Beth Harmon folds lithe fingers together and stares, immutable across the chessboard. She's facing her biggest challenge--Vasily Borgov, the USSR's chess champion. She's worked her way up and out of an orphanage and addiction to become a chess phenom--young and female playing a man's game.
If you, like millions of other Americans, devoured The Queen's Gambit on Netflix, you may have wondered how realistic it was. According to Ken Fee, executive director of the Kansas City Chess Club, The Queen's Gambit gives a good peek into the world of competitive chess play, one that is receiving lots of welcomed attention since the release of the series.
The Kansas City Chess Club was founded in 1895. Fee has led the club since 1997. Now the club boasts robust membership, with tournaments that draw anywhere from 120 to 180 participants. There are around 200 chess programs and 60 instructors, most facilitated by Fee, the club, and the Regal Chess School.
Fee began playing chess in what he calls the Bobby Fisher Boom.
"Around 1969, my father played chess. And he had my two brothers and myself playing. So we started playing, going to chess tournaments. And I was fortunate enough to have an elementary team, a junior high team, and a high school team. We traveled, had a chess league, and traveled to the state championships and nationals," says Fee.
After growing up in Michigan, Fee moved to Kansas City and spent a career as a communication arts teacher at Oak Park High School and Staley High School. Now he's retired and teaches chess full time.
For Fee, as for so many people, chess is about more than winning.
"I'd say [I enjoy] the competition and then also, I made a lot of friends. I'm still friends with my chess team all these years later. So it's just not playing. It's a social activity. You travel around the country, and then you see some of the same players wherever you go, just like the Queen's Gambit," says Fee.
More than just an interest in the game, The Queen's Gambit has inspired a new generation of female players.
"I can tell you one thing that I've seen recently; we're getting a lot of girls. I run the Regal Chess School. And we're getting tons of girls signed up. So that's awesome. Both my two daughters play," says Fee.
So why play chess? Fee says it teaches analytical skills as well as life lessons.
"The first thing they learn is you can't win every game. If players are equally rated, you play 10 games; you win five, you lose five. So kids learn how to win and lose with dignity and respect. This is especially important in today's society, where everyone has to be a winner," says Fee.
With most games clocking in at two hours long, the focus is another learned skill. Talking isn't allowed unless there's a discrepancy on the board, so quiet discipline is needed. Fee says that living with the consequences of your actions is also important.
It's no surprise that parents and administrators are leveraging these skills to teach young people. Fee has worked with homeless shelters, school systems, and even the correctional system. Fee also offers a chess merit badge to the Boy Scouts that has been wildly popular.
Since the pandemic hit, the KCCC has taken their Friday night tournaments online. Chess is strangely suited to online play, and the internet has been a popular medium long before it took off as a face-to-face communication platform. Some players prefer the Zoom platform because they can chat with each other while they play.
Fee says that the KCCC and the Regal Chess School are seeing the biggest boom in years. The KCCC boasts players from around the world, including players in Mexico City. And he's ready to welcome more.
For more information on the KCCC, visit KansasCityChessClub.com.