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Searching for Beth Harmon: The “Real-Life” Media Checkmate of “The Queen’s Gambit”

December 23, 2020
bradspurgeon

Hou Yifan No. 1 Woman Chess Player

Hou Yifan No. 1 Woman Chess Player

The latest of my illness-in-the-media shocks has come after watching, and loving, the Netflix series about the fictional female chess prodigy, Beth Harmon,”The Queen’s Gambit.” Almost every day for the last month or two, in the news feed of my telephone, I have seen articles relating to the series. While some of the articles or even television shows or other filmed interviews have drawn for reactions to the series on some of the world’s greatest players, including women players – such as the interview by Christine Amanpour on CNN with Garry Kasparov and Judit Polgar – there is a much, much bigger trend that is the part that is shocking, and sickening me. Almost daily I find articles by every level of media, from personal blogs to traditional newspapers, using the Netflix series to introduce to the world “the real-life Beth Harmon.”

So who, you will ask, is the real-life Beth Harmon and why does this bother me?

First, I want to put into a few words the premise of the Netflix series for those readers of this post who have not seen it. In a nutshell, Beth Harmon is the fictional character in the novel of the same name as the series, written by Walter Tevis, an American novelist, and published in 1983. It is the coming of age story of a girl whose father has abandoned her, whose mother dies, and who ends up in an orphanage and discovers the game of chess through the janitor. She finds she has a talent for it, and she goes on to build a career in the game, rising to win the U.S. national championships, and culminating in a tournament in Moscow against the top players in the world.

Beth Harmon

Beth Harmon

Beth Harmon also has another essential aspect to her character, which is her addiction to drugs and alcohol, which began with her force feeding of various medications at the orphanage. In another nutshell, I want to say that while I loved the series – watching it became my own short-lived addiction – there were some fundamental parts to it that were indeed pure fiction. No drug addict under the influence is going to play chess the way Beth Harmon did. (And while this made her character interesting for fiction, it is questionable as an example for other young women seeking to find themselves in today’s world, where drugs are more accessible than in the fictional day of the 1950s and 1960s in which Beth Harmon lived.) Beth’s rise quickly through the ranks without actually having any chess teachers or coaches of any note was another aspect to the fiction that was farfetched. Also, there was a huge mismatch between the player rating level (called an Elo) we heard she had at one point – something like 1800 – and the kinds of players she was supposed be beating. The top players at the time were already pushing for the 2700s. The final outstanding aspect of this fictional character is that she is a kind of drop-dead gorgeous woman, portraying a kind of man-beating femme fatale of the chess world.

While the chess world is excited to see attention paid to it like nothing since when Garry Kasparov played – and lost – to the Deep Blue computer more than 20 years ago, and while it is being reported that the Netflix series has led to a massive new demand for chess sets, books, and people playing the game online (at sites like Chess.com or Lichess.org ), there is another way in which coverage of this Netflix series is doing no good at all.

Judit Polgar

Judit Polgar

How so? First, my shock: In those almost daily articles about “Meet the real Beth Harmon,” the subject of the articles is usually not only a million miles away from ever having achieved any of the exploits of the fictional character, but worse, the subject of the article is rarely even within the Top 100 of rated women chess players in the world (or even the Top 100 “girls,” which is for women under 20 years old). I had considered naming names and putting up links to some of the subjects of these stories, who hail from countries all over the world – every country is seeking to show its very own “real Beth Harmon” – but the goal of this blog item is not to point the finger at any one particular person or media. Let me just continue outlining the broad brush strokes of this con game. Every time I have found an article about the latest “real Beth Harmon” I have started by doing research to find out what the “phenom”‘s rating is. Most of the time, as I said, the women are not even close to the Top 100 lists of women players – which may be found on the site of the world chess federation, at FIDE.com – and in many cases, the women do not even HAVE an international rating.

What they do almost invariably have, is a great presence on the social media, with photos of their undeniably feminine good looks – à la Beth Harmon. They are usually featured looking sexy sitting over a chess board, often in clothes that match the black and white squares of the game, or some other chess-related image. They have online followings and their image is more important than their chess success. Still, some of them did have at some point in their lives periods playing the game at local, or even national level, and met with some success in tournaments, even if they never achieved any kind of internationally recognized results or ratings.

What am I getting at? What’s the problem with all of this? Certainly it is great publicity for the game of chess to be talked about more than it has perhaps, in fact, since the biggest international battle of wits in the early 1970s Cold War match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Certainly, for the noble, intelligent game of chess that helps form young minds to be learned and discovered by more people than ever before is a great thing.

But what bothers me here is that another of the themes of almost every one of these articles about the “real Beth Harmon” is that the women are invariably asked to speak about how difficult it all was as a woman in a man’s world, and how much sexism they faced by paternalistic male players who could not accept being beaten by a woman. Fine. Judit Polgar – who in fact is as close to being the “real Beth Harmon” as any woman could be, since she was the top woman player for decades, and also sat within the top 10 amongst men players for many many years – has spoken about her own encounters with such sexism. So, yes, this is a natural subject. If only the articles would not be hypocritical on another level….

In my description of the “real Beth Harmon” that I discover almost daily, you will have noticed that all of the women are beautiful, that they flaunt that beauty, they flaunt the femme fatale aspect of their image, as well as their social media image popularity. But on the other side of all of this is those lists I have mentioned of the world’s current Top 100 woman and girl players. Very few of those players are using their feminine attractiveness to sell their image. They are devoting their lives to learning how to play and win the game of chess. And they are succeeding. The Top 100 women players – lightyears ahead of the vast majority of the “real Beth Harmons” that I am reading about in the media (including many, many reputable, traditional media) – are great chess players, women or not. But they are being, for the most part, ignored by the media that wants to exploit the image that the Netflix series is exploiting: Beautiful, sexy, fashion-model-like woman beats man at man’s game.

Therein lies the problem for me – one of the two main problems – which is that in the guise of saying that women are equal to men and not being reduced to their physical attributes, these articles are doing the very opposite. They are only presenting us with the woman whose image is that of Beth Harmon – sexy young women looking like fashion models and with a great social media presence – rather than showing us the REAL REAL BETH HARMONS! Those Top 100 at most, but really, say, the Top 20 women or “girls” in the world. Let me introduce to you Hou Yifan. She is currently No. 1, and a little like the Judit Polgar of our day – as Polgar has been retired for several years – by being far ahead of the second placed woman player in rating.

So what is actually happening here is that the media is indeed again using women’s beauty, women’s physical attributes, their image, their sexiness, as the thing that makes them worth talking about or not. These media are not sticking to the reality of whether or not these social media objects are actually great chess players by the standard of the world’s top-rated players!

This now leads me to the higher level point of this whole rant: It is again and clearly the kind of shorthand that passes for a story in today’s media that is actually leading to what in another area would be referred to as “fake news.” People are reading mainstream media – as well as less mainstream, but perhaps just as popular – media and if they know nothing about chess, then they cannot know that what they are reading is fake news. The woman being portrayed as a “real life Beth Harmon” is nothing close to a real life version of the fictional mastermind, BUT…but…but… a little more honesty would reveal that there are indeed many other real life Beth Harmons who are NOT being written about because they do not flaunt their bodies, faces, images, online in social media or otherwise talk about themselves as women men-beating geniuses.

So I take this to the final level: It is only because chess is a world that I am very close to, and very familiar with – I have a very low international rating, and I have played online for years as an addiction, but my son was a highly-placed national player in France for years until he quit age 15 – that I am not being duped by all these stories about the “real life Beth Harmon.” But what does this mean for all the other aspects of world politics, science, geography and social life that I know nothing about and which I am spoon-fed untruths or exaggerations daily without realizing it?

I hate to think what the answer to that might really be.

Checkmate!

A New Not-Book-Review: Maxime Vachier-Lagrave, “Joueur d’échecs”

October 18, 2017
bradspurgeon

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

Maxime Vachier-Lagrave

PARIS – Until I began playing chess as an adult nearly 20 years ago, there was no activity either sporting, musical or intellectual in my life that I would do unless I felt at least a tiny level of competence. Chess became almost an addiction – the part about playing on the Internet – but I could never fool myself into thinking I was anything other than a horrible, horrible chess player.

As it happens, my son, Paul, was a very, very good chess player from the age of 7 to 15, playing at the national level in France, both amongst children and adults. He suddenly quit chess completely not long after he turned 15, telling me that it would require more work than it was worth to stay at the top levels as he grew older. That made sense. In any case, he quit, while I continued to play as a hack. But I also continued to watch the players of his age group whom he had known or played against as they rose up the categories. One who I had first become aware of when he was about 8 years old, and who was only 6 months older than Paul, was Maxime Vachier-Lagrave. He was already one of the top young players at that time in France, and he continued to rise steadily up the ratings list and through the hierarchy of national, European and world championships.

Lately, this player has reached as high as No. 2 in the world, and currently sits third in the international ratings list. A couple of weeks ago, in France and in French, he published a book about his life in chess (Joueur d’echecs, Fayard) – at age 27 – and I now learn that while I never doubted that this young player would rise up to challenge for the world title, apparently there were a few times in his career when he had his doubts. His rise up the international standings was not quite as fast as some of his contemporaries – like the current world no. 1, Magnus Carlsen of Norway, or even Sergey Karjakin, of Russia – but if you watched his career as closely as I have, or even just look at his career ratings chart on the site of the FIDE, you see a trajectory that goes up, up, up, steadily.

But despite having seen Vachier-Lagrave play in many tournaments, having exchanged a few words with him and his parents, and having observed him at the chess club that he and my son were both members of a little more than a decade ago, I never felt I had any understanding at all about who this kid was, this boy who was so clearly made for chess in a way that my son Paul, despite his natural talent, was not. So when I learned that this new book about his life had come out, I immediately downloaded it into my Kindle. And I was NOT disappointed.

Part of the reason I am so bad at chess is my simple lack of attention span when it comes to reading any book about how to play chess. But Vachier-Lagrave’s book has NO writing about how to move the pieces or what an opening, middle game or endgame is. This book is all about what it means to be a professional chess player today, and how he got there. One of his main stated goals is to show that while the game of chess may be extremely complicated in the eyes of most people, and the top level players may be associated with the kind of madness we find in books like “The Defense,” by Vladimir Nabokov, or Stefan Zweig’s “Chess Story,” or in famous players like Bobby Fischer, who went slightly off the rails mentally, Vachier-Lagrave sets out to show just how normal a young man he is.

“At the risk of deceiving some people, chess players are not robots, not computers with legs, and not mad scientists,” he writes (here in my translation from the French). “Worse, or rather, better: We are just normal people! With our qualities and our faults, our certainties and our quandaries, some strong points and many weak points. Normal people who are in possession of an abnormal talent – in the first sense of the word, that is, outside the norm – in a specific area, which is the practice of chess.”

He puts chess into a completely different perspective than that of the popular imagination, and for that this is a book that can be of interest to the general reader, although I feel it will mostly be read by an audience of chess players and fans who know who he is. As it turns out, he describes himself almost perfectly whenever he talks about how he may appear from the outside, to others; somewhat diffident appearing, not overly emotional on the outside, but enjoying to let himself go occasionally, including with friends at a bar.

What I realize most through the reading of this book is that like it or not, fair or not, there IS a difference between the extremely talented and those who are not so talented. While Vachier-Lagrave talks about all the hard work he has had to do in his life to achieve the success he has at the moment, he especially emphasises how impossible it is for him to sit eight hours a day, every day, to just study chess. When he does play, he is like a child having fun kicking a soccer ball. It is not work, it is passion. But he never takes it too far, because it is ultimately, also, his profession. In fact, he can go a few days without playing at all, between tournaments. To empty his mind and return with passion again.

But here, no doubt, lies the key to it all – and in contrast to my son’s relationship with chess: First, Vachier-Lagrave says he could never do without chess, that it keeps returning to hims; second, his natural talent is clearly of a massively high level, and his pleasure is rewarded with satisfaction if he works at it so he does not have to work more than he might want to.

But I also found, as I read this book – which, by the way, is extremely intelligently written, and shows a decent cultivation, which is not surprising for a chess player who also took a university degree in math – that the similarities between success in a chess career and success in, say, a racing car driver’s career, are many. I thought often of the memoir, “Aussie Grit,” of Mark Webber, the Formula One driver, as I read this book, because Webber emphasises over and over again the need to go to the absolute limit in order to reach the highest level. Many drivers have talent, but only those who make all the right moves and never give up, arrive at the pinnacle.

There are many talented chess players in the world, but despite Vachier-Lagrave trying to look “normal,” what sets him apart is his exceptional ability to roll with the punches, believe in himself, and to continue that steady rise up the ladder in pursuit of the dream of his childhood to be world champion. This is no doubt due to his exceptional lucidity about how to deal with life’s potential obstacles.

“The pages of the history books are full of these great young hopes who remained great young hopes and never managed to “make it,”” he writes. “Everything is a question of talent, work and desire, but not even those things are enough sometimes. Bad luck and the unpredictable circumstances of life can destroy progress forever, and put to an end a career that looked brilliant before it even started.”

The Chess Champions on the Airplane

July 28, 2011
bradspurgeon

No music in Paris last night for me as I had to get up early to fly to Budapest for the Hungarian Grand Prix this weekend. I am hoping for music this weekend, obviously, but Budapest can be very tricky on the jam, open mic front. However, I have a little blog story I just had to tell, as it was an extraordinary coincidence.

During this trip I will be stay at the home of a friend of mine, a chess International Master, who once trained my son to play chess, but who also once trained Judit Polgar, the No. 1 woman chess player in the world. Polgar is so strong that no other woman has come close to her rating and performance in the last decade or so. She also has two sisters who are Grand Masters, like her, but not as strong. I once interviewed Polgar on the telephone for a story in the International Herald Tribune, but I never met her.

A few years ago, I also met through my friend the trainer, the man who is now Hungary’s No. 1 rated player, and 19th in the world at the moment. His name is Zoltan Almasi, and he is also, it turns out, a fan of Formula One motor racing. A few years ago I gave him a tour of the paddock in Budapest and I wrote a story about that visit by Almasi on my Formula1.about.com site.

Boarding the airplane in Paris this morning I recognized Almasi standing at the check-in and we boarded together. He was returning from a team tournament in China where he played with the Hungarian national chess team in a world teams championship. He then told me that Polgar was on the same flight.

It then turned out that the two of them were sitting in the row of seats directly in front of mine on the airplane! So we chatted away for a while before and after the flight.

Talk about a coincidence! Unfortunately, however, they could not tell me of any place to play my music in Budapest this weekend.

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