New Brunswick

Queen's Gambit connections ripple across chess community

The wildly popular video drama series The Queen’s Gambit has created a tsunami of interest in the game of chess. And New Brunswick has definitely caught the wave.

New Brunswick has its own child prodigy and one of his teachers knows the real-life Beth Harmon

Seven-year-old Andreas Doemer of Saint John is the current national champion in his age group. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

The wildly popular video drama series The Queen's Gambit has created a tsunami of interest in the game of chess. And New Brunswick has definitely caught the wave.  

A beacon of the provincial chess scene has been inundated with phone calls and emails and has a personal connection to the woman the show seems to be based on.

John Torrie sets up the board for a lesson in the pre-Netflix version of The Queen's Gambit, in an appropriate location - Saint John's Queen Square. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Game shops say chess sets are being swept off the shelves as quickly as they can stock them.

And our very own little chess prodigy is preparing to surf his way to world chess domination. 

The chess world has been abuzz about The Queen's Gambit, a story about a chess prodigy, based on Walter Tevis's 1983 novel of the same name. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

At the tender age of seven, Andreas Doemer already has countless medals and trophies, holds a national title and has played against an adult international master in a game that ended in a draw.

Andreas has been crazy about chess for about three years now, said his mom Reagan Davidson.

"Chess is a brain sport," said Andreas. "When you play chess it's only your head."

Chess players believe A Queen's Gambit was inspired by Hungarian Judit Polgar, who became a grandmaster at only 15. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

He defeated one other player at his grade level to win the Anglophone South school district championship, got a bye through provincials because of COVID and won his division at nationals out of a field of five or six competitors.

Now his sights are set on becoming a world champ.

"Every year they have a tournament … I think anyone can compete in it. It's mostly grandmasters, though the one who wins the tournament comes first in the world."

Elman takes great pleasure in coaching young players, like Doemer, but said it’s never too late to learn, either. (Submitted by Reagan Davidson)

Andreas knows he'll have to make a few other winning moves before that.

"First I need to become at least some kind of master, I'd say. And then I'd probably have to get a high rating. Then maybe I'd have to compete in a couple of tournaments — New Brunswick tournaments. I think I have to win them to become the best, I'm not sure."

Saint John phenom taking chess world by storm

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Queen’s Gambit is child’s play for this 7-year-old chess prodigy. 2:21

Doemer plays on the Queen's University chess team online from his home in Saint John.

His coach is Richard Bowes, but he's also learning some moves from veterans of the Saint John chess scene, including Dan Elman.

Anya Taylor-Joy plays the lead in The Queen's Gambit as Beth Harmon. (Ken Woroner/Netflix © 2020)

Now 89, Elman has been a chess devotee all his life. He learned the game from his Russian-born father, helped establish interscholastic chess tournaments, taught scores of children to play and helped bring the top players in the world to New Brunswick for a big tournament back in 1988.

What Elman loves about chess is that anyone can play it and enjoy it.

"And it gets very exciting, too," he said.

"It has to do with your opponent and his, or her, psychology. Now that the movie is out, I have to say 'her,'" Elman said, referring to the female protagonist of The Queen's Gambit.

Judit Polgar broke Bobby Fischer's record by becoming a grandmaster when she was 15 years and five months old. Fischer was a month older when he reached that level. (Judit Polgar/Twitter)

The chess world has been abuzz about The Queen's Gambit, a coming-of-age story about a chess prodigy, based on Walter Tevis's 1983 novel of the same name.

"Oh, it was interesting," said Elman. "It was fun for a chess player to watch."

Elman said he's been swamped with questions about it.

"What do I think of this? And whose game was this? And where did they copy from? Are they using Fischer's young life? It doesn't stop and everyone has a different idea as to what it's all about."

Elman, like many others, thinks the show is at least partly based on Judit Polgar, the Hungarian woman who broke Bobby Fischer's record by becoming a grandmaster when she was 15 years and five months old, about a month younger than Fischer had been.

Elman says in 1987, this group travelled to Brussels to meet with the International Chess Federation and received its approval to hold the first ever World Chess Festival. From left, Dan Elman, Robert Hamilton, Hal Bond (seated), Saint John city manager Ron Clark, and Jim Leslie, owner of the Grand Manan Hotel. (Submitted by Dan Elman)

Elman said he happened to meet Polgar a few years earlier.

It was at an international competition in Biel, Switzerland, where Elman was promoting the World Chess Festival.

The World Chess Festival drew the biggest chess names in the world to Saint John in 1988, including Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Boris Spassky and Mikhail Tal, and it had a total prize purse of $75,000 US. (CBC/The National)

The month-long festival was a quarter-final tournament leading up to the World Championship that was part of Expo '92.

Sofia Polgar, Judit's sister and also a chess player, lived in Canada for about a decade in the early 2000s. (CBC/The National)

Polgar's eldest sister Suzie was already playing competitively at the time, said Elman. And their middle sister Sofia is also a chess whiz. They were all taught by their father, whom Elman describes as one of top chess educators in the world.

Elman said he got to know the Hungarian family well over the course of about two weeks in Switzerland.

Susan Polgar, another sister in the family of chess greats, became the world's first female grandmaster. After the Cold War ended, she moved west and now operates a chess centre in Manhattan.

Mr. Polgar solicited Elman's help to find a buyer for a family heirloom Torah, which had survived the Holocaust in Poland.

He was trying to raise money to get one of his daughters to North America, Elman explained.

Dan Elman with a group of his chess students in the 1970s, including Robert Hamilton to the left of him. (Submitted by Dan Elman)

Judit's chess triumphs prior to retiring from tournament play in 2015 include defeating Kasparov, Karpov and Spassky.

She's considered the best female player of all time, said Elman, but when he met her "she was bouncing on my knee," he said.

New Brunswick has turned out its own share of strong players, said Elman.

Former Canadian chess champ Robert Hamilton during a CBC interview after the death of Bobby Fischer. (CBC/The National)

One of his former students is chess writer Robert Hamilton. Now in his 50s, Hamilton won the Canadian Junior Championship when he was in Grade 12, earning a berth in an international tournament in South America.

And he later won the Canadian (adult) Championship in 2004.

A pre-pandemic chess tournament in Saint John. (New Brunswick Chess Events/Facebook)

There's a sizeable local population of chess players, Elman said.

Competitive chess is played by more than 300 players in schools around New Brunswick, estimated Fred McKim, and another 75 in clubs. And each club would have additional members who just play for fun.

McKim has been organizing online tournaments for players from all over the Maritimes since the pandemic started.

The Queen's Gambit has led to a huge interest in chess among people who didn't previously play or were perhaps novices, said McKim.

A Fredericton game seller backed up that observation.

Tyler Randall of Endeavours and Think Play said they've sold dozens of chess sets this fall, compared to the few they usually sell.

"And the number would be higher if there were any more to get," he said.

All six of their regular chess set suppliers were completely out of stock leading up to Christmas.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jennifer Sweet is a reporter with CBC based in Fredericton. She can be reached at 451-4176 or jennifer.sweet@cbc.ca.

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