Watching “The Queen’s Gambit” was difficult for me because of the life I’ve lived. There was just too much that felt too close to home. From the show’s setting, Lexington, Kentucky, near where I currently live, to Beth Harmon’s red hair to our shared love of chess to being a woman in a male-dominated world and struggling with addiction, the similarities between her and me were uncanny. Except I was real and she wasn’t.
I was 4 when I saw my first chessboard and fell in love with the game after my father and I taught ourselves to play on the living-room floor of our rent-stabilized East 23rd Street apartment in Manhattan. The 64 squares were a world where, unlike in my everyday life, I could acknowledge my love of competition and stand up for myself. When a boy at Nationals pulled the fire alarm to avoid losing to me, I insisted on the win. I set aside all I knew of being a girl when I played ― except for the fact that I was still always seen as one.
Though I was instructed by a teacher to “dress like a girl during tournaments” so my male opponents would underestimate me, I refused and managed to convince the boys on my chess team that I was one of them.
Even though we tied for second in the country, my school bewilderingly refused to acknowledge we existed. So the boys all left to attend different schools where they could continue to compete, and I was left without a team. I briefly studied solo, but my undiagnosed attention deficit hyperactivity disorder became more pronounced with the onset of puberty, and chess felt unmanageably consuming with all of its possibilities and no teammates to rely on or commiserate with.
I quit the game and discovered drugs, cigarettes, cutting myself and sex with boys and girls, all of which let me escape my body and my life in a similar way that chess did. (I never dreamed I would reunite with one of the boys from the team decades later, dating him and moving to Kentucky to be with him during the coronavirus pandemic.)
Soon after I stopped playing, I was offered my first job teaching chess at a Gramercy Park school, then another from a school on the Upper West Side, more in Harlem, then in the Bronx. I was just 13 and never intended to teach, but I wasn’t one to turn down anything.
It didn’t occur to me that teaching at a young age was unusual. Headstrong, I enjoyed doing things my way. I naively believed a class of kids, often older than me, would finally let me be in charge. I don’t recall discussing it with my family at all. I had also spent much of my life as a professional actor in addition to playing chess and attending school, often leaving class early or missing weeks at a time, so I was certain I could handle taking on students.
Chess remained the one constant in my life as I continued to use drugs, party and deal with multiple rapes, pregnancies, a miscarriage in the school bathroom I’ve only recently recalled, and difficulties in my own classes and at home. My students bared their hearts to me, and I did whatever I could to teach them the game that I loved so much. I gravitated toward the troubled ones, not realizing I was seeking out versions of myself and trying to do for them what I hoped an adult would do for me.
I taught at the former St. Denis Hotel on Saturday mornings, in a tiny chess bookstore, usually still drunk from the night before. I’d stand as far as I could from the parents so they couldn’t smell the Long Island iced teas seeping from my skin.
I taught at the former St. Denis Hotel on Saturday mornings, in a tiny chess bookstore, usually still drunk from the night before. I’d stand as far as I could from the parents so they couldn’t smell the Long Island iced teas seeping from my skin. I’d vomit in the toilet between instruction and playtime, then pick myself up with some cocaine, careful to dry the sink before snorting it off the always-wet porcelain. Afterwards, I’d head for Washington Square Park and drop some acid in preparation for another night of drinking and other adult activities. This lasted from eighth grade until well past graduating high school.
During the summers, I taught chess for hours a day. During the winters, I taught on weekends and after school. By the time I entered college, I was overseeing 40 lessons a week, privately and in schools in some of the wealthiest and poorest neighborhoods in the city. It paid well, but everyone wanted the same hours and there were never enough to go around.
Some days I could make $500 or $600 from teaching, but I could never hold on to the money. All the while I was sidestepping propositions from older married chess co-workers and constantly proving myself by beating any father who questioned whether I could play, let alone be qualified to teach his child. Sometimes I even lined up all of the doubters and played them simultaneously, like Beth did in “The Queen’s Gambit.” I had to do this with many of my male students, too.
Around that same time, a neighbor who worked as a stripper suggested I join her. Again I didn’t say no. I began stripping, switching from sweatpants during the day to fishnets at night. My high school best friend began working at the same club, and we could make our own hours, choose our own music to dance to, and come and go as we pleased. It turned out I was a terrible stripper ― I danced too quickly and didn’t know how to say what men wanted to hear. And, since I had a problem with saying no to anything, I had neglected to scale back on my teaching. Now that I was stripping, my life felt even more unmanageable.
Sometimes when a customer saw me carrying my chessboards and clocks to the club’s locker room, they’d ask me about them. Sometimes they even asked to play me ― especially when they said, “Tell me the truth ― how good are you?” and I told them. But I quickly learned that even when I won, I lost, too. They didn’t want a stripper to beat them at chess ― or anything else. It took me years to realize that when they said “Tell me the truth,” what they really meant was “Lie to me.” That was what they paid for.
One customer proved to be an exception to that rule. His kink was playing board games with strippers, and he’d invite me to his apartment to play chess. Dressed in ripped thigh-highs and a tiny black dress with fake fur over my bikini top and bikini bottoms, I’d sit on his expensive white couch drinking beer and catch my reflection in the glass wall of his Hudson River high-rise. With my fake eyelashes and dark red lipstick, I did not recognize the girl who stared back at me.
Stripping became tedious and unpleasant, and eventually, at the urging of a boyfriend, I quit. But chess continued. The other teachers, all of them men, commented on my body regularly, occasionally squeezing my ass as we taught. When I once offered to take one of them up on his implied solicitation, he declined, asking, “Do you just see me as a penis?”
Outside of class, the men I met often exclaimed “You do what?” when I told them I teach chess. “Are you sure you don’t mean checkers?” they’d laugh.
When I wasn’t teaching, I played speed chess, timed games that didn’t last more than five minutes per side. They were like little hits of the crack I had finally stopped using but still missed. Speed chess games could happen anywhere, but there were often matches in players’ apartments replete with booze, cigarettes, pot, cocaine and always models. As the only woman in the room there to play chess, I wasn’t sure which of us was supposed to feel the most insecure. Inevitably I would end up drunkenly trying to teach the models the game as they attempted to address my wayward curly hair.
Eventually as years passed and each autumn brought another round of teaching, chess began to feel more and more like a reminder of how my acting and writing careers hadn’t taken off. I resented chess for always being there and myself for not being as good as I knew I could be at it. I tried to let go of teaching, but I just kept getting offers, and it allowed me to pay the bills and help support my theater company.
If I had been able to grow as a chess player, I might not have felt so bitter about the classes. But the connection between chess and my love of speed and hard drugs (which, thankfully, I was no longer using) alarmed me. I was scared that if I let myself study chess, I would become completely consumed.
My situation reminded me of a melancholy chess teacher I had as a child. When I caught him smoking a cigarette after a lesson one day, he looked at me and said sadly, “I never meant to spend my whole life teaching a child’s game.”
His words haunted me ― mostly because I truly loved chess, too, but I was not sure what to do with that love or what that love would do with me.
Unlike Beth Harmon, I did not hit bottom while racing barefoot from my lover’s bed through a crowded hotel lobby to a tournament game with a champion chess player, paparazzi flashes going off in my face. Nor was it dramatically shutting myself up in my house and crashing while consuming huge amounts of alcohol. Mine was a much quieter descent. I was still teaching classes, now traveling to special needs schools in New York City, which relit my love for teaching, but even that center cracked. My students had started to correct me ― “The king can’t put himself in check,” they’d say, or “That’s a bishop, not a rook!” ― and I could barely resist the urge to step inside the tiny bathroom, lock the door, sink to the floor and never leave.
When my nervous breakdown came at 37, my chess master boyfriend was just how I liked my lovers best ― far away. True intimacy terrified me, and I unconsciously sought partners who were unavailable ― emotionally and physically. But when the pandemic hit, I had six months of sobriety under my belt and was no longer spending most of my time hovering over toilet bowls vomiting my brain out of my mouth. So, as the world shut down, I decided it was time to make some different choices, and I left New York City, where I’d lived my whole life, and flew with just a backpack and a guitar to be with my boyfriend in Kentucky.
My students had started to correct me ― 'The king can’t put himself in check,' they’d say, or 'That’s a bishop, not a rook!' ― and I could barely resist the urge to step inside the tiny bathroom, lock the door, sink to the floor and never leave.
When “The Queen’s Gambit” premiered last year, I did not immediately binge it. It wasn’t just jealousy that kept me from wanting to watch it, I was frightened of what it would awaken inside me and how it might stir both my desire and fear of playing chess. I was also worried about what it might do to my relationship. We tended to get into arguments about all kinds of things but especially about chess, and, as it turned out, we broke up before we reached the final episode of the series.
Chess — my forever true but always complicated love — was suddenly everywhere. Every day I had new requests for remote lessons landing in my inbox, and teaching sustained me during quarantine. At last, after everything I’d been through, it occurred to me that I should be grateful for having this game in my life.
I’ve found the intimacy offered and found in the Zoom boxes my students are sharing during COVID-19 has been more pronounced and precious than during any in-person lesson. Creating connections during COVID has meant more. Seeing my adult students take the time to learn and play a game while their worlds were often chaotic and difficult feels like courage to me. Being a part of establishing a new normal for my younger students, many of whom have had their worlds profoundly shaken, feels almost like a calling. And, as my own world was falling apart, too, I was grateful for the chance to show up as an expert in a field.
Chess is a microscope to our souls ― we cannot hide our true selves on the board. If we are compulsive, we will move rapidly and sporadically. If we are secret risk-takers, sitting still in a position will be impossible. For those who are more careful than they would like to appear, their positions will be very guarded and their games will be more closed.
These days, as I learn to truly live comfortably in my own skin, I no longer feel the compulsion or need to hide myself on a board. Perhaps one day that means I’ll be able to return to playing chess myself. Until then, I am committed to acting as a guide for others who want to enter and learn about themselves in this complex and challenging world.
Sari Caine is a native New Yorker who has been practicing nomad life and living outside New York City (for the first time) since the start of the pandemic. Currently in Kentucky, she just got her driver’s license and will be traveling to a writer’s residence next to an elephant sanctuary in rural Tennessee. She was recently published in The Independent and in the anthology “(HER)oics: Women’s Shared Experiences During the Coronavirus” and is at work on two memoirs, “Check Mates” and “Hail Mary to Kentucky.” She’s an active member in recovery, has ADHD and still teaches some chess classes.
This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.