It’s not often that I’m intrigued by new content on Netflix, but I’m a total chess nerd and when I heard that its latest release The Queen’s Gambit centered on chess, I was all in. The period piece immediately charmed me and I ended up binge-watching all seven episodes of the limited series over the weekend without a single regret.
Set during the Cold War, The Queen’s Gambit follows young chess prodigy Beth Harmon (played by the wonderful Anya Taylor-Joy, of Emma, Split, and The VVitch), and her battles on and off the chessboard. After being orphaned at age eight, Beth is shipped off to a Christian orphanage from whence we watch her journey (and trauma) start to unfold.
One day she is told to take some chalkboard erasers down to the basement and clean them. As she does, she sees the school’s janitor, Mr. Shaibel, playing chess. She is instantly curious about the game and begs him to teach her, to which he eventually agrees. We soon learn that Beth is a chess prodigy and that she has an impressive knack for visualizing moves in her head. We see this in better detail when she takes the state-sanctioned tranquilizer pills distributed as a sedative to each of the orphans every day.
As Beth ages, she continues to play chess against Mr. Shaibel and even against the local high school’s chess team. She eventually gets adopted and continues playing chess in local and national tournaments as a way to earn some money. It also doesn’t take long for her to discover that her adoptive mother has a prescription for the same tranquilizer pills she took at the orphanage, which she steals to perpetuate her drug habit.
We see that Beth was alone not just at the orphanage, but even before, as her father was out of the picture and her mother had a spiraling mental illness. She continued being alone in her new home, at her new school, and even at chess tournaments as she was usually the only woman there. At one point, Beth says “I don’t mind being alone,” stating that chess makes her feel safe since it’s “an entire world of just 64 squares.”
And even though the statement seems earnest, you can’t help but wonder if it’s one Beth’s just trying to convince herself of, out of loneliness. Her cool, quiet demeanor makes it seem as though she is comfortably unaware of the protective hard shell she’s formed around herself as a survival mechanism. We never know for sure if she keeps everyone she meets at arm’s length intentionally or just out of sheer defensive reflex.
As Beth continues to win games against increasingly formidable opponents, her self-destructive tendencies also begin intensifying. She becomes increasingly isolated and erratic, much to the dismay of those in her orbit. It’s painful to watch her losses start to mount her victories, especially as she continues to deny relationships and give in to her vices and inner demons.
Later, as Beth begins preparing to play her ultimate opponent, a Russian named Borgov, she learns that the Russians really play as a team. The show takes place during the Cold War, after all, so of course there is an emphasis on the Russians’ natural comradery versus the quieter individualism found in Western countries.
Beth eventually learns that the only way to win and to help herself is by accepting the help and friendship being offered to her by her friends and fellow chess players. The Queen’s Gambit is the story of the struggles of a prodigy and the pain of accepting help and friendship. The show comes full circle once Beth realizes that no game of chess is won with one piece and that the only way she’ll succeed in anything is if she opens herself up to others.
And though the show centers around chess, it never buries the audience in complex terminology or tactics. That said, it doesn’t ignore chess fans either: every game was choreographed by chess great Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini.
The Queen’s Gambit is tremendous, well-paced, and gripping every step of the way. The show’s characters, costumes, set design, and, well, everything else are all impeccable and all part of the reason why the miniseries is receiving praise around the world.