Stimulated by interest in “The Queen’s Gambit”, the Seattle Chess Club attracts new and seasoned players
FOR JACOB EMERT, the Netflix chess-themed hit drama “The Queen’s Gambit” was more than entertainment. It was an inspiration. “That’s what drove me to this, and I’ve been playing nonstop ever since,” he told me during a break at a recent meeting of the Seattle Chess Club.
Emert is not the only one. The show attracted quite a few new members to this venerable club founded in 1879.
“’Queen’s Gambit’ has been a huge boost to our fortunes,” said John Selsky, the club’s outreach coordinator, as we chat and watch around 20 players reflect on their moves.
Emert was playing mostly online or with his stepdad until he ran into the club. Gambling online was good practice, but “you care more when you’re sitting across from someone,” he says. “There is a significant difference between when you play online all the time and when you play over the board.”
After abandoning their old location in Northgate due to pandemic closures, the club leased space at the Orlov Chess Academy near Green Lake to restart in-person games and other events in June. It hosts frequent tournaments both in person and online, but Monday nights are reserved for casual games. You do not need to be a member to attend these events; part of the club’s mission is to introduce more people to chess and give novices a place to hone their skills. Due to space restrictions, prior registration is required.
This Monday, some people stick with an opponent, while others do a sort of round robin tournament, connecting with other players at the end of matches. I see faces tightening in concentration behind masks.
Sometimes I hear a sigh or a whisper. “It did not go as planned,” laments a player. Emert interprets one of his moans to me as the sound of “I know it’s wrong, but I don’t know why”.
After a match, players sometimes do an autopsy, describing how the game went and how it could have gone differently. There is no judgment, only learning.
Selsky says he’s noticed an influx of gamers in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are tech workers new to the city. “They’re looking to make social connections and get better at chess,” he says.
Tonight is Zoey Dailey’s first visit to the club. “Sometimes it’s hard to find friends who play chess who won’t just make you happy while playing,” she says. She had played a bit before the pandemic, but over the past few months she has played a lot online and watched YouTube videos dissecting strategies. Hours after the club reunion started, she won her first two games and animatedly discusses strategies with other players.
Fred Kleist, a long-time member who has run the club’s tournament for 30 years, says a group started meeting informally even before the club was officially founded (it’s the second oldest club west of the Mississippi, after San Francisco). Why did he volunteer for all these years? “I love the challenge and I also love helping people play chess,” he says.
Enjoying the challenge is a theme I hear over and over again. Chad Boey learned chess as a kid and then “didn’t touch it for a long time,” he says. He joined the club looking to improve and meet serious players. Now, “It’s fun for me. It’s like exercise for my brain.