A seven-hour series about chess tournaments doesn’t sound like a blockbuster, but The Queen’s Gambit is currently the #1 show on Netflix. The show makes a bold opening move by casting a woman in the role of the young champion—an unlikely choice, but one that stands on strong empiric ground.
Only 1% of chess grandmasters are women, but this gender gap appears to be caused by a lack of participation rather than a lack of talent. A study of 250,000 players found that male and female players had comparable abilities when they entered tournament play. Girls were more likely to leave the competitive circuit early, but the ones who stayed with it advanced at the same rate as boys (Chabris CF and Glickman ME, Psychol Sci 2006;17(12):1040–1046).
A separate study arrived at the same conclusion by applying a statistical model to the top 100 players. At this level, the men had higher scores on average, but 96% of the difference was attributable to the vast discrepancies in participation between men and women (Bilalić M et al, Proc Biol Sci 2009;276:1161–1165).
The Queen’s Gambit wins the game with gender, but the show blunders when it comes to psychopharmacology. The protagonist uses barbiturates throughout the series to enhance her game. In reality, these amnestic and sedative agents would have the opposite effect. Looking at the bigger picture, however, the point unfortunately stands: 1 in 10 tournament chess players admit to using cognitive enhancers to improve their game.