This is a review of and personal reaction to the recently popular limited series that has been shown on Netflix, “The Queen’s Gambit”.
At one time I participated in a couple of chess tournaments and associated with the BYU chess club, so I am familiar with the game. Seeing a series about a chess player captivated my interest, so I watched it. Binge-watched it, in fact, three times and have since watched several series of review-and-reaction videos, and other commentary from participants. It caught my interest like few other shows have ever done. I’ll try to provide as few spoilers as possible.
“The Queen’s Gambit”, based on the book by Walter Tevis, portrays a female orphan chess prodigy who rises to compete at the highest levels of tournament chess, and with the World Champion, in the 1960s.
But, as the director and lead actress have both stated, it isn’t really about chess. It’s about the personal struggles of the main character, Elizabeth (or, as she prefers to be called, Beth) Harmon.
To cover my bases, I’ll first register my criticisms. First, obviously, this is a work of fiction…no such person really existed. However, she appears to be somewhat based on or inspired by Bobby Fischer, who was active during the same period covered by the series, and there are some notable parallels. Second, the chess world was and still is dominated by male players, and the series appears to underplay the discrimination and sexism that existed (and still do), in the world of serious chess competition. Positive relations with her various defeated opponents are seldom as good as they were for her. Third, Beth is portrayed as dealing with the problems of tranquilizer abuse and alcoholism, and I believe both the effect on her chess play and the difficulty in overcoming them are also underplayed. Fourth, her victories come a little more easily than is realistic. More losses and more draws would be normal. The earnings she gets from winning tournaments seen to be unrealistically high. Fifth, this is not a series for those who have serious objections to portrayals of profanity, drug or alcohol abuse, or sexual promiscuity. She has sexual relations with three different men, without being married to any of them and a near encounter with another. There is some nudity (none of it full) and more is implied than actually shown. There is a swimming pool scene and a couple of drunken romps in her underwear. Christianity is not portrayed positively, although the pretensions versus the reality of the orphanage where she was raised from age nine to fifteen make that understandable.
On the positive side, Beth is portrayed as a chess prodigy, and her various abilities, notably the ability to recall and play entire games in her mind without seeing the chessboard, are actually not uncommon among highly-ranked players. I have not read the book it is based on, but those who have report remarkable fidelity, although with a few changes. The series benefited significantly from the advice of Bruce Pandolfini, a noted teacher who was portrayed in “Searching for Bobby Fisher” and from the assistance of grandmaster and former world champion Gary Kasparov, who took great pains to be sure that the chess was accurate and correct. From the chess sets, boards, and clocks, through the actual moves, positions, and games, (all the games were real from start to finish though none was shown in its entirety) to the settings and conduct of tournaments and adjournments, and on to the characterization of American, European, and Soviet chess and chess players, all were made as realistic as possible for the period. (Kasparov was actually offered the role of the world champion in the series but declined.) There are a few errors, but overall, it was very well done. The cinematography was excellent and the costumes lovely. Combined with the acting and musical score, it portrayed the intense internal excitement and passion (although not the speed…) of a chess match with high fidelity.
Even though the chess was as accurate as possible, the major focus was not on the board, but on the players. Beth was principally played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who reported that she would memorize the moves of a game just before shooting and treat them as choreography for her fingers, rather than try to play out a game with full understanding of what was going on, which to me is as remarkable a feat of memory as anything her character could do over the board.
But since this series is more about the human struggle than the chess, let me move on with four more reasons I enjoyed it. First, although Harmon is naturally gifted, she does not succeed without adding hard work and dedication. She accumulates a library of chess books and uses it. At one point, she drops a mention of needing to study eight hours a day, which is reasonable for a professional. She can only go so far on her own talents. Two of her former competitors turned coaches insist that she needs to study yet more if wants to defeat the World Champion. To her credit, she does the work.
Second, as her first teacher observes at one point, her gift comes with a cost, the other side of the same coin. Although he doesn’t specify what that cost is, it is evident that she has difficulty fitting in with society. She is introverted, uncommunicative, likes being alone, goes through a period of being teased about her clothes, and has few people she can trust. Distinct from her talent for chess, she is highly intelligent and observant, and has some of the impatience and tendency to make uncomfortably pointed observations that often come with it. Her obsession with chess interferes badly with her social adjustment. She observes that the chessboard is a limited world with rules she understands, where she can feel safe and in control, where if she is hurt, she has only herself to blame. There are reasons for her use of pills and alcohol, although they do have a serious downside. That rings true. While I don’t have identical gifts, I do have some that are at times burdensome. While I don’t have problems with pills or alcohol, I have weaknesses and dysfunctional behavior that appears to be driven by similar things. There are reasons why genius and madness are so often linked.
Third, she does not succeed without help. From a loving but mentally unstable birth mother, through the janitor who taught her the game, to her best friend in the orphanage, to her adoptive mother, to her fellow players and former competitors who become her coaches, at critical opponents she is is helped along the way, through various and severe losses, disappointments, and setbacks.
And, finally… spoiler alert… she wins. Not only does she ultimately give up the drugs and alcohol, but she wins on the chessboard, too. As Beth would say, it’s beautiful.