As a high school chess player, who played at the zonal level but quit the game due to unforeseen circumstances, I was intrigued by the Queen’s Gambit. It was the number 1 Netflix show in 63 countries, and had reached the top 10 in 92. I was watching episodes of Breaking Bad ( forgive me for being late to the party ) back to back over the past 2 months or so, and with it soon drawing to a close, I was considering what to watch next. Depictions of sport, for all their on – screen enthusiasm, come across as tepid, let alone for a game as introverted as chess. How do you make a sport that could lead to a tame draw after hours of toiling, have the same momentum as say, a FIFA World Cup semifinal ?
But ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ manages to pull off this heist , only faltering towards the final stages. A seven episode miniseries that chronicles the meteoric rise of a fictitious orphan, Beth Harmon, in the chess world. The show captures the era really well . Unlike other sitcoms like Mad Men, which are set in a similar time, the sexism portrayed may not tend to be on the nose, as it should be, but rather subtle, which does add more nuance, such as the time when Beth is paired opposite another woman in the 1st round of the State Championships, clearly on the presumption of taking it easy on the women. It does, however, make it seem unusually effortless for Beth to climb the sporting ladder in the intensely competitive world of 64 squares, which comes across as strange. Even today, as per FIDE, the official Chess governing body, only 16%, or approximately one in six registered chess players are female. One cannot be in denial of sexism in sport, and the opportunities that it has stolen from women.
However, when it comes to the Chess itself, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ does it rather well. Even to an absolute novice with no knowledge of the game whatsoever, the game sequences build up a sense of fascination. They are short and measured, and focus as much on the players personalities as on their moves, which helps keep the viewer engrossed, with an engaging soundtrack adding to the momentum. There are times when you wish to see a competitive fight after a build up, say for instance when Harmon and Benny Watts are competing to be the best player at the US trials, only to be directly led to a scene where Benny declares that his mistake led to his loss. This conciseness though is essential, for it gives time to explore the professional and personal relationships between Beth, who has always been a loner, and her protégés, who ultimately help her to up her game and topple the reigning world champion and her nemesis, Borgov.
But this is where the show falters. Beth topples her opponents in rapid succession at the Moscow Open, with a few tender exchanges with Alekhine being the saving grace, only to face Borgov conveniently in the final round, like the Big Boss at the end of a video game. But we know before the end draws near that she is going to win. The atmosphere does not suggest something extraordinary to be carried out at the last minute, nor anything different from the norm, like in an underrated sports movie like Moneyball. It falls into the trap of the underdog storyline, which is something that plagues sports movies time and time again. Although this was expected, we feel that it could have been executed in a better way. She also barely suffers any losses while making her rapid ascension in the sporting world. Even the best grandmasters would inform you that their win percentages do not clock at anywhere close to a 100%. Not to mention the convenient simultaneous convergence of all of her male friends in the exact same location just as she needs their support before the final showdown. Beth seems extremely lucky to have the support of so many fellow players, but that can in part be attributed to their fascination with her astounding gameplay.
Given the limited run-time of the series, Beth’s character has been fleshed out well. Portrayed in a career – defining performance by Anya – Taylor Joy, who was seen in Split, the character goes through the trials and tribulations of a substance addict, who also loses two families over the course of the show. Her need to be loved plays right into the hands of her addiction, but she is not one to pine for someone’s love. She seems indifferent to romantic affection, and tends to medicate or binge to fill the void of intimacy in her life. It is only when she visits her mentor Mr. Shaibel’s basement that she fully comprehends the sense of love and loss. It compels her to pull herself out of her mess and focus on the upcoming competition. I felt that this was portrayed meaningfully.
We see the protagonist grappling with her substance abuse, albeit with varying levels of difficulty throughout the show, which seems like an accurate representation of addicts, who go through varying levels of the binge, purge and possible relapse process. But when she decides to let go of her performance enhancing tranquilizers in an instant, it feels oversimplified. There is nothing that really clicks, like an epiphany of sorts. Although she receives verbal and emotional support from her friends in those regards, the point when she simply flushes her pills to eventually beat Borgov using her visualization techniques seems contrived. Quite like Captain Marvel or the Incredible Hulk regaining their powers as they did in their respective MCU movies, because ‘ they always had it in them ‘. Another predictable trope.
The Queen’s Gambit is overall a well made show, with its pace and storyline making it a fun binge watch over the weekend. It may not compel one to beg the creators for a spinoff, but it may at the very least make you get your hands on the nearest chess set available. I’d give it an 8 out of 10.