For centuries, chess has been called, “the Game of Kings.” Now, female monarchs are in on the game as well, thanks to the success of Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit,” and its lead character, Beth Harmon. Although medieval legend traces the game back to Adam, modern historians look to northern India around 600 A.D. for the origins of chess.
So, how does one begin to learn a game with a studied heritage of over a thousand years? Fortunately, the task is easier than you might think.
In 2021, the best way to start one’s journey into the world of chess mastery is online. Many websites exist for the purpose of teaching chess. One of the most popular is chess.com, which also has a site especially for children, chesskid.com. Many of these sites are free, although there are also premium memberships with more features.
There are also well-organized, online courses for learning the game at every level. Using only the free sites, one could learn much about the rules, strategies, tactics, history, and culture of the game. While Beth had to imagine her games on the ceiling of her dormitory, the modern player can work out his or her strategies online against the computer or against other players around the world.
To travel farther along the road to chess mastery, sample any of the thousands of books written on the subject. The book treasured so much by Miss Harmon, “Modern Chess Openings,” is available free online, though it is admittedly a difficult read for most beginners.
I learned the basics in the 1970s from “Chess Made Simple,” while I learned the most from Aron Nimzowitsch’s classic, “My System.” Although every player will have a favorite book, a list of important titles might include “Bobby Fischer Teaches Chess” by Bobby Fischer, “How to Reassess Your Chess” by Jeremy Silman, and “Think Like a Grandmaster” by Alexander Kotov. Most public libraries will have an ample collection of chess literature suitable to any level of learning.
Like with most games, chess is more fun to play with friends. Chess clubs are a great way to learn more about the game and experience its richness. Many schools have clubs for their students; some libraries host clubs for their patrons. Beth played at the school club next door to her orphanage. For the general public, clubs can usually be found within a reasonable distance of most communities. Or consider starting your own.
The U.S. Chess Federation (the governing body for chess competition in the United States) lists officially recognized clubs by state on its website, uschess.org. Such clubs are a great way to meet fellow players at all levels and to get involved in competitive play and tournaments.
To become an officially recognized master of the game, one will eventually join the U.S. Chess Federation or another national representative of FIDE, the international chess federation. Membership costs a nominal fee, and includes a subscription to the most widely read chess periodical, Chess Life (or Chess Life Kids for younger players). Beth Harmon stole her first copy from the corner drug store.
Membership in the USFC also will give the player an official chess rating after the required number of rated games have been submitted. This rating, usually between 100 and 2900, represents a player’s performance level in competitive chess games. It is the mile-marker along the path to chess mastery. The current world champion, Magnus Carlsen, peaked at 2882; a leading chess computer engine known as Stockfish rates around 3500.
With so many roads to mastery available to the modern chess player, how does one know which path is best? A good way to safely manage any journey is with a personal guide. Chess coaches and tutors can be found in most communities, teaching at all levels of play. Some charge large fees, while others can be enlisted for cheap. You might get what you pay for, or you might just find that rare treasure: a teacher who imparts the love of the game for free, like Beth’s custodian mentor, Mr. Shaibel.
While a coach’s rating indicates skill in competitive play, it doesn’t always indicate teaching skill. A good coach or tutor will rate highly in both skills. Chess clubs can be a good way of finding a coach, and word of mouth is also effective.
No matter what paths you choose, remember that the journey itself is worth taking. Mastery of the game is an ideal that few will have the discipline and natural talent to achieve. But the journey of learning chess enriches one’s life like few other experiences.
The chess player is exploring a trail traveled by countless others across the centuries and around the world. From your first opening move, you become part of the ancient game of kings and queens!