‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is a grandmaster-piece of a chess show

February 23, 2021 — by Jonathan Li

(Editor’s Note: This story contains spoilers!)

April 9, 1966 — tensions rise as the United States locks horns in a battle of egos against the Soviets; it’s a race, a rivalry between two global powerhouses that turns every possible turf into a battlefield. From the Olympics to the space race, the Cold War leaves nothing untouched. 

Meet fictional character Beth Harmon (played by Ann Taylor Joy), who is thrown into the U.S.-Russia rivalry and bravely fights her opponents on a chess board rather than the battlefield. Born to a father driven away by a mentally ill but mathematically brilliant mother, she lives her early life in a beaten-down trailer in the middle of nowhere. 

After her mother drives into an oncoming truck in an attempt to kill both herself and her daughter, Beth ends up in a Christian orphanage that drugs its wards to keep them docile. Beth’s unlikely journey to chess stardom begins in the school’s basement as she plays games vs. the school’s custodian, a strong player she soon conquers. Her journey carries her from a shoddy trailer in Kentucky to Moscow as a proxy for America’s desire to assert Cold War dominance over the evil communists in their own game. 

Obsessed with defeating the greatest Russian player,  Vasily Borgov, the World Chess Champion, her fight is far more personal than simply participating in a Cold War for the Americans. 

Based on the book by Walter Tevis, “The Queen’s Gambit” is a limited Netflix miniseries that tells the story of a young woman’s struggle with genius through chess. With a brilliant soundtrack, an incredibly accurate and immersive depiction of the chess world, and remarkable acting, it’s not hard to see how this show took Netflix by storm.

Though the show has a few shortcomings, the $9 I spent on Netflix were the best $9 I’ve invested in a while, and the seven hours I spent watching the miniseries were seven of the best hours I’ve ever wasted. 

 

The title

It isn’t often I find a show that hooks me with its title. But that was the case with “The Queen’s Gambit.” Punny and remarkably symbolic of Beth Harmon’s life, it captures all seven episodes in their entirety.

To the competitive and semi-competitive chess players out there, you know that the Queen’s Gambit is a particularly popular and effective chess opening for white, an opening that “gambits” a pawn for the potential for a better position. 

But more importantly, it is a gambit, representative of the various risks and gambles Beth takes in her rise to becoming one of the best in a sport dominated by men. It’s no surprise that the last outfit she wears in the series is designed after the white queen. 

 

The cast

There could not possibly have been a better actress for Beth Harmon than Anya Taylor-Joy. Just as it has become impossible to imagine anyone but Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man and Johnny Depp as Captain Sparrow, Taylor-Joy perfectly captures the persona of a chess genius struggling with alcoholism,  drug addiction and relationship dramas. From every movement — her stride, her poise, the way she plays chess — to her expressions and the way she speaks, it is shocking to find that Taylor-Joy had never played chess competitively before getting the role.

Don’t look past the rest of the cast either. Jacob Fortune Lloyd (Townes) plays the role of the supportive journalist friend and love interest remarkably well, Marielle Heller (Alma Wheatley) is the perfect supportive yet self-destructive stepmother, and Marcin Dorociński (Vasily Borgov) might’ve been as perfect of a casting as Taylor-Joy. 

Yet, despite their incredible performances, what stands out the most is the show’s portrayal of the chess world in the mid 20th century. 

 

The chess itself

Here’s where ‘Gambit’ has some of its greatest success: its accurate portrayal of the game. 

Most shows on Hollywood and Netflix about chess tend to skim over the details of the game. The vast majority of  chess moves shown are absolute abominations to any mildly proficient chess player or basic positions a 5-year-old could play to. 

By contrast, every single game in “The Queen’s Gambit” is a real game that has been played before, and every move is narrated extensively (albeit sometimes incorrectly).

The critiques and discussions of the players over openings, opening theory and other aspects of chess are almost as entertaining as the plot itself. I even learned a bit myself: never play the Caro-Kann (“All pawns, no hope”), and the Sicilian Defense is a pretty amazing weapon to have in the opening arsenal (the theory in this opening is incredible). As a semi-competitive chess player, I found the show a goldmine of tips and lore. 

In fact, if you hop on to YouTube, you’ll find that even the World Champion Magnus Carlsen himself and various other incredible players have done full analysis on some of the games played in “The Queen’s Gambit.” 

Yeah, it’s that detailed. 

To attempt to completely encapsulate every aspect of this show in a newspaper story would be impossible. I’ve only scratched the surface, and the social issues that the show explores adds more depth. If you haven’t yet done so, this show is a must-watch.

 

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