The hit Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit has inspired many people to take up or rediscover chess. What’s really exciting, though, is that it’s bringing more women to the game, and sparking important debates about women and girls as chess-players and role models.
In making a woman its star, The Queen’s Gambit throws welcome light on the fact that there are, and always have been, great female players at the apex of the international game. In 1991, Hungarian prodigy Judit Polgar became the world’s then-youngest Grandmaster at just 15 years and four months; by her retirement in 2014 she had beaten 11 current or former world champions, including Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov and Boris Spassky, in either rapid or classical chess.
Yet the idea of high-level chess as a bellicose, male-dominated world is hard to shake off. It’s revealing that the show’s lead character, Beth Harmon, is based not on a woman like Polgar, but the legendary American grandmaster Bobby Fischer. And Beth’s rivalry with Vasily Borgov has strong echoes of the era-defining 1972 World Championship match between Fischer and Spassky, viewed then and now as a proxy for the Cold War.
The myth that chess somehow ‘isn’t a game for women’ is one that Purling London has always consciously sought to overturn. Since our earliest days, we have been supported top female players, and commissioned around a dozen female artists to create our Art Chess sets, starting with Olivia Pilling, whose jewel-like, impressionistic sets remain among our most popular ever. Other collaborators include Daniela Raytchev, Sophie Matisse and Michelle Hold; their work often has social or political messages, as well as celebrating the beauty and complexity of the game itself.
We’ve also worked closely with London-based chess player, teacher and artist Nette Robinson, who kindly agreed to pose for our recent Queen’s Gambit-inspired photoshoot. She created a new board to display a set of rare 1930s Soviet chess pieces called ‘The Reds and the Whites’, with red representing the noble Communists and white the decadent Capitalists. After the originals were sold at Christie’s in London, Nette created a new set of Art Chess pieces to complement her Russian-style board.
Purling has collaborated with women artists for two exhibitions at the World Chess Hall of Fame, St. Louis, MO, USA: ‘Ladies’ Knight: A Female Perspective on Chess’ (2015) and ‘Painted Pieces‘ (2018). The former showed Art Chess sets by Daniela Raytchev and Crystal Fischetti around the themes of addiction and love. The later included Raytchev’s feminist ‘Glass Ceiling’ chess set, Sophie Matisse‘s ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and Kate Brinkworth‘s examination of chance verses strategy through chess.
We believe chess is a universal game to enjoyed and engaged with by women and men, young and old alike. And as Beth Harmon says, and our Art Chess sets prove: ‘Chess doesn’t have to be competitive, it can also be beautiful.’
13 Women artists who have created Art Chess for Purling: