut. 

"I loved the show so much, I was hooked on it by the first episode," said Corredor, 20. 

The seven-part series tells the story of Beth Harmon, an orphan who becomes a chess prodigy after the janitor at her all-girls boarding school teaches her to play. Along the way, she has to overcome loneliness, sexism and an addiction to prescription medication while trying to ascend the world of international competitive chess. 

Like Beth, Corredor was drawn to the ancient game while in elementary school.

"They had a chess player come in every week who would give us lessons in the game," she said. "I was really fascinated by the game, I hadn't played a game like that before."

Corredor's school, St. Michael's Catholic in London, Ont., held tournaments, spurring Corredor's competitive nature. The more she played, the more she wanted to learn. 

Chess is clearly having a moment right now. Like a well-timed chess attack, The Queen's Gambit arrived at a time when many were discovering, or re-discovering, the game while hunkered down against COVID-19.

"When you're in isolation, it's important to keep your mind occupied," said Corredor. "Chess is a good way to keep your mind stimulated. Especially online, there are so many chess opportunities." 

Before the outbreak began, Corredor was sharpening her game with regular play at the Western University chess club, where members not only play, but discuss and analyze the game with the aim of sharpening their skills. 

Corredor says she now plays enough to have a chess rating. A player's chess rating improves when they beat higher-rated players. Defeating someone with a lower rating has little benefit. 

Michelle Corredor has had a fascination with chess since since Grade 4 and is elated to see the game gaining popularity with the Netflix series The Queen's Gambit. (Michelle Corredor)

Right now Corredor, who plays about an hour a week, says her rating is in the 1,200 range. It's a ranking that puts her firmly in intermediate territory.

Online play 

With in-person chess meetings at the Western club on hold due to COVID-19, Corredor has taken her game online.

"The online chess world is very interesting, because you don't need a teacher you can teach yourself the game," she said. 

Online play is what pulled Londoner Mark Currie into the chess world. 

The 27-year-old learned the game as a child. Then, about five years ago, he began to notice YouTube was suggesting chess videos for him. 

The videos showed simple tactics explained as if he had a teacher in the room with him, pulling him back into the game.

"YouTube is one of the best platforms for chess," said Currie. 

Other chess websites like chess.com, lichess.org and chessable.com are other online spaces where players can learn, compete and try to solve daily chess puzzles. 

Currie's rating is now in the 1700s.

"I'm not a master or anything, but I'm stronger than an amateur for sure," he said.

And like Corredor, he's a Queen's Gambit fan. 

"I binged watched the entire series," he said. "They really did their research. They're talking about the Sicilian defence, and chess terms like that. The show was very authentic."

Currie has posted ads online offering chess lessons. In the meantime he's working on raising his game, something he has time to do with other pursuits off limits during COVID-19 restrictions. 

"Sometimes you want to just play the game because it's fun but I'm also addicted to seeing that rating number climb," he said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Andrew Lupton is a B.C.-born journalist, father of two and a north London resident with a passion for politics, photography and baseball.

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