Israel's ‘Queen’s Gambit’: Young female chess players of the Jewish State

The newly trendy game of chess has had a home in the Jewish state for years.

Chess (photo credit: REUTERS)
Chess
(photo credit: REUTERS)
"It is much easier to play chess without the burden of an Adam’s apple.”
So says Beth Harmon, the drugged genius and protagonist of Netflix’s record-breaking limited television series The Queen’s Gambit.
The show captured hearts far and wide, breaking records as 62 million households watched the show in its first 28 days alone, the company announced. It follows the path of Harmon as she grows from an eight-year-old playing chess in the basement of an orphanage to adult Beth, playing against the best of the best in “an entire world of just 64 squares.”
Chess is not a new phenomenon; the game of chess has been played throughout the centuries and at some of the highest and lowest points of history. But the game saw a change worldwide when, in the middle of a global pandemic, The Queen’s Gambit was released.
As in-person chess saw a worldwide low, faces met through screens and online rather than in person to unite over the game.
REAL-LIFE GAMBIT: Yuliya Shvayger plays the complex sport of chess. (Courtesy Sami Shamoon College of Engineering) REAL-LIFE GAMBIT: Yuliya Shvayger plays the complex sport of chess. (Courtesy Sami Shamoon College of Engineering)
Chess.com, one of the world’s most-used online chess platforms, saw six million new users join the platform in the little over a month after the television series was released. Those six million accounted for over a third of their overall new user count throughout 2020 altogether, which amounted to 16 million. The average new number of users was approximately 25,000 per day prior to the show’s release; after it, they averaged at somewhere between 120,000 and 125,000.
The website has also seen a record new number of players who use their “how to move the pieces” feature. This feature is meant for completely new users who wish to know how each chess piece moves throughout the board, meaning there are users completely new to the game joining the platform. The website’s sister site, ChessKid.com, has also seen some record numbers, as well as their coaching app, “Learn Chess with Dr. Wolf,” a video game of sorts that allows one to play against a virtual teacher who instructs in the ways of the game.
Even before The Queen’s Gambit, online chess gaming saw a major rise in contrast to previous years due to the coronavirus pandemic. Lichess.org, another leading chess website with an open-source platform, reported that its user base nearly doubled in the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, forcing the company to “scramble” to upgrade and get new servers to handle the new wave of players.
BUT THE revolutionary show not only spurred a wave of chess-lovers worldwide, it also introduced women to the game. Chess was once very much a male-dominated sport and although the vast majority of players are still men, women are rising up in the ranks and making their presence known among the big leagues.
“We’ve seen a surge in new female players on-site,” Chess.com told the Magazine. At the time of writing, Chess.com had a record 33% overall women users, in contrast to before the TV series, when women in the game averaged at 22% to 25% of overall users.
Although the numbers are still low, considering women make up half the world’s population, the staggering success of women – particularly the young pioneer women of chess in Israel – cannot go unappreciated.
EFROIMSKI STUDIES the 64-square board. (Courtesy Marsel Efroimski)EFROIMSKI STUDIES the 64-square board. (Courtesy Marsel Efroimski)
Marsel Efroimski, two-time world champion in chess for the youth division and Woman Grandmaster of chess (a rank achieved over years of professional playing and success), told the Magazine that she grew up as the only girl on the chess team.
“The girl’s branch was just starting up,” she explained. “I grew up as the only girl on the chess team. There was a point in which there were two other girls on the team, but they eventually left.”
Efroimski, who also went on to become youth European champion and won in the Maccabiah’s chess final, explained that she did not find it lonely; it was just the way things were. 
“Most of my professional life was just around boys,” she recounted. “I grew with them, I competed with them, and I think it helped me because I was competing against them and they were challenging me.”
She nevertheless praised the manner in which more and more young and talented women are joining the game throughout the country. 
“There are more girls today and it’s broadening,” she said happily.
Efroimski first started playing chess after her father sat down with her when she was very little and taught her the simple game of checkers. This inspired her, once she was in school, to go to an after-school program that taught children how to play different types of board games, where she was first introduced to chess. From there, she joined her local chess team in the second grade, “and in some sort of Cinderella story, managed to participate in the world championship for children up to age 10.”
She explains that at that point her life changed and chess was the center of it all. She began practicing nonstop and played professionally from that point on.
EFROIMSKI WISHES to see more girls and young women playing chess in the future. She said that it is important to “broaden the game to bring girls from high-level math, scientific degrees and so on.”
Although the rise in young women playing chess is great, Efroimski still recognizes it as an overall minority.
“There is more of a tendency for men to find the appeal in the mind game of it all,” she explained. “It is a war game, all in all. I think that it is not something that is considered by girls because of the social issue. That is why The Queen’s Gambit came out right on time for young women to gain interest in the game of chess.”
She explained that the game is a complex sport, and that can often be intimidating. Her longest game lasted seven-and-a-half hours.
“Sadly, with coronavirus now, the momentum [of women joining chess throughout Israel] dropped a bit, because now all the children’s activities and afterschool programs are closed,” she added, noting that because online chess is growing and in-person chess is close to nonexistent, it is hard to tell if there is positive growth in the specific demographic of young girls and women learning and beginning to play chess.
But at the same time, it is hard for women to advance in chess in the Jewish state. The big question these days, says Efroimski, is why there is a separate championship for men and women. 
“Why can’t they play together?” she asked. “They claim that the men’s competition is more professional, but then women do not want to play because they are told they will never compete as professionals.”
Efroimski nevertheless said she managed to watch and enjoy The Queen’s Gambit herself, relating to many parts, though jokingly she added, “When you are a chess player and you live it as your reality, you tend to be a bit more judgmental toward these portrayals.”
The show, in Efroimski’s eyes, truly captures the beauty, art and complexity of chess while also showing the struggle of a woman in a man’s game.
MARSEL EFROIMSKI and Shvayger face off during the previous Israeli Championship. (Courtesy Marsel Efroimski)MARSEL EFROIMSKI and Shvayger face off during the previous Israeli Championship. (Courtesy Marsel Efroimski)
IN 2018, Efroimski was very narrowly defeated in the Israeli Women’s Chess Championship by Yuliya Shvayger, International Master and Woman Grandmaster who has competed in boards across Europe and around the world.
She too was introduced to chess through family. 
“My parents play chess as a hobby,” she told the Magazine. “Ever since I was a child, I was interested in this game they were playing. I learned from age three or four on my own and my mom started to teach me when I was five. I started eventually learning in a children’s afterschool program.”
Shvayger also saw very few other women when she began to play after school and in children’s programs. 
“When I started learning chess, I was in a beginner’s class with one or two girls and the rest were boys,” she recalled. “When I was moved to the advanced group there were no girls. I learned in Ukraine. You could see the majority of boys; they were the only ones at my level. When I started to go to championships, I would play against girls.”
Although she did not have the companionship of many women in the sport, she said it did not change the closeness she experienced with the boys on her team, much like Harmon of The Queen’s Gambit. 
“The boys were my best friends,” she said. “We supported one another.”
Shvayger expressed her concern that the lack of girls in the game may be an aesthetic choice of sorts. 
“Girls prefer to dance or sing or something like that rather than chess, which is more competitive and thoughtful,” she explained. “It’s a thoughtful game and you must be interested.”
She said she could very much understand the obsessive mentality of chess players expressed in The Queen’s Gambit. 
“I liked the way she would think about games in her spare time and prepare it in her mind, consider the different possibilities to improve her game,” she admitted. “It is really what we do as chess players. We cannot stop thinking about what happened and playing the moves in our heads. I had a game that I should have won, and I ended up losing. I could not sleep. Every time I closed my eyes, I saw the board and how I should have played in order to win.”
Shvayger, currently in her third year at the Sami Shamoon College of Engineering, noted that in another similarity to the series, there is very little to no social life for a professional chess player or any professional sports player as a rule. 
“That is something that we all experience, I think, as sports players in general. When you focus on one thing, that is how you succeed, so you do it. If you do not, you lose. To love what you do and to care for it, you have to put in the time and effort.”
SHVAYGER MULLS over a move. (Courtesy Sami Shamoon College of Engineering)SHVAYGER MULLS over a move. (Courtesy Sami Shamoon College of Engineering)
CORONA HAS cornered the world of chess and forced it to move to online platforms in order to go on. But Israeli pioneers in the world of chess are pushing forth, and many players have plenty of good things to say about the Chess4Solidarity game movement.
An initiative organized by the Chess4All teaching organization, which teaches chess throughout Israel, Chess4Solidarity connects Israel to other countries and creates solidarity between people through the game of chess. 
“Chess4Solidarity was created as a result of the coronavirus pandemic,” said the initiative’s director Lior Aizenberg, who expressed his love for the game by gushing over the different chess projects taking place throughout the country, from Abu Ghosh to Bar-Ilan University.
Aizenberg explained that when he opened a chess course at Bar-Ilan University, 30 people registered within two days – a sea of women among them. However, this oftentimes is not necessarily the case. 
“In the children’s lessons and afterschool activities, we see that 10% to 20% are women,” Aizenberg told the Magazine. “And even then, they are not always pushed to excel. Men are convinced to achieve to their abilities, and you do not see that done for women as much, even when they are just as talented.”
He believes that the moment a woman wins the world championship, “it will allow for a stronger push from parents and a larger desire among women to learn, register and practice.
“It will be very interesting, sociologically speaking. Did women advance altogether in the world ranking? For children, teens, adults? I think that they will.”
But in the meantime, such competitions are practically impossible to organize. Lessons have been closed apart from online meetings and chess competitions have been moved to the virtual world.
In February 2020, a chess competition was held in memory of Ziv Hagbi ahead of Purim through Chess4Solidarity. Hagbi had been murdered in a terror attack during the summer of 2018 in the Barkan Industrial Area of the West Bank. Participants dressed up and competed in his memory, as chess had been a favored game of his. At the end of the competition, the first coronavirus lockdown was announced.
Since then, 13 competitions had been organized through Chess4Solidarity, each with a different delegation from abroad – including the Israeli Embassy in Chile, a Moroccan delegation, Sudan, and many more – the last of which was Thursday when Israel played against players from Bhutan. The games were streamed online for viewers from around the world.
AMBASSADOR TO Chile Marina Rosenberg takes part in a Chess4Solidarity competition. (Chess4Solidarity)AMBASSADOR TO Chile Marina Rosenberg takes part in a Chess4Solidarity competition. (Chess4Solidarity)
YET CHESS did not always have such a respectable name in the public sphere. 
“The interest of the news in chess began around 12 years ago when children came and competed in championships without any press coverage,” Aizenberg explained. “The stigma of chess on an international level was terrible.” He said the International Chess Federation (FIDE), up until two years ago, did not work well.
When former deputy prime minister of Russia Arkady Vladimirovich Dvorkovich took over as president of the FIDE, everything transformed. “The stigma is changing,” Aizenberg said.
However, anything is difficult to develop when it cannot be taught as it once was. Nevertheless, Aizenberg sees the move of chess to the virtual realm as a weapon. 
“It brought so many people to play chess and be exposed to it,” he clarified.
Indeed, Israel has seen immense growth in online chess. The aforementioned Chess.com told the Magazine that approximately 90,000 Israeli chess players joined their platform throughout 2020, over 32,000 of them joining since the release of The Queen’s Gambit on October 23. After the show’s release, four times as many Israeli chess players joined the platform per day in contrast to prior to the show’s release.
And so, while Israel’s chess world has been pinned during the pandemic, it certainly has not reached a stalemate. With the trade of the physical chess board with the virtual one, Israeli chess players new and old have a chance to capture the win in the game every single day. 

Chess for dummies
Chess is a war game on a black-and-white board of 64 squares, measuring eight squares by eight squares. The goal of each player is to deliver a checkmate, which means trapping the opponent’s king.
The game is accredited as having been invented in India over 1,500 years ago, according to IchessU. Some minor adjustments throughout the years have allowed the game to evolve into the one we know today.
Each player begins with two rows of defense, with pieces – each with singular movement properties – surrounding the king to both protect him and attack the opponent. Pieces may be “eaten” – or removed from the board – in unique ways, allowing for the board to dwindle down in pieces.
The first row of defense in either side is a row of eight pawns – pieces that can move only forward unless they are eating, in which case they may move one step forward on the diagonal. If a pawn reaches the farthest row at the opponent’s end, it may transform into a queen.
The queen, as it were, stands within the second row of defense beside the king. The king can move one step in any which direction. The queen can move in any direction along the vacant squares, but only one direction per move. This means that piece can go either diagonally, horizontally or vertically as long as there are no pieces to block the move (or be eaten).
After them come the rooks, which can move vertically and horizontally, but only along vacant squares.
The bishops can move diagonally along vacant squares.
The knights are unique; they can move one square horizontally/vertically and one step diagonally. Knights’ movements are oftentimes compared to the capital letter L.
Each player begins with two rooks, two bishops and two knights.
Grab a chess board or (log onto one) and good luck!        
– T.B.