Chess has never been very popular in the Western world. Chess geniuses, on the contrary, have always drawn public attention. Something otherworldly about these unusual masterminds catches our interest. What price has to be paid for such incredible success in an almost uninhabited island of symbolic?

Two examples from classic literature are found in the novels “The Luzhin Defense” and “The Royal Game.” Nabokov’s Luzhin lives in the fictional world of chess; he is autistic. Zweig’s Czentovic is a nearly illiterate and lowly peasant; he is mentally healthy, yet emotionally and intellectually challenged.

Alongside literature, we also find remarkable examples from history. Two of the most brilliant chess players, who surpassed all their contemporaries, were from the US. Paul Morphy, who was awarded the Laurel Wreath medal in 1859, gave up his favorite game and later went mad. The better-known Robert Fischer, having defeated all his Soviet rivals in 1972, finished his career and spent the rest of his days experiencing paranoid delusions of persecution. In 1948 another American, Reuben Fine, declined an offer to compete for the world title, proclaiming it was not his cup of tea. Instead, Fine authorized himself as a psychoanalyst. Since Ernest Jones penned an essay on Morphy’s madness[1], Fine began corresponding with him and later became known for his book, “The Psychology of the Chess Player”[2]. Composed in the worst Neo-Freudian fashion, he asserted that the majority of his rivals were slightly mad and latent homosexuals.

Beth Harmon, the protagonist in “The Queen’s Gambit”, has already become the most famous chess genius in history, outshining everyone before her. Though the story and characters are fictional, the plot is quite believable and thus many who watched thought it was a true story.

The heroine is a typical adolescent of our era: she drinks alcohol, uses drugs, swaps partners like penny candies. However, in an instant Harmon clears her head and sleeps it off; she becomes a chess genius eager to take on anyone across the board. We could consider “The Queen’s Gambit” an amalgam of the Cinderella fairy tale and “Superwoman.”

This story about a girl from a boarding school who made her way to the top in a patriarchal world is inspired by the feminist discourse. Chess is widely considered a game of exceedingly smart men. At the same time, two shortcomings of psychology and the scientific discourse are striking here. In one respect, psychology has failed to provide a coherent explanation of what it means to be smart, clever, or intelligent. On the other side, science has not been able to account for why men have succeeded in chess more frequently than the other sex. Nevertheless, it is commonly believed chess is connected to intelligence, even if, in fact, this is extremely abstract and untrue.

The freedom to play chess has never been a privilege. It is no coincidence they have nurtured chess in the Soviet Union “from above,” since chess is not golf, but a game of the poor. The constitution of chess professionals in the USSR, these pioneers of black-and-white squares, is a different story rooted in another cult, Lenin, who had quite the appetite for checkmating royals.

The success of “The Queen’s Gambit” is astonishing. On one side, the modern subject, the spectator, is used to enjoying the virtual environs of the internet. In the pandemic and prohibition era, it is still the Other that authorizes certain types of jouissance. Even in 1975, Lacan highlighted “drug success”[3]. The internet could be considered a modern “drug”, and every kind of online gaming its semblance. The Super-ego imperative “Enjoy!”[4] forces the contemporary subject to invoke his rights when it comes to jouissance.

On the other side, the show fits perfectly well with the prevailing discourse, offering new paths of jouissance, thereby forming a symptom. This chess phenomenon that the show aroused operates with the enjoying goddess herself; “In Antiquity, the God Dionysus or Bacchus proved his existence to his worshipers, giving them intoxication and oblivion”[5]. The incredible success of “The Queen’s Gambit” demonstrates this, as Beth inspires her legions of fans to play online indefinitely.

The beneficial consequences for the capitalist discourse appeared within a few months. There was an enormous increase in traffic to online chess platforms, as well as online chess streams. Chess player idols were forged in the image of the principal deity. Thus an ancient board game has become a lure for online addicts, facilitated by the isolation of the pandemic and perhaps leading to the formation of a new symptom.

[1] Jones, E. “The Problem of Paul Morphy: A Contribution to the Psychology of Chess,” Essays in Applied Psychoanalysis, Volume VI, Hogarth Press, 1951.

[2] Fine, R. The Psychology of the Chess Player, Ishi Press, 1967.

[3] Aucremanne, J-L. (2004). “Le succès de la toxicomanie,” Quarto 81-82.

[4] Lacan J., The Seminar of Jacques Lacan, Book XX, Encore, edited by J.-A. Miller, trans. B. Fink, New York & London, Norton, 1999.

[5] Laurent, E. ”La société du symptôme,” Quarto 79, p.5.