Queen's Gambit

THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (L to R) ANYA TAYLOR-JOY as BETH HARMON in episode 107 of THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT Cr. PHIL BRAY/NETFLIX © 2020

I wonder how the executives at Netflix reacted when they first heard the pitch for the dramatic miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” — a show that revolves around a board game. I imagine some people would tune out as soon as they heard the word chess. But “The Queen’s Gambit” is more than just a typical miniseries, and chess is more than a board game. 

Netflix’s latest breakout hit “The Queen’s Gambit” follows the life of orphan chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon during the 1950s Cold War era. Elizabeth (Anya Taylor-Joy, of “The Witch,” “Split”) learns the game of chess by playing with the orphanage’s janitor (Bill Camp) and eventually rises to the tournament halls of the world’s greatest players in Moscow. Beth Harmon does battle with these almost exclusively male adversaries on the chess board, but some of her biggest obstacles come from her own addictions to alcohol and tranquilizers. 

The series is based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name. Tevis wrote a couple of other novels based on games, specifically billiards, that found their way to the screen. They include 1953’s “The Hustler” starring a young Paul Newman as a pool shark and the sequel, 1984’s “The Color of Money,” starring an older Newman and a brash young Tom Cruise. 

The game of chess, however, follows the typical storytelling telling arc much truer than billiards. And “The Queen’s Gambit” utilizes this structure to its advantage. The title is based on an opening strategy where the player playing the white pieces offers a sacrificial pawn to gain control of the center. The series begins with the episode “Openings,” and like a chess game, it establishes the player’s positions and central ideas. By episode four — halfway through the limited series — we are at “Middle Game” and here the story is rapidly unfolding with dramatic rises and falls. The last episode, aptly titled “End Game,” features the magnificent twists and surprise moves like the last phases of any good chess match. 

The brilliance of “The Queen’s Gambit” is that you don’t need to be a chess fan to appreciate the genius of the show, but if you do happen to be a chess fan, you’ll enjoy the nuances, strategy and accurate details of Beth’s gameplay. There is plenty of drama in “The Queen’s Gambit,” and luckily for chess fans, much of it takes place on the chess board. The series captures the beautiful moments of the game from flashes of unexpected sacrifices leading to checkmates and tense moments between players as they work through strategy, and the lightning-quick instinctive battles of blitz chess. Harmon rides the waves of glorious wins and devastating losses. 

I’ve been playing chess all my life. Mostly, I play online, on sites like lichess.com and chess.com. I’m not great, but I enjoy the game and I’ve read more than a few chess books and played along with the games of grandmasters to try to understand the theory behind their moves. As a casual chess fan, I’ve read about Jose-Raul Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Bobby Fisher, and other champions — all men. That’s where “The Queen’s Gambit” really shines. Beth Harmon advances through the ranks of a male-dominated world — and though she has some help from some male friends including chess players played by Harry Melling and Thomas Brodie-Sangster — she does it her way by developing her own style and her own innovative, intuitive play. 

In some ways, Beth’s chess play mimics the way she navigates the world — on her own terms and with her own style. Her adopted mother Alma (Marielle Heller) shows the flipside of a stereotypical ’50s housewife trapped by social norms of the times — she’s unfulfilled and vaguely depressed. “Stuck” is how Beth describes Alma to her deadbeat adopted father. The show is full of strong female characters, including Beth’s best friend and de facto sister at the orphanage Jolene (Moses Ingram) who also defies society’s roles of the times by becoming the first Black paralegal at an all-white firm.

One famous chess name never mentioned in the show is Bobby Fisher — the erratic and troubled chess prodigy, who ruled the game at roughly the same time “The Queen’s Gambit” takes place. Fisher eventually succumbed to paranoia, and often was found ranting about the conspiracies surrounding the chess world and the larger world. Taylor-Joy’s character offers the opposite celebrity chess personality. She breaks from her troubled genius persona and emerges as gracious, clear-headed and independent. 

Mike Andrelczyk is a features reporter. “Unscripted” is a weekly entertainment column produced by a rotating team of writers.