On his Instagram feed, Magnus Carlsen imagined a photoshopped match against Beth Harmon, the fictional heroine of Netflix’s smash hit chess series The Queen’s Gambit. “I think it would be close,” he wrote.
In reality, Carlsen stands alone at the top of the global game, the unrivalled great of his generation. But he says there is no reason a real world Harmon could not one day succeed him – if a game with a notoriously chauvinistic history can become more hospitable to its prospective female superstars.
“This is a problem that’s been around in chess for a long time,” the Norwegian said in a Zoom interview. “Chess societies have not been very kind to women and girls over the years. Certainly there needs to be a bit of a change in culture.”
Carlsen said that such a change would be a “massive job” and suggested that at the moment girls’ enthusiasm for the game is being dampened. “There isn’t so much of a difference between boys and girls,” he said. “Purely the difference is later on.”
Even if the Netflix series is seen as a possible catalyst for change, Carlsen’s comments stand in contrast to a long history of sexism at the top of chess. Nigel Short, Britain’s one-time world No 3, has argued repeatedly that men are “hardwired” to be better at the game than women – despite the disagreement of neuroscientists – and claimed a “yawning chasm of abilities”. Bobby Fischer said that there were no top women players in his era because “they’re just not so smart” and “they should keep strictly to the home”. Even Garry Kasparov – who later resiled from his comments and was an adviser to the makers of The Queen’s Gambit – once claimed that chess “does not fit women properly”.
Carlsen has a couple of amused reservations about the TV series – like the way its players are often stunned by a checkmate move they hadn’t seen coming, which “never happens” – but its portrayal of Harmon is not one of them.
One of the show’s best features, he said, was the rebuke it offered to more primitive voices in the game. “I love the fact that once Beth started to have results and once it became clear she had great ability, there was not a lot of ‘I don’t think she can be any good because she’s a girl’. All of that disappeared. It was very, very pleasing that she was judged by her ability and not her gender.”
In the real world, Carlsen argues that the current structure of ‘open’ tournaments for any player alongside women-only competitions is unhelpful. “I think it should be either or,” he said. “Either there should be only open tournaments, or only men’s and women’s tournaments. I don’t think in principle women have any less natural ability to be great at chess than men.”
Carlsen has other concerns about the structure of the game, viewing the existing world title format – the best