As an avid chess player, the hit Netflix show “The Queen’s Gambit” struck a chord with University of Virginia first-year student Vivian Cao-Dao. But the scenes that really hit home came at the beginning of the miniseries, when main character Beth Harmon would travel on weekends with her mother to play in tournaments.
Growing up in Centreville, Cao-Dao experienced something similar when her parents would take her and her older brothers to tournaments throughout the world.
One of Cao-Dao’s highlights was winning her section of an all-girls tournament in Chicago. Another came as a sixth-grader when she competed at an event in Dubai.
“The support and excitement of Beth’s mom when they started to travel for tournaments was the same energy my parents had,” Cao-Dao said. “Every time we got to travel to a new state or country for a tournament, my parents absolutely loved the opportunity.”
Cao-Dao started at UVA in the fall, and quickly joined the UVA Chess Club.
Soon after, “The Queen’s Gambit” craze swept the world.
The seven-episode show ranked No. 1 in 63 countries, and with more than 62 million viewers is Netflix’ most-watched scripted miniseries ever.
In its aftermath, UVA Chess Club President Kyle Goldrick said he has been deluged by students interested in joining the club.
“I think that the show’s popularity, along with the availability of chess on the internet, has allowed many people to be introduced to the game in a much smoother manner than was available in the past, when chess wasn’t as in fashion as it currently is,” said Goldrick, a second-year student from Jamison, Pennsylvania.
Goldrick added: “As of last semester I would guess that the UVA Chess Club is about 90% male, but over the past few months since the show’s release there has been an influx of female students reaching out with interest of becoming a part of the club.”
Since the show’s release, Cao-Dao said she has had several people ask her how they can learn to play.
“It’s exciting to see the game get the hype it finally deserves!” Cao-Dao said.
UVA Today caught up with Goldrick and Cao-Dao to learn more about their personal experiences in chess, how the Chess Club has been affected by the pandemic and what they really think of “The Queen’s Gambit.”
Q. How did you get into chess? How old were you at the time and what do you love about it so much?
Goldrick: I was introduced to chess while I was in kindergarten by a teacher in the afterschool program of my elementary school. I enjoy the exponentiality of the game. I’ve been playing consistently for more than 10 years and rarely do two games look the same.
Cao-Dao: My whole family plays chess and I was taught by my dad and older brothers when I was 7 or 8 years old. When starting out, I was only interested because my brothers were better than me and it was fun playing with them. Now I play because of 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 so supportive.
Q. As a chess player, are there specific scenes or episodes from “The Queen’s Gambit” that you really like or resonate?
Cao-Dao: When Beth loses at her first U.S. Open or against the Russian player, you can feel her frustration as the game progressed and the experience resonated with me. Everything from her body language to her defeated look at the board, the feeling is universal among all chess players. While I have never played games with such high stakes, once you start losing, it is easy for the rest of the game to go downhill.
On a more positive note, [I liked] the support and excitement of Beth’s mom when they started to travel for tournaments.
Goldrick: I very much enjoyed the scenes from the first tournament that Beth plays in the gymnasium of a school, because it is a scene that is very familiar to me given that many scholastic chess tournaments and medium-sized tournaments to this day take place in similar atmospheres such as schools and churches.
I also liked the portrayal of the scene after Beth’s adjournment while in Russia when she talks on the phone with the players back in the U.S., because it is something that is very representative of the time period in which they were playing, and adjournment is not something that is used any more at the top levels of chess.
Q. Do you feel the show is an accurate representation of how the game is played, or were there a lot of Hollywood liberties taken? Were there any parts of the show where you were like, “That would never happen!”
Goldrick: The show did a very good job representing the game of chess and the chess community of the 1950s and 1960s. The only Hollywood liberty that I feel was taken was the lack of draws shown in the show. At the top levels of chess, the rate at which games are drawn is about 35% to 45%, yet very few draws are shown throughout the show, likely to keep the audience interested in each game Beth plays.
Cao-Dao: I’m not sure what the regulations were decades ago, but the tournaments today are nothing like the way they are depicted in the show. Once a game starts, there are no adjournments or help from outside players at all. In the show, there were usually insane numbers of people spectating the game, but in normal tournaments spectators are limited and not allowed to make any noise to distract the players (tournament rooms are usually dead quiet).
Also, it’s encouraged for new players to never resign because you never know if your opponent will make a mistake. My friends and I all learned growing up to never resign, but in the show Beth was taught to resign almost immediately when she was losing.
Q. Overall, what did you think of the show?
Cao-Dao: Overall, I adored the show, and it was refreshing to see the focus on Beth’s struggle and growth as a player instead of her love life.
Goldrick: I thought that the show was the best portrayal of chess that I have seen outside of chess documentaries. From the ways that the players sit to the way they move the 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 the UVA Chess Club been affected by the pandemic?
Goldrick: The club has been able to adapt to the pandemic very well given that there is already so much online chess infrastructure (chess.com and lichess.com). The chess aspect of the club has not changed very much, as we can still play one another online, but the social aspect of being able to see your opponent and talk to others between playing is not very easy to facilitate. We are currently using a Discord server to communicate while we play, but it is still difficult to have normal conversations with people if there are too many people talking over one another.
We have been able to recently get involved with the Collegiate Chess League, where we are able to compete as teams of four against other schools across the country.
Q. How is playing somebody online different compared to playing somebody in person?
Cao-Dao: For me, playing online is much more casual than playing someone in person. It’s more fun to play in person, especially at tournaments where you can walk around and see everybody else’s game.
Goldrick: Playing online is different in two aspects. 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 2-D rather than the physical 3-D that you would use in an in-person game. For some people, the switch from 3-D to 2-D can negatively impact performance.
Q. What’s the longest match you’ve ever played and what was the outcome?
Cao-Dao: My longest match was about six hours and I’m pretty sure I lost. I still had plenty of fun playing, but I remember feeling exhausted after.
Goldrick: The longest game that I have ever played was about 5.5 hours long and it resulted in me winning. It took place when I was in middle school, maybe 2015 or 2016, at the United States Amateur Team East tournament in Parsippany, New Jersey.
Q. Have you guys ever played each other? If so, any specific details of the match you can share?
Goldrick: Vivian and I have never met due to COVID-19 and her being a first-year. We have played five games online, however, on three separate days when the club was playing together online. In those five games I have won three, Vivian has won one and we have drawn once. None of the games stand out very significantly to me, except that the three times I won, I won on time (she ran out of time on her clock), which isn’t unusual when we are playing blitz chess.
Cao-Dao: We have played some fun quick games during club meetings online, but we haven’t played a serious game yet. I’m hoping there’ll be more opportunities once the pandemic is over!
For information about the UVA Chess Club, email Goldrick at firstname.lastname@example.org.