No one knows that I’m a bad chess player


Anya Taylor-Joy stars as chess prodigy Beth Harmon in “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix.



“The Queen’s Gambit,” the streaming TV drama about chess prodigy’s chess-making quest, was Netflix’s most popular show until it was overtaken by “The Crown”. You could say he was captured by the queen.

The entertaining miniseries based on the novel by Walter Tevis raised the profile of chess. It also likely terrified potential players who were intimidated by what they saw. Ms. Harmon plays entire matches in her mind, visualizing every move and counter-move. She can also play multiple chess games simultaneously, moving quickly from one chess board to another.

If it seems impossible, it is not. For the past few years, I’ve been on the losing side of the aptly named Fool’s Mate – checkmate in two moves. A completed game like this is not difficult to visualize. Anyone can walk the park with confidence from board to board with confidence, as long as no passerby sticks around to see how poorly you play in every game.

No one should be intimidated by failure. You don’t have to be or pretend to be a scholar. You don’t even need a live opponent. All you need is a smartphone and an account on a site like There you can play any skill level, even none, and still find a game.

It’s not as demoralizing as live chess, in which your teenage nephew, who calls his knight “the horse” as he recklessly browses Instagram, effortlessly beats you. Online you are a grandmaster, when it comes to everyone in the family room.

As my own example suggests, you don’t have to be good at chess to enjoy it. Spatial reasoning is such a weakness for me that when I stay in hotels, I cannot immediately identify my side of the bed. Despite this tactical gap, I have a great time playing chess.

Part of it is patriotism. On, my opponent’s national flag appears prominently below their online avatar. When I see anything other than Old Glory, it’s no longer a friendly game. It is a great geopolitical fight.

This, in turn, raises the stakes of every move: I didn’t sacrifice a pawn, America did. It’s not quite the exhilaration Winston Churchill described being shot to no avail, but the feeling you get when your queen escapes capture is exhilarating.

Such tension leads to the occasional explosion. After all, the rules of face-to-face etiquette don’t apply. Frankly, I play computer chess like NBA center Dikembe Mutombo kept painting in its prime – demonstratively and loudly.

When that happens my kids roll their eyes and say, “Daddy, this is just a bot. To that, I answer: “A robot flying the tricolor of India, the cradle of chess. I don’t expect them to understand the pressure I’m feeling.

Consider a game for yourself in a quiet time this winter. If you do, and whatever else you do, protect your queen. Especially against Emir of Turkey.

Mr. Kerrigan is a lawyer in Charlotte, North Carolina

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Published in the print edition of November 28, 2020.


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