Lessons from The Queen's Gambit
From chess to hockey
Last night I finished the final episode of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit.
What a show. And what a performance by Anya Taylor-Joy.
Here are three of my hockey-related takeaways.
Play like a Queen
The queen is the most powerful piece in the game of chess. It is able to move vertically, horizontally and diagonally across the board.
Like chess, hockey is a game of angles. Players should play like the queen: move swiftly and decisively in all directions to provide support and think in 360° to uncover options:
0° (face-to-face): Square up to the defender and use weight shifts & crossovers to make him/her move first, then exploit the opening
Example: OZ middle entry 1v1
45° (front diagonal): Either turn toward the defender and create a face-to-face situation, or cut back, get the defender on your back & wait for help
Example: OZ wide entry 1v1 with a second layer in support
90° (either flank): The most ideal situation for a defender, who can match speed and take you out of the play - change speed and/or direction to get into any of the other scenarios
Example: DZ breakout at the half-wall
135°(back diagonal): Use crossovers to build speed, then cut through the defender’s hands to win the lane toward the opposing net
Example: OZ wide entry partial breakaway with back pressure
180° (back pressure): Sustain the advantage (if facing opposing net) or use deception & offensive contact to create time for a change of direction (if facing own net)
Example 1: Breakaway
Example 2: DZ back wall retrieval
In the series Beth Harmon’s genius is illustrated by her ability to play imaginary chess.
Growing up in an orphanage, Harmon passes the time by running through countless iterations of classic chess games in her mind’s eye.
The dramatization of Harmon’s gift is a good analogy for the type of genius one needs to possess in order to play hockey at the highest level. Each hockey grandmaster is able to run through multiple scenarios in his/her mind, then work backwards to find the ideal play - all this in the blink of an eye.
Average chess players, artists and sportspeople see what is and what isn’t.
But the greats can also see what could be, should be and would never be with equal clarity.
Their elegance stems not from perfection, but from the speed at which they can examine and discard imperfection.
For Beth Harmon chess is life.
But chess isn’t life.
Chess is a game of perfection information, while life is a game of imperfect information, as Annie Duke pointed out in her book Thinking In Bets.
Chess players are used to having the board and its pieces laid out in front of them. Their gambits play out with mathematical precision. Every deviation from the norm equals a mistake on their or their opponents’ part. In a duel, the more skilled thinker invariably triumphs.
Poker and hockey are games of imperfect information, where skill + luck = outcome.
In poker there are bad flops and bad beats. In hockey the perfect play may be nullified by a goalpost or a refereeing error. You don’t need to make a mistake to lose, but you can also win and still be second-best.
The Queen’s Gambit shows that chess can be harrowing and cruel and beautiful, but ultimately it’s an incomplete expression of the human experience.
It is what it is.
Hockey is still much more.
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