THE England Chess Federation has launched a scheme to encourage women to play chess after the widespread success of the Netflix show The Queen's Gambit, a move welcomed by North-East chess players.

The Queen's Gambit tells the story of orphaned child prodigy Elizabeth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who is taught chess by a janitor in the orphanage basement.

Set in the 60s, Beth is one of the first women to play the game and climbs her way onto the international chess circuit while battling with substance abuse.

Some 62 million households watched The Queen’s Gambit in its first 28 days, according to Netflix, which says the figure is a record for one of its limited scripted series.

The programme also triggered an upsurge in Google searches for chess, which has been felt in the North-East and across the country as Covid restrictions keep the population indoors.

With many people working and learning from home during lockdown, the English Chess Federation says it has seen a spike in interest among both former and new players.

It says The Queen’s Gambit has helped to break down the stereotype that the chess is only played by men, leading to increasing interest from women and girls.

The Queen’s Gambit Scheme, which offers a free supporter membership for the federation for women over 18 who have not previously been members, will run alongside a package of events aimed at new player joiners.

Tim Wall, a key figure in the North-East chess scene who teaches chess in some of the region's primary schools, welcomed the move while calling for more diversity in the game. 

He said: "The UK only has seven or eight per cent of female players, which is lagging behind the likes of France, which has a rule that there much be some female participation.

"English chess is trying. Our club, Forest Hall in North Tyneside, has about a dozen female players out of 60 and we are probably one of the best clubs. 

"It's important we build up the confidence of new players and that women have a space of their own. No one wants separate competitions but it is valuable for there to be girls-only events or spaces between matches, somewhere they can go for camaraderie."

He also said that while the pandemic has caused a spike in people playing online, club membership is down as older players struggle to get online.

He added: "Before the pandemic, we would play chess in a social club then head down to the bar for a pint and stay there all night talking.

"The club is a community, it keeps people happy. I've been on the phone to our older members trying to explain to them how to use Zoom, the website or even a computer so we can play chess.

"The next step is reaching out to people who have started playing chess online or who have watched The Queen's Gambit but don't know what to do next."

Mr Wall also said clubs on Teesside, which historically had a strong presence in the chess scene but have fallen off in recent years, have had a resurgence during lockdown.

He said: "Chess used to be really popular on Teesside but now they don't play a staggering amount of chess over the board. There used to be big international tournaments in Middlesbrough town hall.

"But now we are seeing Thornaby and Billingham clubs in online tournaments, as well as Durham City, Durham University and South Shields."

But it is not all fun and games for chess in the age of coronavirus, with problems around cheating and community arising as the game moved online. 

Director of women’s chess at the federation, Chris Fegan, said: "The Queens Gambit series which has recently been shown on Netflix has been a tremendous success and has been seen by millions of people throughout the world, many of whom have been encouraged to take up the game for the first time. 

"The ECF wishes to keep the momentum from the TV series going into 2021, and therefore we are offering free supporter membership to women over 18 alongside our Free Junior Silver membership scheme for girls under 18 to enable them to experience the benefits of ECF involvement for themselves."

The Queen's Gambit show is an adaptation of a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis of the same name.