Lines from “The Queen’s Gambit” are still being felt in the UVA Chess Club
As an avid chess player, the hit Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit” struck a chord with University of Virginia freshman Vivian Cao-Dao. But the scenes that really hit home came early in the miniseries, when lead character Beth Harmon was traveling on weekends with her mother to play tournaments.
Growing up in Centerville, Cao-Dao experienced something similar when her parents took her and her older brothers to tournaments around the world.
One of Cao-Dao’s highlights was winning her section of an all-girls tournament in Chicago. Another came in sixth when she took part in an event in Dubai.
“Beth’s mom’s support and enthusiasm when they started traveling to tournaments was the same energy my parents had,” Cao-Dao said. “Whenever we had to travel to a new state or country for a tournament, my parents loved the opportunity.”
Cao-Dao started at UVA in the fall and soon joined the UVA Chess Club.
Shortly after, the craze for “The Queen’s Gambit” swept the world.
The seven-episode show ranked No. 1 in 63 countries and, with more than 62 million viewers, it is Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries.
In the aftermath, UVA Chess Club President Kyle Goldrick said he was inundated with students interested in joining the club.
“I think the popularity of the show, along with the availability of chess on the Internet, has allowed many people to be introduced to the game in a much smoother way than in the past when chess was not not as trendy as it used to be right now,” said Goldrick, a sophomore from Jamison, Pennsylvania.
Added Goldrick: “Last semester, I guess the UVA Chess Club is about 90% male, but in the last few months since the show came out, there’s been an influx of female students. eager to join the club.”
Since the show’s release, Cao-Dao said that several people have asked her how to learn to play.
“It’s exciting to see the game finally get the hype it deserves!” said Cao-Dao.
UVA Today caught up with Goldrick and Cao-Dao to learn more about their personal chess experiences, how the Chess Club has been affected by the pandemic, and what they really think about ‘The Queen’s Gambit’.
Q. How did you come to chess? How old were you then and what do you like so much about it?
Goldrick: I was introduced to chess in kindergarten by a teacher in my elementary school’s after-school program. I appreciate the exponential of the game. I have been playing regularly for over 10 years and it is rare that two games are alike.
Cao-Dao: My whole family plays chess and my father and older brothers taught me when I was 7 or 8 years old. At first I was only interested because my brothers were better than me and it was fun to play with them. Now I play because I have the opportunity to travel and meet players from all over the world. I have met some of my close friends through chess and the community is very supportive.
Q. As a chess player, are there any specific scenes or episodes of “The Queen’s Gambit” that you really like or resonate with?
Cao-Dao: When Beth loses at her first US Open or against the Russian player, you can feel her frustration as the game progressed and the experience resonated with me. Everything from his body language to his defeated look at the board, the feeling is universal among all chess players. Even though I’ve never played games with such high stakes, once you start losing it’s easy for the rest of the game to go downhill.
On a more positive note, [I liked] the support and enthusiasm of Beth’s mother when they started traveling to tournaments.
Goldrick: I really enjoyed the scenes from the first tournament that Beth plays in a school gymnasium, because it’s a scene that’s very familiar to me given that many school chess tournaments and medium-sized tournaments still take place today in similar atmospheres such as schools and churches.
I also liked the depiction of the scene after Beth’s adjournment in Russia when she’s talking on the phone with the players in the United States, because it’s something very representative of the period in which they were playing, and postponement is not something that is no longer used at the highest levels of chess.
Q. Do you think the show is an accurate representation of how the game is played, or were there a lot of liberties taken in Hollywood? Were there any parts of the show where you thought, “This would never happen!”
Goldrick: The show did a very good job of representing the game of chess and the chess community of the 1950s and 1960s. The only Hollywood liberties that I think were taken was the lack of draws shown in series. At the highest levels of chess, the draw rate is around 35% to 45%, but very few draws are shown throughout the show, likely to keep the audience interested in each game played by Beth.
Cao-Dao: I don’t know what the rules were decades ago, but today’s tournaments have nothing to do with how they are portrayed in the series. Once a game begins, there are no adjournments or help from outside players. In the show, there were usually insane numbers of people watching the game, but in normal tournaments spectators are limited and not allowed to make noise to distract players (tournament halls are usually quiet) .
Also, new players are advised never to quit because you never know if your opponent will make a mistake. My friends and I were all taught growing up never to quit, but on the show Beth learned to quit almost immediately when she lost.
Q. Overall, what did you think of the show?
Cao-Dao: Overall, I loved the show and it was refreshing to see the focus on Beth’s struggle and growth as a gamer rather than her love life.
Goldrick: I thought the show was the best portrayal of chess I’ve seen outside of chess documentaries. From the way players sit to the way they move pieces and how they talk about the game, the show seemed to be very accurate and representative of the competitive chess community.
Q. How has UVA Chess Club been affected by the pandemic?
Goldrick: The club has been able to adapt very well to the pandemic given that there are already many online chess infrastructures (chess.com and lichess.com). The chess aspect of the club hasn’t changed much as we can still play against each other online, but the social aspect of being able to see your opponent and talk to others between games isn’t very easy to facilitate. We currently use a Discord server to communicate while we play, but it’s still difficult to have normal conversations with people if there are too many people talking to each other.
We have recently been able to get involved in the Collegiate Chess League, where we can compete in teams of four against other schools across the country.
Q. How is playing against someone online different from playing against someone in person?
Cao-Dao: For me, playing online is a lot more casual than playing against someone in person. It’s more fun to play in person, especially at tournaments where you can walk around and see everyone’s play.
Goldrick: Playing online is different in two ways. The first is your opponent’s body language, which while it doesn’t really change the way you play, is something that is taken for granted when playing in person. The second aspect is that when playing online, the pieces are represented in 2D rather than the physical 3D that you would use in an in-person game. For some people, switching from 3D to 2D can have a negative impact on performance.
Q. What is the longest match you have played and what was the result?
Cao-Dao: My longest match lasted about six hours and I’m sure I lost. I still had a lot of fun playing, but I remember feeling exhausted afterwards.
Goldrick: The longest game I played was about 5.5 hours and I won. It happened when I was in college, maybe 2015 or 2016, at the United States Amateur Team East tournament in Parsippany, New Jersey.
Q. Have you ever played against each other? If so, any specific match details you can share?
Goldrick: Vivian and I have never met because of COVID-19 and the fact that she’s a freshman. We played five games online, however, on three different days when the club played together online. In those five games, I won three, Vivian won one and we drew once. None of the games marked me very significantly, except the three times I won, I won in time (she ran out of time on her clock), which isn’t unusual when we let’s play blitz chess.
Cao-Dao: We’ve played fun quick games at online club meetings, but we haven’t played a serious game yet. I hope there will be more opportunities once the pandemic is over!
For more information on the UVA Chess Club, email Goldrick at [email protected].