BANGKOK — Her classmates used to practice covers of K-pop dances. Now, some are turning to chess boards.
The worldwide phenomenon of “The Queen’s Gambit,” a Netflix series about an addict striving to be the world’s best chess player, appears to be prodding more Thais to learn about the sport, as observed by none other than the current champion of women’s chess tournament in Thailand, 16-year-old Sarocha “Pop” Chuemsakul.
“At first, no one at school was playing, but they started to play after watching the series. It was surprising,” Sarocha said. “Usually, girls my age don’t care about chess. They care more about K-pop dance covers … Chess might be getting more popular.”
According to Netflix, “The Queen’s Gambit” is the fourth most watched drama on its platform in Thailand throughout 2020. The series tells the story of Kentucky orphan Beth Harmon who battles addiction while trying to become the world’s best player.
Thailand Chess Association sec-gen Sahapol Nakvanith said that even though COVID-19 put a stopper on most of the tournaments in 2020 – and will likely do so in the foreseeable future – many people expressed an interest in the sport after the show aired.
“There’s maybe 20 to 30 percent more people playing. Hundreds of people messaged our Facebook page about getting into chess,” he said.
Kai Tuorila, founder of the Bangkok Chess Club, which has been running for 20 years, called the series “marvelous.” The Finland-born player said the hype even resulted in some companies contacting him about the possibility of holding Gambit-themed events, before the second wave of COVID-19 struck.
Our Own Beth?
Sarocha began to play chess in first grade, where her Mr. Shaibel was Kru Rungrote who taught a chess class in school. Intrigued by the sport since 8, she soon joined a local chess club that held games at Pantip Plaza mall.
“I just wanted to try it. But then there were tournaments, and I asked my dad if I should enter them,” Sarocha said by phone Tuesday. “Then I somehow became champion, and I just kept playing.”
Sarocha is a Matthayom 4 student at Yupparaj Wittayalai School, equivalent to Grade 10. She’s the reigning women’s national champ for four years in a row since 2017, and was awarded the Women’s FIDE Master ranking in 2018.
“I’ve already thought out every move. Of course, I use the Queen’s Gambit too,” Sarocha said, referring to the classic chess opening move that lends the name to the Netflix series.
Her dream, she says, is to keep being on the team and continuing to face international opponents. While Beth Harmon made it her goal to beat the admired Soviet chess grandmaster Vasily Borgov, Sarocha speaks highly of chess prodigies from Kazakhstan.
In the girls under 16 section at the 2019 Asian Youth championships, Sarocha crossed paths with Kazakh Nurgali Nazerke, who won first place.
“Players from Kazakhstan know all the openings. The way they play, the way they think is very intense and aggressive. It’s very hard to fight that,” she said.
Let’s Play Ka!
Still, international chess is a niche interest among the general population (the same cannot be said about Thai chess, or makruk, which can be found almost everywhere), and even rarer among women.
Like Beth, Sarocha found herself facing older men, except if playing in a women’s tournament.
In accordance with the World Chess Federation which governs international chess competition, Thailand holds open tournaments as well as a separate women’s section. Chess association sec-gen Sahapol, who said he greatly enjoyed “The Queen’s Gambit,” said this country is still lacking a vibrant women’s chess scene.
“In reality, we’re just not seeing many good women players. Women aren’t winning much yet, since more men are playing,” he said.
The national chess association is recognized by the sports ministry. It currently has about 1,500 players, 70 percent of them men. Sahapol said in the 2020 national tournament, 36 competed in the open section – all men, while less than half as many, 15 competed in the women’s section.
Sarocha herself said that Thailand was just seeing more, and better, male players. “They have more confidence in attacks, but women play in a koi pen koi pai manner,” she said, using a Thai idiom that means “to calmly go along.”
Tuorila of the Bangkok Chess Club says that among the under-18 group, the ratio is about 40 percent women players in tournaments, but drops to 20 in adults. Low interest in chess for women may be due to the cultural connotations of makruk, he said.
“According to the tradition of old days, makruk is not for kids and not for girls. It’s associated with playing in the fresh market, and gambling,” Tuorila said. “What we’re trying to do with international chess is to educate the Thai public that it’s an international sport that’s good for children’s development, logical thinking, analytical thinking, and concentration.”
Many Thais are more familiar with the local variant of chess. Sarocha said she also began playing chess with makruk, but she also had to get used to hearing comments like “It’s a man’s sport, why is there a girl playing?” and “It’s an elderly sport.”
“Of course, I want more Thai women to play chess,” Sarocha said. “Very few girls play. It’s not so popular in Thailand yet.”