For the better part of his academic career, University of Montana senior Dorje McPherron has quietly focused on his studies with few fellow students knowing of his mastery of a board with 64 squares.
Then recognition came calling this spring thanks to the wildly popular Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” and local media and others reached out to McPherron to see what he thought of the show.
And for good reason.
McPherron, who studies math and Russian, happens to be the Montana state chess champion — a title he’s held for the past two years — and is the top-ranked tournament player in the state.
“I watched it with my girlfriend and we liked it,” McPherron said of the series. “The chess moves are really accurate because Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini were consultants for the show. Of course, the series is overly dramatic. No one would want to watch for an hour and a half between chess moves.”
Kasparov, for those who don’t follow chess, was the former world chess champion, and Pandolfini, considered to be one of America’s most experienced chess teachers, consulted Walter Tevis author of “The Queen’s Gambit.” The title of the miniseries refers to the queen’s gambit, an opening move in the game.
McPherron describes chess as his hobby, but of course it’s more than that. The Hamilton native’s been an ardent student of the game since high school and has slowly moved up in the arcane rankings of the national chess scene. Today, his United States Chess Federation rating is 2,035, placing him in the 96th percentile among tournament chess players in the country.
“I spend a lot of time studying chess in books and online,” said McPherron, who’s quick to note he is no prodigy. “Locally, I play classical chess and blitz chess.”
The difference between the two?
Unlike classical chess, which allows players an hour or more between moves, blitz chess has a much shorter turnaround, McPherron explains, with moves coming every five minutes.
“Due to the shortness of games, you have to play more by feel or intuition, relying to a great extent on past experience,” he said.
McPherron, who’s made the UM Dean’s List many times, said math and chess require many of the same skills, namely logical thinking and reasoning. Unlike math and most board games, however, chance is not a factor in chess. There is, in short, no roll of the dice.
“When you sit down at the board, it’s just you and your opponent,” McPherron said. “So when I lose, I get frustrated, but then I look back at the game again and realize my mistakes. It’s helpful and it makes me better.”
Montana’s expansive size and lack of big cities have made refining his skills a bit harder. Bigger cities have more tournaments and seasoned players, McPherron said.
“I’d like to play in more states and tournaments, but I’m pretty busy with school, and it costs money to travel,” he said, noting that sponsorships aren’t really a thing in chess.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is definitely fueling a renewed interest in chess, McPherron said, as has the COVID-19 lockdown, with people turning to the internet to learn new skills. In the past year, he said, there’s been an “explosion” of chess masters and grandmasters streaming their play on platforms like Twitch.
As to what fuels his continued passion for the game, McPherron riffs on a famous quote from legendary player Anatoly Karpov, who said “Chess is everything: art, science and sport.”
“It’s a sort of science because often there is one move that is clearly the best, and it’s also art because you can come up with highly original ideas and express them through the medium of the game,” McPherron said. “It may not involve physical fitness, but like any sport it’s highly competitive.
“To me, because of its rich strategy and the deepness and variety of ideas and possibilities, chess is one of the best games you can play.”