by Ann Trinh
I am definitely not the first person to try my hand at convincing you to watch Scott Frank and Allan Scott’s The Queen’s Gambit. This nicely packaged 7-episode Netflix miniseries, released on October 23rd of 2020, is the tale of a chess prodigy climbing the ranks in the world of 64-squares while battling her inner demons. From pawn to queen, Walter Tevis’s Elizabeth Harmon (though she prefers Beth) is a character of his 1983 novel that drew the attention of Emmy nominated Godless director, Scott Frank. His interest in this brilliant yet incredibly self-destructive champion realised a series that grips both chess enthusiasts and novices alike.
One of the highest hurdles to overcome in the show’s production was how to make chess cinematic. The show delivers glamorous shots of hotels and tournament locations. The locations of Beth’s matches were not limited to the United States but included Mexico City, Moscow and Paris – but of these were actually filmed in Berlin. The camera takes a tour of each location (under the work of production designer Uli Hanisch) to give a wonderlike atmosphere that Beth undoubtedly feels when she first enters the stage.
Scott Frank describes the series as “one big montage” consisting of consecutive chess matches, which he and editor Michelle Tesoro initially wanted to avoid. But with each shot and cut to the next match there was a sense of rhythm, which was then interrupted to give the time to process what has happened by virtue of an important conversation or match.
The creators paid special attention to the action taking place on the checkered boards. Chess experts, such as grandmaster Garry Kasparov and chess author and coach Bruce Pandolfini, were consulted for the series and they made sure that the matches seen on screen were accurate (to those enthusiasts that could spot a mistake a mile away) and to carried their own personality as a reflection of Beth’s journey.
Not only did the positions of the pieces have a dose of tender loving care, but the movements and reactions of the players were trained to imitate professionals. “It’s how quickly they respond in certain situations, and the right hesitations at points, how you write your moves down on a score sheet, how you hit a clock, and how you look at your opponent after certain moves, all these little intangibles,” says Pandolfini. Such reactions were an integral part in storytelling. With the close up shots of the characters’ reactions during play, viewers could tell just from their expressions what was happening on the board – who was winning, who was in a difficult position, who had some misplaced confidence and who felt utter defeat – even without knowing anything about the game. What’s more, the emphasis placed on the characters’ reactions dives viewers deep into the minds of the characters, to truly feel the gravity of what they felt.
While the series is grounded in the world of chess, our attention lies on the Kentucky-raised orphan, Beth Harmon. Following an accident, Beth is left without her mother and is sent to a girls orphanage where she is introduced to these funny little green pills: tranquilizers, meant to even the girls’ “disposition”. It is in the orphanage’s dusty old basement where Beth learns from the orphanage’s custodian Mr. Shaibel the game of 64-squares. The story progresses as Beth begins a life with her rather turbulent adoptive parents and in her teenage years she begins making a name for herself at tournaments. But this story is not just about how this chess prodigy came to be a chess champion, it is also about addiction and “the pain and cost of being so gifted” as director Schott Frank said.
Remember those funny little green pills? It is under the influence of these bad boys that she sees visions of a chess board on the ceiling and plays through games. It is interesting to point out that in Tevis’s novel the pills actually made her mind foggier and Beth is fully aware of its negative effects but the bliss she gets from the pills were enough to get her hooked. At the ripe age of 9, she grew addicted to the calming effect of the pills and we got the first glimpse of Beth’s self destructive behaviour. “Addiction is one’s own worst enemy,” said Frank. We see just that as we follow Beth’s journey, she says hello to alcohol in her teens and an unlikely villain, winning. Yes, she is addicted to winning. As prepared, Beth turns to booze and the pills when life shows her feelings of loss and after following her story to this point viewers cannot help but empathize.
“The true cost of genius, for me, is the single most important theme of the book” said Frank. We find Beth alone and placed at an orphanage, from there she grows with feelings of instability. On the chess board she is in control but the lingering feelings of inferiority weights her down as she seeks for her place in a very distinct field. Unsure of where she stands in the chess world, she is even more isolated from the rest. She has a very specific talent that not every person understands and it can be speculated that she questioned whether or not she was a genius or simply crazy – the pills did not help though.
It is interesting to note that Tevis’s novel was published in the later years of the Cold War and sets his story during that era. In the Netflix series adaptation, the characters did not explicitly project their ideological views but as chess players their styles of play differed and correlated to their respective country views. It is interesting in the last few episodes how Beth interacts with her Russian competitors. In one match, she begins with a cold demeanor but as the game progresses she shows sportsmanship and has a rather wholesome but brief exchange with a young Russian player. Beth also learns along the way that the Russian players work as a team during adjournments, which can be paralleled with a communist ideal, while she (an American) plays on her own staring at the ceiling.
Not all of us are chess geniuses but The Queen’s Gambit is crafted in such a way that we can understand Beth’s internal struggles. Familiar feelings of instability, longing for belonging, and control over oneself transcend from our laptops, tablets and tv screens as we immerse ourselves into the obscure world of chess. To top it off, Beth is a unique character brought to life by Anya Taylor Joy. The actors were all trained on how to handle the pieces to best mimic professional chess players, Anya developed her own style – one just for Beth, with its own flair.
We follow what our heroine experiences through her lens. Upon entering tournaments Beth skills are questioned in her early tournament days but she later disproves her critics’ misconceptions by dominating the game. Arguably it is her lack of experience and knowledge of professional chess from the offset that is under scrutiny which in the 1960s was affected by one’s gender. Women were simply not considered to be capable of playing the game, leading to less (if any) opportunities to excel. Beth does not let this phase her, and so viewers do not either. She is a woman practicing in a male-dominated field but her gender is not the main focus of her story, as it is not something that particularly concerns her. Similar to women entering the male-dominated field of engineering, it is not about one’s gender that determines his or her qualifications. Gender is not the star for what makes a great engineer, it is in one’s works as a professional.
In a world that lacks female players, Beth does not excel because of the simple reason that she is a woman unlike other women. She embraces her femininity once she learns about the world of fashion. “Beth has a thing for flair,” as Anya puts it. Contradicting the visual stereotypes one might imagine for a chess genius, there is an evolution in her style as she continues to grow and discover more of herself.
What can be said is that Beth excels at the game because she has the talent for it. It is through her experiences and the people she meets along the way where people watching this series at home can view in awe at how this complex character came to be the queen we see in the finale.