The year: 2015. The place: Sydney, Australia. Irina Berezina stands at the front of the classroom, facing 25 boarding school boys. They stare back at her. Whisper. Eyebrows jag into frowns. It’s clear they don’t approve.
This 50-year-old woman from Ukraine is about to teach these boys how to play chess and they’ll have no idea what just hit them.
She sets up 25 chess boards, one in front of each boy. Just like she used to do back in the former Soviet Union with her chess coach Lev. She aligns the pieces inside their squares. Steadies herself, concentrates.
The boys snigger, baffled. One versus 25? Sure, OK. They let her play.
Before long, a king falls. Then another and another. Around the room, the looks of skepticism stretch into awe. The boys, all 25 of them, pack their bags, defeated. As they file out, passing the next group who’re still crackling with mischief, they send a warning: “She knows what she’s talking about.”
“I earned my respect,” Berezina tells me over the phone. “After that, it was much easier to teach.”
Now, a few years later, Berezina still plays chess in Sydney, Australia, mainly online, thanks to COVID-19 restrictions. She’s one of the best players in Australia and the only female chess player to be crowned champion four consecutive years back home in Ukraine.
Despite her success, Berezina’s never had much attention before.
But then came a little show on Netflix, based on Walter Tevis’ coming-of-age novel . It stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, a fictional chess player who competes in men’s competitions and defies the odds to beat the best in the world.
Since the show’s release, Berezina has noticed a huge surge of interest in chess. The miniseries has bloomed in popularity, owning the No. 1 spot on Netflix for weeks. “Every single neighbor asked me about it,” Berezina says.
“It’s a great show,” Vladimir Feldman, Berezina’s husband and current chess coach, tells me in another call. “It’s done very professionally.” The creators consulted one of the greatest chess players ever: Garry Kasparov, a Russian grandmaster and former world champion.
“It’s much more realistic than any movie I’ve seen in my life,” Berezina says.
She would know.
A young girl becomes a chess player
Unlike American Beth Harmon, Berezina grew up in Ukraine, in the former Soviet Union, where she discovered chess at the age of 4. Her older brother Victor received a chess set for his birthday, and she admired the beautiful faces carved into the pieces. She was “just running around” when she overheard her father teach Victor the rules.
Her talent was discovered at a chess club she’d tagged along to with her brother and her grandparents. They lived in a country where chess is the No. 1 sport, a compulsory part of the school curriculum and backed by government funding.
Berezina found a spot at the back of the room and sat down. Before the children stood Lev Aptekar, an esteemed chess player from the same generation as Boris Spassky, Mikhail Tal and Viktor Korchnoi.
He eyed the bright little faces and quizzed them about chess. In the last row, a hand shot up. Aptekar took in Berezina, the girl at the back of the room. “OK, talk,” he said.
By the end of the session, Berezina had a place in Aptekar’s class of brilliant 5-year-olds.
“He said to my parents — ‘That’s it. She’s going to be world champion.'”
No more dancing, no more anything. Just chess.
The real-life best female chess player
Berezina has played chess in Jakarta, Malaysia, Moldova — all over the world. She earned the title woman international master in 1993. Six years later, after emigrating to Australia, she placed equal second in the Oceania Zonal Championship, an open men’s and women’s competition held on the Gold Coast. The result earned her the prestigious title international master.
Berezina’s ability to play multiple chess games at once might be familiar. In her training, a young Beth Harmon plays 12 chess matches simultaneously. It’s impressive. Even more impressive? Berezina can do it blindfolded.
“I can put a scarf over my eyes and play with my eyes closed.”
But if The Queen’s Gambit is based on someone’s real life, it’s not Berezina’s. It’s not even a woman’s. The closest inspiration Berezina can think of is Bobby Fischer, the first American grandmaster to beat a Russian at the World Chess Championship, a feat similar to what Harmon achieves in the show.
In real life, the woman synonymous with the world’s best chess players is Judit Polgár, a Hungarian grandmaster — the highest title a chess player can attain apart from world champion.
Polgár refused to participate in women’s tournaments, preferring to compete against men instead. In 1991, at 15 years old, she became the youngest ever grandmaster. She defeated Magnus Carlsen, Anatoly Karpov, Kasparov and Spassky.
She’s considered the best ever female chess player, but her name isn’t in the show’s script. “The Queen’s Gambit is so brilliant but using some women’s games would have been awesome,” former US Women’s Chess Champion Jennifer Shahade tweeted.
The show’s ’60s setting is probably the reason — prominent female players like Polgár hadn’t been born yet. Women weren’t even allowed to compete in the World Chess Championship until the 1980s.
It was Polgár’s older sister Susan who fought for qualification in 1986.She battled to have “men’s” officially removed from the title so that it would become an “open” competition.
Judit Polgár made an appearance at the championship in 2005. No woman has come close since. In 2018, only 14% of US Chess Federation members were female — and that’s a record high.
“One of the reasons why there are very few girls playing is it’s a really male-dominated place,” Feldman says, remembering watching his wife play at hotels and restaurants, the only woman, surrounded by suits. A scene that would fit right into The Queen’s Gambit.
If only a show like The Queen’s Gambit had come along sooner.
Why you should play chess
Like Beth, Berezina has to cover the expenses of her flights and hotels out of her own pocket. Earlier in her career, she worked odd jobs, from chess coaching to playing chess at movie openings for pre-screening entertainment.
Later in The Queen’s Gambit, Beth’s victories come with handsome winnings. But in real life, unless you’re multimillionaire Grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, the current world chess champion, the prize money isn’t enough to pay the bills.
In Australia, where chess isn’t compulsory at schools and there’s little government funding, a win at a tournament might put a grand in your pocket, but it’s barely enough to cover the travel.
Berezina hopes the show might inspire a whole new generation of women to take up chess.
“All my life I was dreaming of doing something about women’s chess … This show has done so much good already.”
When coaching school children, particularly girls, Berezina faces a battle with chess’ social stigma. Chess players are seen as nerds or outcasts.
“Sometimes you still hear from girls, ‘Oh, it’s not cool,'” Berezina says. “I’ve been desperately trying to change this attitude.”
It was her dream to be a chess player. To win. Yet over time, as she transitioned into coaching, Berezina’s felt the broader benefits of chess.
“It can help people on so many levels,” she explains. Improving your memory, helping kids who are too shy or too aggressive, even bringing the family together over an inexpensive pastime. “It’s a sport, but it’s an art.”
Now, after a life playing, Berezina enjoys chess more than ever.
“Then, all I wanted was to achieve. Now, there’s just pure love left.”