The Woman Grandmaster and U of T student shares her thoughts on the new Netflix series and its impact on the game of chess.

Vikram Nijhawan, Staff Writer

Qiyu Zhou

There are more potential positions in any given game of chess than there are atoms in the universe. 

This factoid no doubt conjures up distinct images of experts in the game: eccentric geniuses who can sort through all these various permutations and possible outcomes. However, it wouldn’t sound so puzzling for Qiyu Zhou, third-year Trinity undergrad and Woman Chess Grandmaster, whose current degree includes a minor in Mathematics. 

“I think it’s a misconception that people who play chess are automatically good at math,” said Zhou. “Playing chess strengthens your analytic thinking overall, but it’s not especially helpful for one subject over another. It’s not a black-and-white matter.” She assured me afterward that this pun was not intentional. 

Qiyu, known to her friends as ‘Nemo’, defied all preconceptions, and was completely down-to-earth while sharing her insight. She revealed that S.T.E.M. wasn’t her first choice for postsecondary study, initially inclined towards the social sciences, specifically International Relations. This would seem fitting for one who spent much of her early life strategically moving pieces around a board. But for now, Zhou has settled for a double major in Economics and Statistics. 

The recent hit mini-series on Netflix The Queen’s Gambit arguably reinforces the chess savant stereotype, but with one key difference: the prodigious protagonist is a young woman. In that way, the fictional portrayal of the chess world, based on Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, resembles the game’s modern, increasingly accessible landscape – as well as Zhou’s journey –  a little more accurately. The show chronicles the life of Beth Harmon, an orphan from Kentucky who possesses an affinity for chess from a young age, and goes on to compete for the title of World Champion. 

Zhou is no stranger to the word ‘prodigy’, having learnt chess at age four while living in France, and steadily advancing as she grew older and competed at higher levels. At age five, she won the Finnish Youth Chess Championship, following that up with victories in the World Youth Championship in 2014, and the Canadian Women’s Championship in 2016. 

The steep learning curve can prove a disincentive for newcomers who wish to play professionally, but Zhou advocates for a relative approach.

“If you start swimming at age twenty, you’re not going to win the Olympics. It’s the same with chess. But at the same time, if you only focus on being a Grandmaster at age fourteen, and get discouraged when you don’t achieve that status, then you’ve already lost half the battle. It’s about striking a balance, and deciding if you’re passionate enough to put in the work.”

In Zhou’s case, she has sought to find a middle-ground between competitive chess, her academics, and her lucrative career as a gamer on various online platforms, most notably Twitch. Back in August 2020, she signed an exclusive deal for chess streaming with the e-sports company Counter Logic Gaming. Although this option would seem entirely foreign to Harmon and her chess-playing peers circa 1960, the Internet has paved the way for greater participation in the game than ever before. 

The character played by Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen’s Gambit never existed historically. Still, her journey parallels that of legendary wunderkind Bobby Fischer, who faced off against Soviet Grandmaster Boris Spassky in 1972. This confrontation over the chessboard was emblematic of the era’s larger Cold War sentiment. Like with the Netflix show today, it sparked renewed interest in the game among the general public. 

Zhou wisely remarked on the difference between the stories of real chess players brought to life on the screen (such as Disney’s 2016 film Queen of Katwe), and Beth Harmon’s fictional tale. Veracity aside, both adaptations’ widespread acclaim can be equally inspirational for women to take up the game. Zhou herself liked the depiction of tournament play in The Queen’s Gambit, as well as the unique “chess personalities” among the cast of characters.

“The only thing I might critique is that real tournaments will typically have more players,” she admitted. “But other than that, I really can’t think of any major problems. It’s just a great show!” 

While Harmon was treated as a novelty during her career, today’s professional chess circuit has taken steps towards greater female representation. Zhou pointed to Hou Yifan, the current top woman player in the world, and youngest ever to achieve the rank of Grandmaster, as one such shining example. However, she also acknowledges that much work has to be done to rid competitive chess of its misogynist culture. 

“One of the reasons you don’t see as many young girls playing chess is the male-dominant environment in traditional circles. There need to be welcoming spaces for women in the chess world. Once positive changes start to occur, I think it will lead to a snowball effect, and hopefully, that will encourage more proportional gender participation.” Zhou has contributed to such efforts by promoting girls-only chess clubs. 

In between popular media portrayals and online endeavours, the potential for chess in our digital age, much like the number of different outcomes in a single game, appears endless. Luckily, skilled players like Zhou have little trouble navigating through all of them, and will serve as role models for other young female players who wish to make their first moves on the board.

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