Netflix Queen’s Gambit: Droves of Saudis Turn to Chess After Watching The Series

Droves of Saudis playing card and board games to beat the boredom of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdowns have been making the move over to chess, inspired by a new Netflix series.  

Carrom, Sequence, Uno, and Baloot were among the main home entertainment options at the start of the pandemic but the popularity of historical drama “The Queen’s Gambit” has recently seen fans checking out the age-old strategy board game.

The mini-series tells the story of orphan Beth Harmon who discovers and masters chess in 1960s America. But child stardom comes at a price for the young introvert.

Arab News spoke to Saudis who had either returned to, or taken up, playing chess as a result of being influenced by the TV drama.

Industrial engineer, Manaf Alam, 25, has played chess for four years after learning the game at university.

“Chess is a slow game and has a lot of different tactics to it. It makes you think in a different way; it makes you think two steps ahead of your opponent,” he said, adding that being social was a significant part of Saudi culture evidenced in the games they chose to play.

“People here like strategy games such as Baloot. Saudis have a different mentality to people from other countries. They appreciate games that have tricks in them.”

Saudi psychology student, Raana Marghalani, 20, became interested in learning chess after watching “The Queen’s Gambit.”

She said: “When I play chess, I feel like I’m in control of everything. My next move also depends on my opponent’s moves.

“It has taught me how to deal with people depending on their reaction, and the plans you have. Chess isn’t like any other game. It has special openings and plans. I read so much about it.”

The 1/15 Neighborhood Cafe in Jeddah has become a popular meeting venue for chess players.

Yemeni product owner, Alawi Al-Jifri, 28, said he noticed visitors playing chess two months ago when Netflix aired “The Queen’s Gambit.”

He first played the game at the age of nine but stopped for more than 10 years before getting back into it two years ago.

“When I started coming to this cafe 14 to 15 months ago there wasn’t a chessboard to be seen. One of the customers brought their own chess set in and I started playing for two days in a row, so I asked them to keep it here so everyone could play. They agreed and we started playing.

“Now everyone is playing chess. Even those who don’t know how to play the game are interested in it,” he added.

Saudi electrical and computer engineer, Ibrahim Al-Muslim, 29, has been playing chess since he was 10 years old. He said Arabs had a competitive personality and enjoyed a good challenge.

“In general, we like to overcome challenges and Arabs are thinkers and are smart. They like to challenge themselves whether in games or at work and they develop strategic thinking fast,” he added.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is currently No. 1 on the top 10 list of most-watched Netflix shows in Saudi Arabia. Set during the Cold War era, it revolves around Harmon who struggles with addiction in her quest to become the greatest chess player in the world.

Last year, the first Hail International Rapid Chess Championship was held with more than 200 players from 17 countries taking part in the four-day tournament.

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