When thinking of chess, what normally comes to mind is a pair of players dressed in khakis, glasses, and sweater vests. But if you’ve recently seen Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, chess might seem a lot more . . . glamorous? Almost to the point where you may have wanted to dig out your old chess board from the attic (good luck buying a set — thanks to the show, they’re sold out nearly everywhere). Based off of Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, The Queens Gambit takes place during the sixties and follows chess prodigy Beth Harmon as she strives to become the world’s greatest chess player.
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon and Thomas Brody-Sangster as Benny Watts in The Queen’s Gambit. Photo courtesy Netflix
Young Beth first discovers chess in The Queen’s Gambit after learning the game from the janitor of her orphanage, and she quickly becomes a prodigy, beating her male competitors at tournaments across the country. She is often the only girl in the room, and dominates players with ease, sometimes leaving her opponents scowling and walking away from the board before Beth even has a chance to checkmate. Intensity and suspense fills each game and it’s hard not to feel a sense of awe for the players’ nimble fingers, fast thinking, and the sheer confidence and poise Beth carries each time she sits before the board.
Marcin Dorocinski as Vasily Borgov and Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Photo by Phil Bray/Netflix © 2020
Although Beth Harmon does not exist in real life, the heroine of The Queen’s Gambit could be compared to chess legend Bobby Fischer, who in fact, grew up in Brooklyn. As Dylan Loeb McClain highlights in a New York Times article, both Harmon and Fischer share notable similarities. Both started to gain acclaim in the chess world during the fifties and sixties, lived on their own after the deaths of their mothers, learned Russian to become better competitors against Russian chess players, and both had aggressive playing styles.
Apart from her visit to train with Benny Watts and his chess buddies in The Queen’s Gambit, Harmon may not have had particular ties to New York, but we can at least follow her real-life counterpart, Bobby Fischer, and his life as a chess player in New York City. The Brooklyn Chess Club, where Fischer spent his first few years playing chess at was founded in 1855 in Brooklyn Heights with locations in many areas of Brooklyn. It no longer exists (although a newer club under the same name was established in Canarsie at the Seaview Jewish Center). However, you can still visit the Manhattan Chess Club and Marshall Chess Club where Fischer frequently spent time practicing and competing.
The Marshall Chess Club at 23 West 10th Street
At the Marshall Chess Club, 13-year-old Fischer won the 1956 Rosenwald Memorial Tournament, which was called “The Game of the Century” because of his impressive plays against chess master Donald Bryne. First founded in 1915 by Grandmaster Frank J. Marshall, The Marshall Chess Club has also been the site of several U.S. Grand Championships and to this day, continues to host lessons and tournaments.
Carnegie Hall, one of the locations of the Manhattan Chess Club
Bobby was also a part of the Marshall Chess Club’s rival, the Manhattan Chess Club. Fischer first joined the Manhattan Chess Club when he was 12 and spent many summer nights there practicing. In a New Yorker article, his mother said that the Manhattan Chess Club was “Bobby’s favorite hangout” and that late at night she would have to “haul him out of the place.” In 1958, 14-year-old Fischer won the United States Championship at the Manhattan Chess Club, becoming the youngest player to do so. Established in 1877, the Manhattan Chess Club found its home in its members more so than its physical location. It moved to multiple buildings across the city including Carnegie Hall on 57th street, several different hotels, a basement during the Great Depression, and finally, the New Yorker Hotel on 8th Avenue before the club eventually closed in 2002.
The movement of the Manhattan Chess Club highlights that all one really needs in the game of chess is a partner, a board, and the pieces to play — a spirit that has always existed in the crowds of chess tables set up in parks such as Washington Square Park, Central Park (also at the Chess and Checkers House in the park), and Union Square Park.
Chess at Washington Square Park, (as seen in the Netflix show, Maniac). Photo: Michele K. Short / Netflix
Nicknamed Manhattan’s “chess district,” because of its proximity to several chess shops, Washington Square Park was also a frequent place where Fisher came to play against chess hustlers. Known for their fast playing styles, chess hustlers have been setting up chess boards in games of “street chess” since the 1940s. Today, newcomers and regulars often visit chess hustlers like Ambakiseye Osayaba whose talent has earned him the nickname “The Bobby Fischer of Union Square.”
Chess players in Union Square
A giant chess board set up in Union Square
Fischer also made frequent visits to The Chess Forum, which calls itself the “the last old style New York chess store.” It is just a few blocks away from Washington Square Park and in addition to selling an assortment of unique chess boards, it is open to both casual and serious players to learn and practice.
The Chess Forum at 219 Thompson Street
With his New York City roots, Fischer eventually moved on to become a world-renown chess player, and became the first American to win the World Chess Championship. However, his achievements contrasted greatly from his behavior and personality outside of the chessboard. He often made anti-semitic remarks, was imprisoned for trying to use an invalid passport, played a match in Yugoslavia despite U.S. restrictions against travel to Yugoslavia, and made insensitive statements about the September 11 attacks.
Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Townes and Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit. Photo by Phil Bray/Netflix © 2020
Despite his tainted legacy, the game of chess still lives on as a vibrant and challenging sport that continues to blossom in New York City. Whether you’re new to the game and want to learn after watching The Queen’s Gambit, or you’re a veteran at the game, you can always step into the Marshall Chess Club or take a seat at one of the chess tables in Washington Square Park and try your hand at beating a chess hustler. The game might appear simple, with its black and white pieces and checkered squares, but as The Queen’s Gambit and New York City chess has shown, the game also demands brilliance, bravado, a little bit of swagger, and competition — and what could be more New York than that?
Next, see the fabulous Filming Locations for the Queen’s Gambit. The Crown filmed Princess Diana’s visit to New York City in 1989. See more about Bobby Fischer in the 1993 film Searching for Bobby Fischer.