How ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Started a New Debate About Sexism in Chess

That creates and reinforces another problem that discourages women’s participation: too few social contacts. Jennifer Shahade, a two-time U.S. Women’s Champion who has written two books about women in chess (“Chess Bitch” and “Play Like a Girl!”) and is the women’s program director at the U.S. Chess Federation, said teenage girls tend to stop playing chess because there are so few of them and they want the social support. That Beth is a loner is likely an important reason she does not quit playing in tournaments.

Shahade said she actually did quit for a while, at about age 12, even though she came from a chess family. Her father, Mike, was a master and her brother, Greg, became an international master.

“I was self-conscious,” Shahade said. “My brother was super talented and had become a master so early and so easily. I was a much slower learner.”

Shahade, who grew up admiring Polgar, said it was “totally inspiring” to see Beth’s story unfold. Like Beth, who loses all her games to Benny the first time they play speed chess, she prefers slow, or classical, chess.

Of 74,000 members in total, the U.S. Chess Federation said it has about 10,500 female members. Shahade wants to increase that number, as well as their participation. To that end, Shahade and the federation started an online chess club in April to keep female players engaged during the pandemic. In the last few weeks, there have been between 80 and 140 participants, with quite a few older players. The last meeting also had a special guest: Kasparov, who has become a big booster of women’s chess since his retirement from competition in 2005. He was also a consultant on the Netflix series.

To keep the momentum going, Shahade is launching a new online group called the “Madwoman’s Book Club.” The title refers to a pejorative name used for the queen in the 15th and 16th centuries after it became the most powerful piece on the board. The first meeting this Friday already has 100 people signed up.

The subject of the discussion should come as no surprise: “The Queen’s Gambit” by Walter Tevis, the book on which the Netflix series is based.

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