KINGS & QUEENS: Netflix’s Hit Show ‘Queen’s Gambit’ Inspires Poker Players to Break Out the Chess Board Again

Anthony Cicali III December 23, 2020
Netflix's hit Queen's Gambit has inspired many poker players to get back to the chess board.

The Netflix limited series Queen’s Gambit continues to break records. It has become one of the platform’s most watched series with more than 2 billion hours watched. 

The series has hit home for many poker players as well. Poker and chess are often compared when it comes to the elements of competition and mental strategy.

Many poker players have been known to seek out some checkmating action as well. The same might even be true for chess players. With the series burning up Netflix, many poker players are getting back to the chess board.

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Strategy, fun, and playing online

Like poker, there can be deep theories and heavy mathematical combinations involved in chess. Amateur chess coach Jarod Watson of Atlanta, Georgia, recently started playing poker and noticed several similarities. 

“The first thing I noticed that was similar was learning to defend against aggressive opponents,” he says. “Figuring out a player’s style is the key in how you will counter effectively.”

The Netflix hit has inspired players new and old to jump back into the game. One of those is poker player James Brady of Philadelphia.

“I’ve been playing chess ever since I was a kid,” he says. “After watching Queen’s Gambit it renewed my interest in chess. I am a little too old to pursue chess seriously but it’s a nice little break from poker tournaments.”

Another similarity between the two from a game play is the growth online. A quick look at the App Store and one will find numerous chess gaming options.

Players can battle it out against others without even needing a chess board. That same scenario has fueled poker’s growth over the last two decades. Online poker sites and online chess games offer players the mobility to play from anywhere.

Life at the chess board and poker felt

Jennifer Shahade is a former US Junior Open chess champion. She’s also an ambassador for PokerStars and still competes in poker and chess events.

“Chess is a beautiful game that draws you into a ‘flow’ experience, and also ties you to hundreds of years of chess history,”she says.

Shahade currently has more than $340,000 in live poker tournament cashes. As a resident of Philadelphia, she’s a regular in Pennsylvania’s real-money online poker games. She sees similarities in the games, especially in regards to strategy and preparation.

The games are similar mostly in the approach to studying them, especially now with solvers, which is another reason I think poker players are drawn to chess,” Shahade says. “Some of the study techniques in chess are even clearer, due to decades of work with scholastic players and developing curriculum for efficient study.

“So diving into chess and getting a sense of how players improve can give poker players a lot of ideas on how to approach their own study, whether a serious student of the game but with limited hours or a successful pro.”

While she may now be involved heavily in poker, Shahade remains active in chess. She serves as a board member of the World Chess Hall of Fame and is also in charge of the US Chess Women, a program of the US Chess Federation.

The program helps introduce chess to girls all over the country. Queen’s Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy even spoke with the group recently.

 

Shahade has also been an unofficial ambassador for introducing more chess players to the poker world. In 2016, she hosted a chess and poker mixed tournament in Atlantic City for PokerStars.

Players competed in preliminary chess tournaments to earn extra chips for the poker tournament. Shahade continues to promote both games.

Chess players turned poker rounders

Over the years, other poker players have also transitioned from the world of chess. Some well-known pros players who used their chess skills to find success on the poker felt.

Chess hustler to Main Event final table

Ylon Schwartz

Ylon Schwartz won a World Series of Poker bracelet in 2012 in a $1,500 HORSE event for $267,081. He also made the final table in the 2008 Main Event, finishing fourth for $3.8 million.

His poker skills date back to his days hustling chess on the streets of New York. Schwartz gambled against people on the streets for years.

In 2008 his chess game advanced when he achieved the title of master when his ranking rose above 2300. That achievement is just two rankings below grandmaster.

Chess author Bill Robertie also influenced poker

Chess champion, poker player, and author Bill Robertie won the 1970 speed chess championship. He’s also written six books on the game and also one of the greatest backgammon players of all time. 

Many poker players may have unknowingly been influenced by Robertie from Dan Harrington’s strategy book series. Robertie, or Massachusetts, coauthored the Harrington on Hold’em books that inspired a generation of players during the Moneymaker boom. 

Bishops to bracelets

Ivo Donev is a WSOP bracelet winner with $2 million in poker winnings. The Bulgarian took down the 2000 $1,500 Limit Omaha tournament for $85,800.  

The WSOP champion’s roots are based on his chess skills. Donev won the 1989 CSSR International Chess Tournament, moving him to international master status. 

Donev’s biggest win at the poker table came in the 2017 Poker Players Championship, finishing fourth for $419,337. 

Youth chess champ scores at poker felt

Child chess prodigy Jeff Sarwer won the 1986 U-10 World Youth Chess Championship. The Canadian later branched into poker as well.

Sarwer first appeared on the tournament poker scene in 2008 when he cashed in the European Poker Tour (EPT) event. Some of his biggest scores have come on the EPT series.

That includes a third-place finish for $232,704 in the 2009 EPT Vilamoura Main Event. Sarwer has gone on to more than $836,000 in live tournament winnings. 

Poker is now his main game, but Sarwer still appears in live chess tournaments from time to time. In 2015 he competed in the VI Shakkinet Chess Tournament in Finland.

* Ylon Schwartz photo courtesy WPT

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