The Queen’s Gambit – Accepted!: Jonathan Arnott & Rosie Irwin
From the publisher:
The game of chess has hundreds of child-friendly books, but what about the adult beginner inspired by The Queen’s Gambit Netflix series? Rosie Irwin is the perfect example: just like the title character, she’s had her own struggles with mental health and trauma. She accepted the challenge, and chess has developed the confidence. Coached by Jonathan Arnott – a former teacher, politician and chess Candidate Master – it’s been a steep learning curve. In January 2021, Rosie knew nothing about chess but the rules of the game. She’s now playing matches against opponents with 40+ years of experience.
This book is a must for any aspiring player. To go from reading Dostoyevsky to Dvoretsky would be a total culture shock. Whilst claiming to be neither, the authors’ conversational style offers a rare insight into the thought processes needed to move from beginner to tournament player. It is a ‘gateway’ book with stories and anecdotes mixed with chess learning, helping the reader to get to know Rosie whilst joining her on her chess journey. The title of this book (The Queen’s Gambit – Accepted!) illustrates Rosie’s acceptance of the challenge and the chess terminology that any gambit can be ‘accepted’. Don’t expect a dry chess book full of diagrams and notation without any story.
Rosie Irwin never considered playing chess until she saw The Queen’s Gambit and was inspired to take up the game, identifying with the lead character’s emotional struggles. Within a couple of months, she had learned enough from Jonathan to compete in league matches against experienced opponents.
Jonathan Arnott has decades of teaching and chess coaching experience. He has captained the Yorkshire county side, represented White Rose in the European Club Cup (the ‘Champions League’ of chess) and captained Chessable White Rose to victory in the inaugural online Four Nations Chess League.
A story I remember, a very long time ago now, concerned a young boy who was passionate about butterflies and moths. He saw a title in a bookshop which sounded like just what he wanted, but when he took it home he was disappointed with the contents. The book was called Instructions for Young Mothers.
Likewise, if you buy this book because you’re eager to find out what to play after 1. d4 d5 2. c4 dxc4, you’ll also be disappointed. You have to spot the dash, and perhaps also the exclamation mark.
This is a book for adult beginners, targeting in particular those who perhaps learnt the moves in childhood and developed an interest after watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. It works on two levels. At one level it provides a lot of helpful advice for beginners, but at another level it tells Rosie’s story about how chess can help those who are struggling with some aspect of their lives.
At the start of the book, Rosie introduces herself.
Beth Harmon is messed up. So was I. I still am, in fact…
I’ve suffered some serious trauma and depression. I’ve battled with self-harm and all kinds of issues, just like Beth…
I have Aspergers. I can sometimes panic in social situations. Too many people, too much crowding, can be a problem. On 64 squares, nothing else matters.
While spending time with her parents she happened to watch The Queen’s Gambit, got hooked on the game and contacted Jonathan, a chess playing friend, asking for help.
After an introduction offering 10 things you need to know before reading the book, we start at the end.
This is a very good place to start as well. There’s so much Rosie can learn from this position. In general, when you can and can’t win with king and pawn against king. The opposition. And, when you promote successfully, how to mate with king and queen against king.
Jonathan is clearly an excellent teacher. He understands that learning to do simple things well is more important than trying to do complicated things badly. His teaching style involves using Socratic questioning to lead Rosie to the correct answers, and to improve her play.
The next chapter takes a different approach: Impostor Syndrome. The feeling that you’re not good enough, that you don’t deserve what you’ve got. Although the chapter itself is, more generally, about lack of self-confidence, and Impostor Syndrome is only one of many reasons for lacking self-confidence.
Rosie, like many players at this level, loses a quick game against the Fried Liver Attack, which dents her self-confidence and exacerbates her already present anxiety. Jonathan invites her to play online against some junior beginners he’s also coaching, but she feels unable to do so.
When you’re coaching chess, you never teach opening theory to beginners. The last thing you want is for a beginner to learn a few moves parrot-fashion without having the slightest clue what they mean.
I agree with him, but, as he explains, there are exceptions, and this is one.
There’s no reason for a beginner who doesn’t know the position to play anything other than 5… Nxd5 here, but experienced players will be aware it’s a poor move. So Jonathan shows Rosie 5… b5, an excellent move at this level. Beginners are very unlikely to find 6. Bf1, the only move to pose Black any problems.
The book continues with a mixture of instructive tips from Jonathan, extracts from Rosie’s games, and psychological insights.
In this position Rosie has built up an impressive attack and now found the splendid 17… Ng4!, when capturing either piece leads to immediate mate so White had to give up material with Rf2. Jonathan adds that 1… Bxg3!! 18. hxg3 Qxg3+ 19. Kh1 and now the same idea, 19… Ng4, was even stronger. Some instructive attacking ideas there, I think.
Here’s Rosie, explaining how the chess pieces might help with her depression:
Take all the pieces off the board. Look at each one in turn and gain a deeper understanding of each of them. My family? The King. My friendships? The Rook. My faith? The Bishop. My love life? The Knight. And many many pawns: my crafts, my hobbies…each of them contribute to the ‘position’ of my life.
And me, you ask? Well, obviously, I must be the Queen…
I suppose readers of a certain age might be reminded of this, but, coincidentally, I had occasion to write something similar about how I saw the pieces only the other day. It’s all about the power of chess to enable you to tell stories which can help explain and improve your life.
Here’s another snapshot from one of Rosie’s games.
She’d learnt about sacrifices on f7 and thought this position looked like an ideal opportunity.
The game continued 6. Bxf7+? Kxf7 7. Ng5+ Kf6?? 8. Qf3+ Nf5, when 9. Nd5 would have been a pretty checkmate. She missed that, but still won a couple of moves later. Jonathan correctly pointed out that if Black had preferred 7… Ke8 she’d have had very little for the sacrificed piece.
This sort of thing happens over and over again at this level. I remember, about 45 years ago, teaching Légal’s Mate at Richmond Junior Club. I knew that one of my pupils had a school match coming up that week and, next Saturday I asked him how he got on. “Mr James!”, he exclaimed. “You made me lose!” It transpired he’d tried the same thing in a slightly different position where there was no mate, so he just lost his queen. An important lesson for him, and for me as well. Rosie was fortunate to get away with her unsound sacrifice here.
It’s great that books are now being published which consider the psychological aspects of chess. Instruction in any skill-based discipline should include generic skills, of which these are a part, as well as domain-specific knowledge and skills.
The important subject of confidence – which, if you like, is one aspect of mindset – is covered in several places. We learn, as you’ve already seen, about the dangers of lacking self-confidence, and, later on, about over-confidence.
Rosie makes good progress, but then things become too easy, she starts playing too quickly on autopilot, and, by now playing stronger opponents, she made mistakes and lost game after game.
She describes this as the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but my understanding of D-K is something slightly different: overestimating your ability at the start rather than becoming over-confident as you improve.
While I’m no expert myself, just an interested layman, I’m not sure this book always uses the right terminology.
(On a slightly different point, because of recent allegations concerning Hans Asperger’s supposed Nazi sympathies – see here, for example – many people prefer not to use his name as it might cause offence. Perhaps Jonathan and Rosie are both unaware of this.)
Although it’s not a complete course for adult beginners (you’ll have to look elsewhere for that), it still contains a lot of chess wisdom. This book is to be welcomed for several reasons. It will be a great purchase – or a great present – for anyone who has been inspired to take up chess by watching The Queen’s Gambit, especially those who can empathise with Rosie in some way. If you’re a female who wants to play like Beth Harmon, if you’re struggling, or have struggled in the past, with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues, or if you’re on the autism spectrum, I’m sure you’ll find much of value here, for its psychological as well as its chess insights. Players above the beginner level may also find it helpful in many ways, as will anyone involved in coaching adult beginners.
For several decades now, the chess world has been unhealthily obsessed with young children, prodigies and champions. My view is that chess, in general, is much more suited to older children and adults, and, equally, that older children and adults are more suited to competitive chess than younger children.
Perhaps the world will come to its senses and we’ll see more books written for older beginners, novices and improvers. Perhaps we’ll also see a greater understanding that everyone, from beginners to grandmasters, can benefit from chess in all sorts of ways. Perhaps we’ll also realise that chess can be attractive to girls and women, not just to boys and men.
Richard James, Twickenham 22nd June 2021
Book Details :
- Softback : 224 (softback) pages
- Publisher: Steel City Press (17 May 2021)
- Language: English
Official web site of Steel City Press