There are certain television shows that seem to catch everyone's attention. While something like Game of Thrones became a watercolor show — likely given the subject matter and usage of violence — other shows seemingly come out of nowhere.
Enter, The Queen's Gambit — Netflix's limited series that focuses on the brilliance of a chess prodigy — which currently has a 100 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. If you're thinking, "Chess, really?" that's like limiting a show like Breaking Bad to, "Meth, really?"
Like with a lot of things in popular culture, Hip-Hop was ahead of the curve. Specifically, chess has been mentioned in countless songs — both in the literal sense — and a metaphor for the streets.
“Hip-hop is a battle game,” RZA told The New York Times. “Chess is a battle. Martial arts is a battle.”
RZA and GZA fell in love with both martial arts and chess growing up together in Staten Island. However, they didn't play often because neither had a chess board.
As the seedlings for Wu-Tang formed, they naturally combined their love of both martial arts and chess on wax — resulting in "Da Mystery of Chessboxin'." The opening lifts the phrase, "A game of chess is like a swordfight: You must think first before you move" from the film, Shaolin vs. Wu-Tang.
GZA acknowledged that the game of chess figured prominently into his own writing process, stating, “Writing is sort of like chess for me. You have to think carefully before you move, thinking, planning. In chess, you have to bring all the pieces into the game. It is about development. In writing, you have to develop the story.”
For RZA, the immersive aspect of the game — specifically in the studio — allows him to wholly focus on what is happening in front of him, instead of the hundreds of ideas that are usually running through his head on any given day.
"Poppa raised me to chess moves/And though you’re gone I’m not bitter you left me prepared/We got divided by the years, but I got it from here/Don’t sweat that, sounds bump from Marcy to Lefrak/To that pocket in DC where my man caught his death at/Over my years I’ve seen Rooks get tooken by the Knight/Lose they Crown by tryna defend a Queen/Checkmate, in 4 moves the Bobby Fischer of rap. - JAY-Z "This Life Forever"
There are countless other examples of Hip-Hop embracing chess: most notably Public Enemy's "Rebel Without a Pause," X-Clan's "A Day of Outrage, Operation Snatchback,” JAY-Z's, "This Life Forever," and Wu-Tang's "Weak Spot."
The Queen's Gambit has moved the needle for chess across television. But it was undoubtedly Hip-Hop — and The Wire —who did it first. The chess lesson from “The Buys” has become one of The Wire’s most iconic scenes. D’Angelo uses the familiar world of the drug hierarchy to explain an alien and complex game to Bodie and Wallace. At the same time, creator David Simon and writer Ed Burns use this scene to explain the drug game to an audience using the familiar rules of chess.