Bahrain's 'Queen’s Gambit': Why more people than ever are playing chess on the small Gulf island

The surprise Netflix hit – and its fabled 'Beth Harmon effect' – has seen more women take up the game on the island than ever before

Chess might be a great way to while away those hours at home amid the pandemic, but few could have predicted how wildly popular it would become after The Queen's Gambit – a Netflix miniseries about a female prodigy taking on the Russian masters as she simultaneously battles her personal demons – aired on screens across the world.

Mohamed Tissir, an International Master, and founder of the Bahrain Chess Academy, has seen a huge spike in interest in the game on the Gulf island since the series' 2020 release, especially among women inspired by the main character Beth Harmon.

"We've always had a lot of players, but recently there have been a lot more," Tissir tells The National. "In particular, we've seen a lot of women wanting to learn the game and asking for classes; many more than usual."

This growth of players in Bahrain echoes wider global trends. Flagship website Chess.com gained more than 100,000 new members per day in November – five times their usual average, according to Business Insider.

In Bahrain, the academy had a five-year backlog of chess sets, which they sold within a few months. Meanwhile, the rate of new joiners has been four times higher since the show came out than in previous years, Tissir explains. Immediately after the show was aired, "tens of ladies joined". A stark difference, as there was little interest from women beforehand, he says. Before, the members were nearly all men or children.

It’s not just women who have been coming through the doors of the academy, either, Tissir explains. “[More] parents are starting to see the potential of chess. It’s something interesting to develop their kids’ minds instead of just playing video games. Interest in the game is as high as it’s been since the famous Bobby Fischer versus Boris Spassky match in 1972.”

One of the Bahrain Chess Academy's new recruits is Tefla Tulefat, a physics student at the University of Bahrain who signed up a month ago. She joined the Academy to learn the game more seriously after watching The Queen's Gambit, and feels the show sends an empowering message to young women.

“I played a little when I was 7 years old," she says. "My father taught me the moves, but then I stopped. Then I saw the series and I felt the power of chess. I love the feminist aspect of it, seeing this girl take on all these older men.”

Tulefat certainly seems to embody the spirit of Harmon, especially when playing. “I love to bring the queen out early during my games,” she says with a laugh. “Mohamed [Tissir] says I’m one of the most aggressive players at the academy."

Tulefat is among those turning to online games, too, racking up about 40 games per day on the Chess.com app. But she particularly loves playing at the Bahrain academy. "The most beautiful things are the atmosphere and the competition."

In a less formal setting, popular cafe Sonder, in the Bahraini town of Sanad, has found itself to be an unlikely hub for beginners. Fahad Al Shirawi, a chess enthusiast who's been playing the game since childhood, is one of many who play in the trendy new coffee shop.

“Before the latest [coronavirus] shutdown, there were people playing outside, by the bar, upstairs," says Al Shirawi. "It seems everyone has a chessboard in their car these days and is ready to play."

In spite of Sonder’s hipster aesthetic, it’s not just younger players who pop in for a game. “It’s surprising how many groups of people you see there of all ages and backgrounds,” Al Shirawi adds. “It started organically with just a few players, but word got out and now we have a little community.

"Everybody who goes knows everybody else, even the older generation. Once a 50-year-old Bedouin guy came in with a set under his arm asking if this is the place where people play chess."

Al Shirawi hasn't noted an increase in women joining in lately at Sonder, but that's mostly due to Covid-19 restrictions that are still in place across the kingdom.

He hasn't even finished watching The Queen's Gambit. "I lost interest by episode four," he admits, although he does praise the series for bringing attention to the "game of nations".

While many players have temporarily migrated to apps as they wait for the spread of coronavirus to get under control, the players at Sonder are confident the community will reform when things eventually return to normal. “People shouldn’t feel intimidated about coming in if they want to learn," says Al Shirawi. "The better players love to teach as much as play, and there’s always someone ready for a game.”

For those in Bahrain who want to learn chess in a more structured setting, the academy still offers classes for different ages, genders and abilities, as well as organises tournaments and works with schools.

Tissir, who has been playing professionally around the world since 1994 – including facing current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen in a tournament in Iceland – is one of the coaches waiting to teach the next generation of Bahrainis.

In the meantime, he still needs to catch up on the show that's brought all these new joiners to him. "I will watch it," he says. "But I want to find the perfect time to savour it. It’s a big thing for the chess world.”