FOR JACOB EMERT, the chess-themed hit Netflix drama “The Queen’s Gambit” was more than entertainment. It was inspiration. “That’s what got me into it, and I’ve been playing nonstop ever since,” he tells me during a break from playing at a recent meeting of the Seattle Chess Club.
Emert is not the only one. The show has drawn quite a few new members to this venerable club founded in 1879.
“ ‘Queen’s Gambit’ was a huge boost to our fortunes,” says John Selsky, the club’s outreach coordinator, as we chat and watch about 20 players ponder their moves.
Emert was mostly playing online or with his father-in-law until he stumbled upon the club. Playing online was good practice, but, “You care more when you’re sitting across from someone,” he says. “There’s a significant difference between when you play online all the time and when you play over the board.”
Having given up its previous location in Northgate because of pandemic closures, the club leased space from the Orlov Chess Academy near Green Lake to restart in-person games and other events in June. It hosts frequent tournaments both in person and online, but Monday nights are for casual games. You don’t need to be a member to attend these events; part of the club’s mission is to introduce more people to chess and give novices a place to hone their skills. Because of space restrictions, advance sign-up is required.
On this Monday, some people stick with one opponent, while others do a kind of round robin, connecting with other players as games wrap up. I see faces scrunch in concentration behind masks.
Occasionally, I hear a sigh or a murmur. “This did not go according to plan,” one player laments. Emert interprets one of his groans for me as the sound of “I know this is wrong, but I don’t know why.”
After a game, players will sometimes do a postmortem, running through how the play unfolded and how it might have gone differently. There’s no judgment, only learning.
Selsky says he’s noticed an influx of players in their 20s and 30s, many of them tech workers new to the city. “They’re looking to make social connections as well as get better at chess,” he says.
This evening is Zoey Dailey’s first visit to the club. “It’s sometimes hard to find friends who play chess and who won’t just humor you by playing,” she says. She had played a little before the pandemic, but over the past few months, she has played a lot online and watched YouTube videos dissecting strategies. A couple of hours into the club meeting, she has won her first two games and is animatedly discussing strategies with fellow players.
Fred Kleist, a longtime member who has been the club’s tournament director for 30 years, says a group started meeting informally even before the club was officially founded (it’s the second oldest club west of the Mississippi, after one in San Francisco). Why has he volunteered all these years? “I like the challenge, and I also like helping people play chess,” he says.
Enjoying the challenge is a theme I hear over and over. Chad Boey learned chess as a kid, then “didn’t touch it for a long time,” he says. He joined the club looking to improve and meet serious players. Now, “It’s fun to me. It’s like exercise for my brain.”