The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

What exactly is “The Queen’s Gambit”?  According to Wikipedia, it is a chess opening by the white player.  This opening is mentioned once or twice in the series, and pieces are moved on the board accordingly. Since I’ve never played chess, I couldn’t explain to you what the strategy actually involves if my life depended on it, however.  Nevertheless, I can tell you that I thoroughly enjoyed everything about The Queen’s Gambit: the acting, the direction, the characters, the story, the fashion and music, all of it.  This has been one of the best, if not the best series I’ve watched all year.  I highly recommend it, regardless of your understanding of chess.

Like other stories involving an individual reaching greatness in a sport or game, The Queen’s Gambit focuses on an outsider who achieves success early, is dealt a humiliating defeat (or defeats), and eventually overcomes their personal issues to achieve greatness. Fans of the author’s other novels, particularly The Hustler, will find a lot of similarities here.  Both focus on gifted people who are brought low by arrogance and drug dependencies, only to overcome both and defeat their greatest nemesis.

The Queen’s Gambit focuses on Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), an unconventional (bordering on quirky) character born with an aptitude for playing chess.  While chess gives her life meeting and brings her success and recognition as a child, she also has deep-rooted emotional issues that threaten to destroy her professional career as a chess player, and possibly her life.  For Beth, playing chess comes naturally, while emotional intelligence proves elusive.

In the beginning of the story, Beth loses her mother to a car accident when she is nine.  Her mother pushed her father out of their lives years ago for reasons never made entirely clear, so with her mother gone, Beth is left an orphan.  She is taken in by the Methuen Home for Girls, an orphanage with strict rules and a depressing atmosphere. One day, she is sent to the basement to clap out chalkboard erasers and happens upon the janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), playing chess by himself.  Like Beth, Shaibel is a fellow social misfit, curt and lacking in social graces but highly intelligent. Beth picks up on the rules of the game quickly, and Mr. Shaibel mentors her on how to play the game, including its openings, defenses and etiquette.  

To keep the orphans compliant and subdued, the orphanage gives each girl two pills every day, one that is a vitamin, and the other described as “something to even out your mood”.  It’s a tranquilizer, and Beth’s friend Jolene tells her to save them for bedtime, when they can help you sleep.  Beth learns that after she takes them, she is able to visualize the games she played earlier on the ceiling.  While this helps her to learn from her mistakes, it also affirms successful chess play with taking drugs in Beth’s mind.

Before long, Beth beats Shaibel, and he presents her to the president of the local high school’s chess club.  He is impressed with Beth’s skills, and invites her to play all of the members in the club in a simultaneous exhibition.  She beats all of them, and Beth’s life looks like it’s going in a positive direction.  Unfortunately, the state forbids the orphanage from giving children tranquilizers.  Fighting withdrawals, Beth breaks into the medicine room and overdoses on pills.  After that point, she is forbidden to play chess.

Five (or more) years pass and Beth is adopted By Alma and Allston Wheatley when she is fifteen (she has to confirm to her adoptive parents that she is only thirteen).  She goes to school but is an outcast due to her outdated and unflattering clothes.  Once, when out getting cigarettes for her mother, she steals a copy of Chess World and sees that there is a tournament in Lexington.  She makes a name for herself by beating Harry Beltik, the highest ranked player and a champion.

Beth’s relatively stable home life is disrupted when her adoptive father decides to abandon his family and live in Denver.  When Beth tells Alma (Marielle Heller) about the money she can make by playing in tournaments, Alma agrees to fly her around the country.  Since Beth is still under eighteen, Alma must accompany her whenever she travels.  Alma gets to indulge in her favorite hobby, drinking, but she also shows Beth how to enjoy the good life.  She introduces Beth to air travel, stiff drinks, fine dining and living out of fancy hotels.  For the most part, Beth sees these perks as a means to an end (winning tournaments), except for picking up her mother’s drinking habit.

The Queen’s Gambit breezily documents Beth’s career progression as a professional chess player through a series of tournaments.  She makes it to the final match every time, winning and losing the final match in equal measure.  Every tournament offers its own lessons to be learned.  US Champion Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) easily psyches her before their match in Las Vegas.  International champion Sergi Borgov rattles her with an unexpected opening in their first showdown in Mexico City.  Alcohol proves to be her undoing again when she loses to Borgov a second time in Paris.  In a refreshing twist, her American rivals offer to help her on her journey towards becoming a champion.  Beltik teaches her the importance of studying prior matches, while Watts drills the importance of learning opening and exit strategies.  Beth eventually learns from her mistakes, betting Watts to become US Champion and Borgov in Moscow to become International Champion.

While Beth’s reputation as a professional chess player grows, her personal life crumbles.  Alma dies unexpectedly in Mexico City from hepatitis.  Her adoptive father refuses to come home to help bury his wife.  Later he threatens to kick Beth out of her home over money.  Fortunately for Beth, she accepts help when it is offered, and learns that her skill as a chess player is what makes her a champion, not drugs and alcohol.

Beth’s chess-playing prowess quickly garners her attention from the media.  As the only female chess player on tour, she is a novelty and her beauty quickly garners attention.  (I’m reminded of a line in The Big Bang Theory, “come for the boobs, stay for the brains.”)  Aside from agreeing to be photographed for magazine articles, Beth doesn’t really understand her own femininity.  She doesn’t have any female friends in high school, and the ones she did spend time with only talked about things that didn’t interest her at the time, like popular music, kissing boys, and so on.  Beth’s birth mother taught her to guard her independence and to be wary of boys.  As a result, Beth really doesn’t know how to handle relationships with men.  Her first sexual encounter with a fellow Russian language student at college is a disappointment.  (He’s too stoned to finish!)  Later, she handles her relationship with Beltik poorly.  Beth doesn’t realize that Harry wants more than casual sex, and he decides to leave when he realizes that Beth is only interested in chess.

The Queen’s Gambit shows how intimate and personal a chess match is.  When you play against someone, you get a window into their mind, how they think.  For Beth, her chess matches are like cerebral foreplay, where she gets to dominate her male adversaries.  That Beth has an intimate relationship with two of her former adversaries, and has pined away for another years after they last met, underscores how chess is the only way Beth can relate to people.

The Queen’s Gambit has the same underlying sexy vibe as Mad Men, which is understandable since both take place in the sixties.  Stylistically, the sixties always seems to come across better than subsequent decades.  (Keep the seventies locked away in a vault, please!)  The clothes, the music, the cars, the air of confidence men and women had after leaving the conservative fifties behind, it’s all on display here.  Women wearing clothes that accentuate their femininity.  (Women still got dressed up just to the grocery store.)  Men in suits and hats wherever they go, always on the make like sharks.  People drinking and smoking freely and often.  (Smoking has to be the sexiest bad habit ever invented.)  Popular music from the period fills the soundtrack (The Kinks, The Monkees, Peggie Lee, Herman’s Hermits, Shocking Blue).  The Beatles or Rolling Stones were not included, but I think licensing their songs may have been too prohibitive.

The version of the sixties shown here certainly is one with a limited viewpoint.  After leaving the orphanage behind, Beth is firmly rooted in suburbia, and never interacts with anyone outside of her race or social status.  While the lack of representation may be troubling for some, keep in mind that this series is not a critical expose of societal inequality of the sixties.  The Queen’s Gambit wants to tell the story of how a gifted young girl overcomes her turbulent childhood to achieve greatness.  The period when this story takes place could have been set anywhere from the last seventy years.  The sixties makes senses because it was when playing chess could make you famous.  The seventies brought about video games, and playing chess seemed quaint and old fashioned in comparison.

Taylor-Joy successfully pulls off the transformation from fifteen year-old girl to a twenty year-old woman mostly by letting her hair grow out, adopting a more womanly gait and dressing in tighter clothing.  When The Queen’s Gambit was filmed, she was twenty-four.  The series effectively focuses on Taylor-Joy’s striking beauty, which, with her wide eyes and pensive smile, gives her an otherworldly look.  Like a predator, her eyes focus intently on the board, planning several moves that systematically destroy each opponent.

Although never explicitly mentioned in the series, Beth definitely has abandonment issues.  She never fully understood her birth mother, and when Alma dies, she’s left without a close friend.  Her birth father gave up fighting to take care of her, and her adoptive father is a soulless jerk.  As a result, Beth compartmentalizes her relationships with men, allowing them to tutor her and engaging in sex with them, but never getting close to them, or allowing them to get close to her.  In a way, Beth’s behavior is more like a stereotypical man than a woman.  She is single-minded on her goal, is aloof in her relationships, is uninterested in marriage, has few close friends, has difficulty expressing her emotions and drowns her sorrows in alcohol.

How much you enjoy The Queen’s Gambit will likely depend on how much you like Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as Beth.  The series is a showcase for her, and she’s in almost every scene.  After gaining attention with her performances in The Witch, Split and Emma, The Queen’s Gambit provides her with the chance to carry a seven episode limited series.  Her acting is exceptional.  From here on out, she’s definitely playing as white.

Final shout out to Thomas Brodie-Sangster, who I’ll always remember as the kid who drums in Love, Actually, to Jojen in Game of Thrones.  Hats off to you!

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