By Robert Romano, Third Grade Teacher & Chess Coach, and Jay Stallings ("Coach Jay!")*
The roots of what we know today as chess are thousands of years old. How is it possible, then, that newness and innovation can surround the most popular game in history? The answer lies in the unlikely but head-on meeting of film director Frank Scott and COVID-19.
Long before any of us ever heard of the virus that has made 2020 so rough for everyone, a story 70 million people know as "The Queen's Gambit" was taking shape in Frank's mind. He knew the story he wanted to tell, and he needed to make it appeal to non-chess players.
Because Frank had been sharpening his chess skills for years, he thought the way a Grandmaster would, figuring out a strategy and using all his pieces. He employed meticulously-researched and exquisitely-designed sets to enhance the look of the series. He also made sure the actors' facial expressions, along with carefully selected music, would help viewers understand how a chess game was going for the protagonist, Beth Harmon. Finally, he bounced back and forth through time to establish the lessons Beth had learned in the years leading up to the critical scenes in the final episode. During breaks in the filming, Frank would do what he loved: he played chess. The cast and crew would play too, and being challenged by Frank caused them to up their games.
Then COVID-19 entered the picture.
As it began to spread, much of life went online. People worked from home, students took classes via Zoom, and most normal activities and amusements ceased. But we still had television, and now there was time to peruse the offerings on Netflix. In a spectacular piece of perfect timing, "The Queen's Gambit" was ready and waiting. Frank's planning had paid off. People watched the show, and many became interested in playing chess.
Invented in India, refined in Persia, popularized in Europe, and systemized in Russia, the ancient game of chess has now exploded online. "The Queen's Gambit" has become immensely popular, and it has given chess a much bigger online presence than ever before.
Chess Twitch streams have grown tenfold, and instruction has moved online. Professional chess players and their fans, coaches and their students, and filmmakers and their viewers all found outside-the-box solutions to the problem of how to continue despite the presence of the virus. Tournaments and other events continued, but were now held online. Coaches streamed lessons and used Zoom to meet with their students. The most popular game in history is thriving because people have been thinking like chess players.
When Laurence kids, along with the estimated 1.6 million students in chess classes across America, learn and play chess, they gain more than just fond memories with their friends. Research has shown--and parents and teachers agree--that children who play chess develop more than just an ability to calculate, to be creative, and to take responsibility for their own "moves" in life. Young chess players grow up to be confident and competent problem solvers.
Laurence students understand this. Even during a global pandemic, our dedicated, enthusiastic students are finding ways to continue pursuing their love of the game, engaging in online classes and virtual tournaments.
In today's constantly-changing world, cutting-edge businesses are not just looking for people with impressive degrees and technical abilities; they need people who can think of novel ways to solve problems, who can plan ahead and think critically. Many of the jobs that our children will land have not yet been envisioned. But if they apply the skills they learned playing chess, they will find ways to checkmate any challenges that land on their desks.
*Jay Stallings is a chess expert who works with Laurence School's after school chess club program.