How to Play Chess Like Beth Harmon
Since its debut on Netflix, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ has taken audiences around the world by storm. It quickly became a record-breaking show and was watched by 62 million households in the first month.
We follow the young Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy, on her way to stardom. The story about an orphan turned global chess champion has led to a huge boom in people playing the game, especially women. She has motivated the world to learn chess, but how can you learn to play like Beth Harmon?
I don’t insinuate that most, or any of us can ever reach the level of Harmon. But she can still teach us some valuable lessons about how to improve as chess players. These are the most insightful lessons I got from watching Beth Harmon learn to play chess.
Harmon discovered the game of chess when she was nine and learned to play with the janitor of the orphanage she was living, Mr Shaibel. She quickly became obsessed, as she had few other interests. Beth snuck down to the basement on any available opportunity, and when she wasn’t playing the game, she was constantly thinking about it. The fastest way to learn any skill is by fully devoting yourself to it.
Mr Shaibel realised that Beth had talent and commitment to the game, so he facilitated her improvement by introducing her to some chess books. Harmon devoured the books and memorised them completely. This singular focus on chess meant that she had an advantage on most people, who also had other things going on in their lives. For Beth Harmon, life was all about chess.
Beth quickly realised that she could visualise the chessboard and play through games in her head. This was extremely helpful to her development, as she only had the opportunity to play with Mr Shaibel on Sundays. Being able to play through moves without physically moving the pieces is an essential skill to have. It’s is critical to evaluate how the board looks, in say five moves, to decide on your next best move.
Beth’s visualisation was made more vivid by the tranquillisers she was given, which helped her practice chess by imagining a chessboard in the ceiling above her bed. Although some drugs have illusionary effects, they are not required to imagine chess moves in your mind.
It is quite common for strong chess players to play so-called blindfold chess, where they play through games without seeing the board. Timor Gareyev holds the world-record for playing most blindfold games at a time, 48 games. On top of winning 80% of the games, he also rode an exercise bike 50 miles, whilst breaking the record in a 23-hour session.
Playing games in your mind is quite feasible, and if you devote yourself to chess, you will most likely start dreaming of chess moves and be able to see a series of moves in your mind, without the help of any drugs.
Beth Harmon often played moves on intuition, which means that she didn’t spend a long time calculating whether it was good or not. She simply had an instinct that a move would work, without knowing exactly why.
It is a common misconception that intuition is some magical ability you’re blessed with. The truth is that it’s only strong players who develop a good intuition. Only by developing an advanced understanding of the game and having a memory bank of similar situations to draw upon, can you obtain the level to play strong moves without having to think for long. Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, is known for having an excellent intuition for the game. But he only developed this skill by committing himself to first learn the game to a very high level, through in-depth study.
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Hating to lose
Beth Harmon hates to lose. This is typical for champions in many sports, who use this intense hate of losing as motivation to become better. Magnus Carlsen is often so angry after losing a game of chess that he’s barely able to give an interview to the press.
Hating to lose is closely linked with how much you identify yourself with a skill. When one activity means everything, you feel amazing when it’s going well, but the world breaks down when you suffer a loss. This sort of attitude is quite unhealthy for most people, but are sometimes used advantageously by some of the world’s best performers.
Towards the end of the show, Beth Harmon starts to realise the value of preparation and teamwork. Until that point, her skill had been enough to bring her success. But when facing off against the best players in the world, the Russians, she had to step up her game.
The preparation for chess tournaments includes replaying games of chess masters, to try to understand the way they are thinking and look for ways to improve. She especially studied the games of her most formidable opponent, the world-champion Borgov.
The training also involved playing through her old games, to find weaknesses to remove. When you face the best players in the world, they are likely to punish any mistake you commit. To get in shape, it is also critical to play against strong opponents. Beth managed this by gathering some of the strongest US players during her preparation.
Working together as a team helped Russia dominate chess for most of the 20th century. They gathered an extensive database of the strongest moves in different positions and also developed a thorough and strict chess education for all promising players. During tournaments, they worked as a team, with several strong players coming together to analyse what the best moves would be after an adjournment (a break in play until the next day). Harmon got help from her friends back in the US during the final match against Borgov when they analysed the different ways the game could continue the next day.
Beth Harmon is an imagined character, based on a novel by Walter Tevis. Although Walter Tevis dreamed up Beth Harmon, as a ‘tribute to brainy women,’ there are some chess players that have similar stories.
The closest we may come is probably the Hungarian player Judit Polgar. She became the youngest chess grandmaster in history at just 15 years old in 1991. She refused to play in women’s tournaments, instead going up against and beating the best male chess players of her time. Although she never became world champion, she was ranked as number eight in the world and was regarded as one of the world’s most aggressive and best players.
Harmon also has many similarities with chess prodigy Bobby Fisher. They both won the US Championships in 1967, learned Russian to keep up with their Soviet competitors, and had similar aggressive styles. Of note, Fisher was known to act in quite a sexist way, claiming that women had nothing to do in chess, and it may have been the authors kick in the side to Fischer to make Harmon’s story similar.
Is the Queen’s Gambit a good opening?
The Queen’s Gambit is a common opening I often use myself, which can catch beginner and some intermediate opponents by surprise. It involves sacrificing a pawn, to get a lead in piece development. If your opponent tries to defend the pawn and don’t know what they’re doing, they often end of paying a high price, by losing a piece. I’ve won many games playing the Queen’s Gambit, and I recommend learning how to play it, to get some easy wins.
Take home message
- To improve fast at any skill, make it your obsession and focus completely on it.
- After playing some chess, most players develop the ability to visualise moves and play them out without physically moving the pieces.
- Good intuition is developed by improving your skills. After some time, you will sometimes be aware of good moves without knowing exactly why.
- Hating to lose can be a strong motivator to work hard to improve your game.
- Even the best players in the world need to prepare. To become world class, it is necessary to spend countless hours in study and preparation.
Thank you for reading!:)
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