How Real is 'The Queen's Gambit'?
Chess champion and IP litigator Philip X. Wang talks Beth, Bobby Fischer, and why he’s never been checkmated in a tournament game
Super Lawyers online-exclusive
on January 12, 2021
Updated on March 12, 2021
Philip X. Wang is an intellectual property litigator at Russ August & Kabat in Los Angeles who happens to be the 2011 California state chess champion—holding the title of International Master, a rung below Grand Master, according to the World Chess Federation (FIDE). He was also on the cover of our 2019 Southern California Rising Stars magazine. So when Netflix’s new series, The Queen’s Gambit, broke big, we had to know what he thought of it.
You’re an international chess master who’s spent most of your life playing chess. How true did The Queen’s Gambit feel to you?
Well, I couldn’t help notice some parallels to real chess players. Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) is clearly meant to be a female version of Bobby Fischer—both in the time period and in the story of an American chess player taking on the Soviet chess machine. Bobby Fischer, too, was a prodigy. He became the U.S. overall champion at the age of 14. And by the way, I’m not surprised that this series would be popular. I’ve read that the story of Bobby Fischer was captivating for everyone: this lone American taking on the Soviets during the Cold War.
I was a kid back then but I remember it. Bobby Fischer playing Boris Spassky in Reykjavik was a huge story.
I read somewhere—and it’s hard to imagine this now—but at one point Bobby Fischer was most famous person in the world. I’m also guessing that the Borgov character was probably Anatoly Karpov. Karpov was the world champion after Fischer and before Kasparov. But I mean, Borgov, Karpov. A couple of letters difference.
How did you first hear about the show?
My colleague Jules stopped by my office and said, “I just watched this show and you should check it out.” It had good reviews so why not? Since completing this series, I’ve noticed chess players on Twitter and Facebook commending it. It’s probably one of the best portrayals of chess on the screen in recent memory.
Didn’t they have Garry Kasparov as a consultant?
And Bruce Pandolfini. Have you heard of him? He’s a famous chess teacher from New York. He was the coach of Josh Waitzkin, who was featured in Searching for Bobby Fischer. Ben Kingsley played him. And it can’t be bad if Garry Kasparov is involved.
Anything in the series make you flash back to your own experience?
One is this concept of chess talent. I still believe strongly in it and that it doesn’t necessarily corelate to anything else. You either have it or you don’t. And Beth clearly had it.
It’s a completely nebulous concept, but it probably has something to do with pattern recognition or visualization. That’s what you do all the time when you play a game. You’re not allowed to move the pieces so you have to see it in your mind. I like how [in Queen’s Gambit] they showed the chess board on the ceiling. I’m not aware of any chess players seeing that per se but it’s not farfetched. There are lots of examples of strong chess players trying to calculate many moves ahead. When they do that, they look away from the board or they look up at the ceiling. They may not be picturing the board on the ceiling, but they’re picturing it somewhere, five, six, seven moves ahead. And in that sense, looking at the board doesn’t help. The pieces get in the way.
Beth learns the game from Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the janitor. Did you have a Mr. Shaibel?
No, but a lot of people helped me along the way—donating their time or knowledge. I got started when my parents took me to a chess club.
Why did they take you to a chess club?
I was an only child and my parents wanted me to do something and not leave me at home all day.
It was a shot in the dark? They didn’t know you had talent?
No. That’s how most people pick it up. Some good schools have afterschool chess programs. Or they have someone come in once a week to teach them—which is great, I would’ve loved that. But I think a typical way is to go to the chess club.
There’s a scene that made me think of you—when Beth plays an entire room of high school students. You did that at the age of 9, right?
Yeah. It’s called a simultaneous exhibition or “simul” for short. I’ve done that a few times for fun, and it’s really not that hard for chess players. You go around the room and when you get back to the board, they make their move. They portrayed it accurately in the show.
Chess books are big in the show. Was that true for you?
Yes. I loved that scene where Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) took out a big bag of chess books. Most strong chess players love books. It’s common, particularly when players are young, to fall in love with certain books: to have them at your bedside table and to carry them around until the pages become ragged.
What were yours?
There’s a book called 1,001 Winning Chess Sacrifices and Combinations. I remember reading it every day and trying to solve the problems every chance I could. Some of my favorites are books about a world champion’s best games, written by the player himself. Bobby Fischer’s is called My 60 Memorable Games. Another one is The Life and Games of Mikhail Tal
As a chess player, you always have a remarkable memory of some of your best games or some of the moments. This will sound silly, but they’ll feel like some of the most dramatic moments of your life. You can think back and remember how you felt during a move or what it felt like to know you were going to win.
Do you have such a memory of such a move?
Well, you can’t compare me to some of the things that I’m talking about, but yeah, on a lesser scale. My most memorable games are ones where I was losing the entire game and in a hopeless position. But then, through some of kind of miracle, I turned it around and ended up winning. Those “undeserved wins” are more satisfying even than playing a flawless game.
In your email, you mentioned that improving your game over the years, and beating opponents that you never could have beaten before—as Beth did—felt realistic, too.
Yes. Did you finish the series? I don’t want to spoil anything for you.
I’ve finished. [SPOILER ALERT]
Yeah, I found that to be accurate. How you play someone who’s better than you for the first time—whether it’s Benny or Borgov. And of course, they’re better than you. You can’t expect to beat a stronger player on your first try. You haven’t yet earned it; you haven’t gotten to where you need to be.
In Beth’s first match with Benny, you got the notion that he was psyching her out in some way—talking about a bad move she made in her previous match. Is there such psyching out in chess?
Looking right at the opponent and talking—there’s almost none of that during a game. The amount of that in the show was unrealistic. I would say even beforehand I don’t like to talk to opponents.
It’s interesting to get your take on this scene because I had a different take—which is at that time she was a decent player, a strong player, confident in her abilities. But Benny made a comment that showed that he was at a higher level. She went back and she was like, “Oh, he’s right. I never saw that. I can’t believe he saw that and I didn’t.” My takeaway was she realized that there was a depth of understanding she had not reached. She lost to Benny the next day not because he psyched her out but because he was the better player.
On the show, when somebody knows they’re going to lose, there’s a couple of things they do. One is to knock over their king. The other is to reach across the chess board for a handshake. Are those common gestures?
Knocking over the king is not very common anymore—or maybe ever. I don’t fault them for putting that in the show because it’s dramatic. The most common way is to reach your hand across the board and say, “Good game” or “I resign.” Usually followed by stopping the chess clock. If it’s old-fashioned clock like on the show, you put the button halfway to stop the clock from running. These days people who use digital clocks and you just hit a button. While the clock is running the game is on, but if you stop the clock it means the game’s over. Then you sign the scoresheets. There are sayings like, “The game’s not over until the scoresheets are signed.”
Some people in the show could look ahead and realize in, say, five moves that they would lose. So they’d resign. What’s the earliest you’ve resigned? Or someone’s resigned to you? How many moves ahead?
Right. You resign when the game is lost—when your opponent has a clear route to the win and there’s no chance: if you’re down a piece, or if you have a completely lost endgame, or you’re about to be checkmated in a few moves and it’s clear to both sides that it’s unavoidable. I have not checkmated anyone—or been checkmated—in as long as I can remember. In years. I’m talking about tournament games. That because you always resign beforehand. That’s how people do it.
Interestingly, former world champion Mikhail Tal once said, “when you resign, the spectators should understand why.” His point was don’t resign too early; the game should really be gone in an obvious way.
Did you identify with anyone in the show?
There were some parts where I identified with Beth just because—not to compare myself with her—but just that I learned chess at probably around the same age she did. And this idea of improving. What I didn’t think was accurate was how she won her first tournament. Chess is so much about practice. You have to play in lots of tournaments and lose and just get that feeling. And then if you’re talented, if you keep working hard like she was in the show, then there’s no doubt you’ll get to the next level. It’s like playing an instrument. You just have to get that feeling. You have to get lots and lots of practice and lose lots of lots of games first. No one wins their first chess tournament!
Did the show make you want play again?
Yes, I finished the last episode with my wife and told her “Honey, I have to do some work.” And then I played speed chess online for two hours straight.