The Current·Q&A

This chess master says it's 'pretty cool' The Queen's Gambit is encouraging young girls to take to the board

Netflix chess show The Queen's Gambit is familiar to Dorsa Derakhshani. She was 18 when she was awarded the title Woman Grandmaster and International Grandmaster by the World Chess Federation in 2016. 

Dorsa Derakhshani grew up in Iran, often 'the only female in the tournament'

Dorsa Derakhshani was 18 when she was awarded the title Woman Grandmaster and International Grandmaster by the World Chess Federation in 2016. (Submitted by Dorsa Derakhshani )

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The Netflix show The Queen's Gambit follows an orphaned female chess prodigy's fight to become an international champion — a journey Dorsa Derakhshani knows all too well.

Derakhshani is now a pre-med student at St. Louis University, Miss., but she grew up playing chess in Iran. She was just 18 years old when she was awarded the title Woman Grandmaster and International Grandmaster by the World Chess Federation in 2016. 

The Queen's Gambit has attracted millions of viewers since it debuted in October, while eBay reported a surge of over 270 per cent in searches for chess sets in the first 10 days after its release. 

Derakhshani spoke to The Current's Matt Galloway about being a young woman growing up in the world of chess. Here is part of their conversation.

Could you have ever imagined, as somebody who is deeply immersed in the chess world, that a show about chess would be the number one show on Netflix for three weeks running? 

No, honestly, I didn't. It's very nice that it has happened. It brings a lot of awareness to chess and kind of encourages people to explore options and think about playing chess, even if it's just to learn the pieces and how the pieces move. I think that's still pretty cool.

You come at this with the eyes of an expert. Watching the series, how accurate are the games?

The games are actually very, very accurate because, from what I understood, ex-world champion Garry Kasparov was consulting on the chess parts.

At first I was quite surprised at how accurate and how actually strong the games are, because usually whenever we see a chess set and a chess game in cinema or on TV, there's always something. We're always looking to kind of spot the issues.

In the series, the young female chess player Beth Harmon [played by Anya Taylor-Joy], takes to the game at the age of nine. What do you remember about when you started playing? How young were you when you picked up chess?

I knew the moves when I was two-and-a-half, because my Dad liked to play it and my Dad likes to just play it with my Mom. They kind of taught me what the pieces are and how they move, but I wasn't really playing it, or I didn't really know the goal behind it. I kind of picked it up when I was six, six-and-a-half.

I was going into first grade, and my mom knew that I would be very bored at school, since I finished first grade when I was two-and-a-half.

Two-and-a-half when you finished first grade?

Yes. My parents didn't want me to, quote, waste my time. So they started teaching me early on to read and write. And I was co-hosting a kids TV show back in Iran from when I was two-and-a-half until I was six, just to kind of inspire kids to read, and that it's not like a big deal; they don't have to wait until they go to school to do this.

I feel like I've wasted my life listening to how much you've accomplished early on. By the age of eight, you were the national chess champion in Iran. What was that like? 

Well, I was the national champion in my age category of under eight, but it was actually pretty awesome because I wasn't expecting this going in, because there were some other kids in my category who were actually training privately with coaches and actually preparing for the tournament.

But I was just playing it because it kind of sounded fun, and I ended up winning it. 

In The Queen's Gambit, Beth is often the only female player in the tournament. What is that like for you to be the only woman who's playing in a tournament? 

Growing up in Iran, that was pretty much the case, but in the U.S. there is a lot of awareness in chess, and the St. Louis Chess Club and the U.S. Chess Federation, they have a lot of programmes that bring awareness for girls who play chess. Not necessarily in a professional manner, but just if they want to pick it up — here are the rules, here are the moves. 

But growing up in Iran, I was definitely the only female in the tournament. They didn't want males and females playing together over the board. Because I was like 10, they were like: 'OK, so we can make an exception.' It was an ongoing fight every year. 

You're now a pre-med student at St. Louis University. Do you have a different relationship to chess now than you did when you were young and winning all those tournaments?

Definitely. I feel like chess has completely changed my view — and not just over the board, but in real life too. When I actually talk with people and have those deep talks on philosophy and life, I view it much differently.

The way I analyze things, the way I think critically about life choices, I think it's much more chess-playery than my other friends, who have not played just for this long.

You're seeing this show get a lot of young people playing chess. If there's a young girl who wants to play chess for the first time, what one little piece of advice would you give them?

Don't give up. 

Written by Padraig Moran. Produced by Samira Mohyeddin. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

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