The World Chess Championship began on November 9, 2018 in London’s Central School of Art and Design, and for a handful of euros you could buy an online pass from the world association FIDE and be there. The setting was the rejection of everything that promised shine, which had become a rolling carpet and standing cardboard. In front of the sponsor wall, the reigning champion Magnus Carlsen and his challenger Fabiano Caruana sat at a community college table and were sealed off from the rest of the world by a pane of glass through which 500 spectators could look in, but the players could not look out. In this setting, many things happened for twelve match days: nothing.
First of all, nothing happened because twelve games in a row ended in a draw. In addition, nothing happened because the opponents ignored each other and largely dispensed with facial or gestural impulses that would have indicated that their super-brain belonged to a sentient human being. Last but not least, nothing happened because half an hour passed between the trains, or rather trickled as thickly as raspberry syrup through a bottleneck that was too narrow.
In the studio next door sat the Hungarian grandmaster Anna Rudolf and the best player ever in chess history, Judit Polgár (8th place in the world rankings in 2005), and spent many hours describing what didn’t happen. They did it with esprit, devotion and an intensity that was surging in places, which indicated that something unheard was happening on the board, which you just couldn’t see yourself. Sometimes celebrities like the actor Woody Harrelson, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales or Stephen Hawking’s daughter Lucy stopped by and admitted that they didn’t see anything either.
Failures of fate and brilliant strokes of genius, invisible
It was utterly fascinating. A language that you couldn’t understand. Images that couldn’t be deciphered. Failures of fate and brilliant strokes of genius, theirs Suspense was hopelessly hidden from you. Much would have been given to look for a single minute through the eyes of these two masters at the constellation of black and white figures, to see the twitching patterns of lines of attack and defensive positions, the pulsating currents of energy. But this privilege was not available for any money in the world.
When Carlsen finally won the tiebreaker and the whole thing was over, a void spread inside you that otherwise only finished soccer world championships are able to create. Which was silly, since you hadn’t understood anything and hadn’t learned a thing. The short-term interest of others, i.e. the media and the usual stepping stone aspirants, then died down just as quickly. “The World is watching”, had been written at the tournament table. If it had been, the world would have admitted its impotence and turned to other things. Until October 23, 2020, when Netflix released “The Queen’s Gambit”.
The series set in the sixties about the rise of the (fictional) child prodigy Beth Harmon to the reigning queen of chess has, as is well known, broken records within a few weeks and also caused a stir. Most successful Netflix mini-series of all time. Number 1 on the streaming charts in 63 countries around the world. An explosion of interest in the form of search queries on Google (“learn chess”), five times the number of new registrations on Chess.com and unprecedented download figures for the chess app Stockfish. In addition, the wooden case clocks at Schach Niggemann in Münster are now sold out.
“Mechanical chess clocks with a push button”, Christoph Kamp trills into the phone, “just imagine! They still have a share of five percent on the market, nobody uses them anymore. Many manufacturers have long since stopped production. And now this demand – because of of the series! “
Overall, one would rather not imagine the annoyed eye roll of seasoned chessmen. They have been trying for years to refine their opening variants, or are grudgingly working on the middlegame, and suddenly millions of unsuspecting people are standing there and want to participate – only because of a Netflix fruit named Beth Harmon. The fact that experts in the series have certified flawless chess credibility doesn’t necessarily make it any easier.
The demand for chess accessories has increased tenfold
Also out of stock or at least in short supply at Schach Niggemann, Europe’s market leader for chess supplies: wooden pieces, wooden game boards (plastic still exists), chess computers, books for beginners. The demand has increased tenfold since November, and not only in Münster, which the owner Christoph Kamp already notices when he receives hand-wringing inquiries from American dealers: Do you still have boards lying around? Can you send them over? Delivery costs do not matter!
But now the question is why all this actually happens. Good entertainment alone cannot explain it. Sure, people have been sitting on their sofas at home for months, netflixing and overall have more time with which they can do something bold new that they would never have thought of before. Learn chess, for example. But that’s only part of the answer. Another part is the fact that “The Queen’s Gambit” looks insanely good. Costumes, backdrops, actors, chess clocks in wooden cases, everything is top notch. Every reflex that was to be expected on this front was dutifully executed: Interior experts praised the plush retro charm of the sofas and wallpapers, architecture magazines proclaimed the return of Art Deco, fashion and people magazines cheered the authentic sixties look and prepared the 20 most successful outfits for re-styling. None of that mattered immensely and could hardly hide the fact that, according to Netflix’s will, the branch of car salesmen, insurance agents or opera cloakrooms could also be transformed into pure sex.
Come in, you blind, unimaginative, cripples of the intellect!
But the correct answer has to do with beauty. Because what you see for the first time in “Queen’s Gambit”, or at least think you see it, is the great beauty of chess. Or, to put it more precisely: the overwhelming aesthetics of a mind highly gifted with imagination, concentration and nerve strength. In its essence, the series is an open-sesame: Come on in, you blind, unimaginative, you cripples of intellect! Go ahead and take a look around. Isn’t it lovely?
Indeed it is. The lines, patterns and surging energy fields that no money in the world could have made visible at the World Cup in London: Here they are happily present, turned inside out using the means of film. The static duel situation is translated into pairs of eyes watching each other, the psychological warfare into provocative gestures, swelling music signals that the board is now about the sausage. The elitist glamor of a mind running at full speed is reflected in the luxury of the backdrops, and how this thinking actually works, you can see it on the ceiling above Beth’s bed: night after night, giant chess pieces slide back and forth.
It’s brutal. Its scary. It’s breathtaking and very sexy. If one were so presumptuous as to infer millions of others from oneself, one would say: The idea of having a small clod completely under control through the sheer power of mind and will in this chaotic, pandemic, world drifting into the unknown , and put them together from something as insignificant as 64 chess fields – there is something insanely seductive about this idea.
How Kasparov won against the rest of the world
At this point, three examples of what the human mind is able to achieve when it can and will:
On October 25, 1999 Garry Kasparov won against the rest of the world. Three and a half million players submitted a total of more than 25 million move suggestions, the most astute of which were carried out every day. After four months and 62 moves, the world gave up.
In October 2003, Sigrun and Henrik Albert Carlsen signed their son out of school for a year, sold their house and drove with him from tournament to tournament in their motorhome. In April 2004 Magnus Carlsen was the youngest chess grandmaster. He was thirteen.
On November 27, 2011, the German chess player Marc Lang set a world record in blind simul. Without being able to see the boards, he scored 34.5 to 11.5 points against 46 players. For 1040 moves he had to remember where the initially 1472 figures were posted.
Against this background, there is something pleasantly de-escalating when Stefan Kindermann says: “Of course you can play chess like ‘Don’t get angry’. But then you don’t experience the true depth and beauty of the game of chess.”
Kindermann, 61, has been holding the title of grandmaster for 33 years and has advanced to 70th place in the world rankings. He writes the weekly chess column for SZ and analyzes World Cup games online. You can meet him at the Munich Chess Academy, of which he is a co-founder. And here at last, between the magnetic boards, rows of tables with recessed chessboards and meters of specialist literature, the king’s game shows itself to be what it is at its core: hard work. You can go from beginner to advanced within one to two years, he says, assuming continuous practice and playing practice.
Chess therapy: a sense of achievement and self-confidence
The chess academy and the chess foundation affiliated to it are particularly aimed at focus schools as well as children and young people with physical and mental disabilities. It’s not about tournament success and flickering genius, rather Kindermann believes passionately in the therapeutic potential of chess: “You can compete with others beyond the physical at eye level, have a sense of achievement, gain self-confidence for life. For many children, with whom we can it’s a whole new experience. “
He himself took a different path back then, of course, and that’s the “Queen’s Gambit” again because ultimately it’s about obsession. At eleven he lost a game of chess in the school camp to a classmate whose last name was Königsbauer of all places. Then he bought a chess book and played the games of the masters. At 14 he wanted to be a professional, at 18 he became one. For twenty years the tournament player Kindermann has experienced the splendor and misery of chess, the intoxicating moment when a successful move condenses into pure luck as well as the fear of failure, the stress, “the mental knock-out of defeat that haunts you for days” . After a tournament, they often wandered through the bars to come down again. It was funnier back then, but also unprofessional. “Today’s top players employ entire coaching staff who analyze databases for them and are as physically fit as athletes.”
What does he think is essential to a talent for chess? Stefan Kindermann thinks about it. He says: “I think it’s a willingness to go beyond limits, to leave your comfort zone and to constantly challenge yourself. And not many people have this willingness.” Chess dealer Kamp estimated that five percent of the “Queen’s Gambit” converts would stay true to the game at the end of the day – “when it comes up”.
Learn chess with Stefan Kindermann: nine training videos