The Queen’s Gambit Declined: A Memoir Of A Former Chess Prodigy
Content warning: This piece mentions child abuse and other traumatic events. Oh, and spoiler warning, obviously.
One night, without anything to do, I absentmindedly opened up Netflix. I immediately sat up in my chair as I saw what the header was. “The Queen’s Gambit”, what looked like a show about a chess prodigy. Immediately, I began recalling memories of long-gone days.
Being called to the stage, as an unknown elementary school kid, to receive the first of many State Champion awards. My friends clap enthusiastically.
The 2004 Missouri Open, my first event playing versus adults as an 11-year old child. Being paired into a National Master after performing way over my rating, and dropping my Queen out of nervousness. Being paired the following round into an A-class player and, despite all expectations, beating him soundly with the Black pieces. An upset of over 600 points! The entire state talked about me for weeks.
My first Nationals. Coming home with trophies larger than me, and struggling to figure out how to put them in the trunk of our car.
Winning the State Championship, again, and again. By the end, the tournament director was audibly exasperated when calling my name.
Winning the 2009 Missouri A-class sectional.
But most of all, and less glamorous- the trauma.
The expectations put on me- by family, by friends, by other chess players, most of which were much older.
Skipping Christmas to do chess puzzles.
Not being allowed to sleep over because I could have been playing chess instead.
Having to sneak onto the computer to do anything other than play chess.
Being denied dinner because I didn’t do well at a tournament, or had a small losing streak in online play.
Being compared to other players that I knew were given more resources than me- or were simply more gifted than me- and that I could never reach.
Being gloated at by players who, I was just sure I could beat on a normal day, but where I slipped up once and threw one game years ago. Fuck you, Alex Esposito.
I closed the app immediately, made some dumb joke on Twitter, and decided not to re-open old wounds.
“Hey Elaine, how’s it going?”
A few days later, I was cooking brunch when I got a call from Steve Sklenka, President of the Calgary Chess Club. I awkwardly tried to balance my phone on my shoulder without ruining my omelet.
“So the reason for my call is because I was contacted by a news organization to get some thoughts on The Queen’s Gambit, and I figured that you might have some thoughts.”
I sighed deeply to myself. I’m not one to pass up a media interview, but this did mean that I would have to watch it. The rest… well, you know the rest.
I’ve said a lot about the depictions of chess, because that’s what was expected of me, but I haven’t spoken much about what the show is actually about- about the interpersonal relationships, about having an unconventional childhood, about the unrealistic expectations, and about the ensuing mental breakdowns that follow. But it seems important to talk about. And now that I’ve been able to properly think about that, I have some thoughts.
Certain children have a talent for certain things. Whether its natural, or a product of upbringing, can be debated, but when it presents itself, it is obvious and unmistakable.
If this is your child, what do you do? You want to nurture them, obviously. But there has to be a balance. There’s a tension between supporting the interest and ensuring that your child has a childhood that is as normal as possible. There’s a tension between pushing your child to higher achievements and celebrating past results. There’s a tension that comes from being proud of your child for their accomplishments and taking credit for them amongst friends. And the vast majority of parents do not have the emotional capacity to balance this correctly.
I’m very disappointed in the creative choice to have Beth’s mother die. This tension is not often depicted in media, and Netflix passed up a very good opportunity to talk about it. It seemed that they were building towards a dramatic moment where the two characters smash a lot of objects and scream at each other, and it would have been very cathartic for me to see that.
Fundamentally, the depiction of Beth is intended to be a depiction of a traumatic childhood, but it is still much more glamourous than the reality. The reality is a lot more tears, a lot more sleepless nights, and a lot more emotional screaming. Losing my childhood to a game that I wasn’t even sure that I enjoyed. My weekends were spent in strange places- a church in Tulsa, a convention center in Chicago, a ballroom in Las Vegas, a hotel in Columbia. Being beaten in the hotel room for losing a game, and being expected to go back downstairs only an hour or two later and enter the tournament hall for my next game while trying to hide my bruises.
And it wasn’t just me. I remember helping to hide another young prodigy, someone who I still consider to be a friend, in a closet so that she could escape her father.
After all, at the end of the day, there can only be one winner. No matter how many expectations are put into any particular person by parents, by local media, by friends- each tournament only has one winner. Everyone else is a loser. Everyone else has to endure the next few days of disappointment, before going back for the next event and doing it all over again.
That’s not to say that I wasn’t that winner. I was, a lot. I had an entire wall of trophies, numbering well over a hundred. I loved seeing the look of shock when I sat down for a round, and my opponent finds out the relatively-unknown-but-high-rated opponent was just some kid. I loved seeing the collective reaction from the tournament hall when I walked into the venue for the first time.
But I’ve talked about that a lot, endlessly, with various media outlets. There are plenty of pictures of my brother and I standing in front of trophies in an endless number of media outlets. This isn’t about that.
Was the fame and recognition worth the blood, sweat, and tears? Definitely not.
If I had a choice, I would have just wanted a normal childhood, with normal interpersonal relationships, instead of becoming a tired, world-weary burnout at fourteen years old.
But I didn’t have a choice.
The life of a prodigy is weird, in a way that a child is not able to process. I was constantly compared to my brother, in a way that fostered incredibly unhealthy competition. We were constantly racing each other on the national ladder, comparing Elo gains after each event and measuring our trophy counts. And when my, ahem, unconventional reaction to puberty caused me to fall behind in that race, my parents just gave up on me. Not that they didn’t continue to expect a lot from me. They just stopped giving me the resources I needed to succeed.
Seeing my parents spend thousands of dollars on private lessons with Grandmasters for my brother while I got nothing, while also having to simultaneously field sarcastic questions from people asking why I was rated lower than him, just compounded the problem. For years, my self-worth was defined by my ability to push plastic, and I was overshadowed by my younger brother in the field of pushing plastic. (I effectively didn’t improve at all after seventh grade. I won the State Championships in high school because I was still really good, but the fact that my career ended so early will always be a sore spot for me.)
If, when I was fourteen, I had the emotional maturity to sit my parents and my brother down, and explain to them that chess was now my brother’s thing and I was making a conscious decision to focus more on other interests like political activism- but to expect that level of emotional maturity from someone who’s barely a teenager is facially absurd, and I heavily suffered because of that failure.
There’s a tendency in Hollywood to depict child geniuses as having the emotional maturity of an adult and maybe even a measure of genre savviness beyond other characters. After all, this makes them much easier to write. They’re basically adult geniuses, but in the bodies of children, but with no other changes. They are depicted as always in control of every situation, but this just isn’t realistic. Prodigies are still kids, even though they might be suddenly thrust into adult situations, and they don’t usually know much about the world outside the very specific sphere in which they are a subject matter expert. There’s a certain difficulty in emotionally handling the implications of their talents.
With all that being said, I am okay.
Obviously, I went through a pretty messed-up and traumatic childhood, and that certainly had negative effects on my psyche. But I’m an adult now, and with the benefit of time and distance, as well as a fair amount of therapy, I’ve been able to deal with the results. I’m now in a place where I can deal with the results of my childhood in a healthy way. I’m even going to get back into chess, with a view to have fun and not worry about winning every match. I’m going to start playing tournament chess again once the pandemic lifts, and I’m looking forward to feeling the cold, heavy plastic in my hands once again.
My only message is this: if you’re lucky enough to be the parent of a child prodigy, please be sure to treat them the same as any other kid. Nurture their interests, obviously, but never forget that they’re still children.