Thoughts on “Queen’s Gambit”

by admin on December 1, 2020

Taking a one-post break from my retrospective series to jot down my thoughts on “Queen’s Gambit,” the television series on Netflix. I know I’m way behind, because I like to take my television in small doses, so everyone else has already finished watching it long ago. However, I finished just last night. Here are my thoughts (with some spoilers, so be warned).

First comment: It’s the most-watched original scripted series ever on Netflix. Why? Although I’d like to say that the answer is “chess,” a couple other words also come to mind. “Pandemic” is one. Lots of people staying at home and watching TV. “Anya Taylor-Joy” is another one. The actress playing the lead role of Beth Harmon is magnetic; her eyes are expressive, and her outfits are fantastic. The show is designed to be attractive both to women and to men, and that’s a pretty unusual thing.

Though chess is not the reason people watch “Queen’s Gambit,” it is one reason. People are still fascinated by chess. They want to know more about it. The game still has very strong connotations of intellectualism and talent (or genius). Queen’s Gambit plays straight into the “genius” narrative. It doesn’t ask any watchers to change their views, except for one: they are asked to believe that a woman can be a genius. Of course, that is the big one. It should not be revolutionary, but apparently it is, enough to make the series a hit.

Through most the series, it is an unquestioned fact that Beth Harmon is the most talented player. The only question — a very slight question — is whether she will destroy her own chance at success. News flash, she doesn’t. This is very much a conventional “underdog triumphs in the end” story, as seen in a million sports movies. But I think that the conventionality of the story is exactly what allows the other aspects of the production to shine through: the acting, the gorgeousness of the settings and the outfits, the mystery of the game of chess, and also its international spirit (which is very strongly portrayed here).

My other comments are divided into two categories: What did they get right? and What did they get wrong?

What they got right:

When you play chess, you spend a whole lot of time in hotels! You get to see many different hotel sets in this movie. Mostly pretty nice ones. But there are also tournaments in high schools or colleges renting out facilities for the summer, and they got that right too.

Chess players do not live a life of luxury (at least in the U.S.). I loved the apartment of the reigning U.S. champion when Beth arrives on the scene, Benny Watts. Beth heads for the main entrance to his brownstone and he says, “No, not that door.” He leads her to a small door and a staircase that seems to go down forever until you get to his apartment in a converted cellar, with concrete floors. Great visual humor, almost without words.

Almost everyone who takes chess seriously ends up doing something else for a career. And that may be a good thing. In this show, the Kentucky champion before Beth goes off to college and takes a job at a grocery store where he actually has to work with people. He stands up to Beth, who mocks this job, and says that “they’re good people.” Likewise, we see Beth’s first tournament opponent again in the last episode, and she is also very much getting her act together, much more than Beth is at that moment.

Chess is where Beth discovers her “peeps.” Of course it takes her forever to figure this out, because she thinks she has to go it alone in life, but other people help her whether she wants it or not, and in the end she finally realizes that accepting their help is a good thing. That includes having her former rivals help her out with analysis of an adjourned position in her climactic game against the “bad Russian,” Borgov. I like very much the central message that chess players, though they compete with each other, also support each other. This alone makes the series very satisfying for a chess player to watch.

The Russians are not the bad guys. Seriously! One surprising thing about the series is that there really isn’t a villain at all. The one Russian player they set up as a villain, Borgov, doesn’t do a single unsportsmanlike thing. Not one. His scariness is all in Beth’s mind, and in the end he congratulates her sincerely. Not only that, the other Russians — especially the world champion before Borgov — are portrayed extremely sympathetically. The last scene shows Beth playing chess in a park in Moscow, surrounded by well-wishers. If there had been a real-life Beth Harmon I think she would have been accepted warmly by the Russians, as shown here.

I wonder if the sympathetic treatment of Russians comes from the book the series is based on, by Walter Tevis. I’m not sure of this, because it’s been a very long time since I read this. Also I was interested in the portrayal of the U.S. Department of State official who is supposed to protect Beth while she is in Moscow. He’s far from being a “good guy” in Beth’s eyes; she chafes under his restrictions and ditches him in the end. Beth also ditches a Christian group that wants her to propagandize against the Russians while she is there. The message is really clear that chess and politics do not mix, and I’m thrilled to see this in a TV show.

What they got wrong:

The best player always wins. For a chess player, this is infuriating. Okay, Bobby Fischer won 19 in a row at one point. But in this story, Beth wins every single game for five years, except when the plot requires her to lose. I can only think that the scriptwriters did this because they think American audiences can’t handle the complexity of draws, or the even more revolutionary thought that sometimes the best player loses. Boo.

Adjournments. Actually, it was my wife who pointed this out, and it’s not a mistake so much as something that isn’t explained well enough. When we first see an adjournment it seems to come as a surprise to Beth. The second time, she sees some Russians analyzing an adjourned position together, and the viewer gets a definite hint that this is cheating. This prologue undercuts one of the most important scenes, when her friends back home get together and help her analyze her adjourned position against Borgov. Somehow, somewhere, the show needed to explain that at the time (1960s), adjournments were completely normal and there was nothing underhanded about them.

The short-game fallacy. You know what I mean. Non-chess players always think that the length of the game correlates to the difference in strength between the players. It’s such nonsense. A strong player is perfectly happy to win a grind-it-out 40-move game where there is never any chance of losing. And likewise, if a player loses in 15 or 20 moves, it almost never happens because the winner is such a genius, it’s because the loser made an awful blunder.

The I’m-so-shocked fallacy. The series relies on facial expressions a great deal to convey what is happening in the games. Unfortunately, there is zero subtlety at all in these expressions. No poker faces in this movie! Beth’s opponents are always smug and happy, right up to the moment when she makes some move that apparently they didn’t see, and then they’re all “woe is me.” Beth, too. On the rare occasions when the script requires her to lose, she is all petulant and angry and stalks off. Which brings me to…

The checkmate fallacy. Lots of times, the move that Beth’s opponent “overlooked” is actually a checkmate! Earth to scriptwriters: aside from Kramnik against Deep Fritz, grandmasters don’t overlook mate-in-one. Oh, by the way, one of her speed games against Benny (the guy with the basement apartment) appears to be Morphy against Count Isouard. I’m willing to let this go, though, as an Easter egg that was meant to amuse actual chess players.

The Albin Counter Gambit. I cracked up when I saw this. In their final game, Borgov plays the Albin Counter Gambit against Beth! I think that they must have picked this just because the name sounds so cool. My wife, who knows no chess, loved the name. But holy cow… the world champion, a super solid, super stolid Botvinnik type, playing an opening that I used to play as a Class D player and gave up when I got to class C?

Studying: Although I have almost nothing but praise for Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance, one place she falls down is in showing Beth’s attitude toward studying chess. It’s possible that the script put her in a bind. On the one hand, we are told that Beth is a very “intuitive” player, and she seems to scoff at the need to read about chess or listen to other people’s opinions. But on the other hand, she is shown as a voracious, Fischer-like chess reader. But she never seems to enjoy her reading, or to get anything from it. There are countless moments where she could have gotten excited by a game that she played over. For example, she could have studied a game of her rival Borgov and discovered a weakness. Or, heck, she could have appreciated the beauty of one of his games! That brings me to another thing.

Where is the beauty of chess? Or to put it in more literary terms: What is Beth’s motivation? My non-chess-playing wife could never figure this out, and I think that’s a serious problem (for the show, not for my wife). Basically, it seemed to me that Beth has two motivations. One is anger. She’s been treated badly by life, and chess is her revenge. The other possible motivation is obsession. But Beth never seems to take pleasure in the game itself, in discovering the beauty of an idea. Maybe this is the point of the fantasy scenes where she sees the pieces moving themselves on the ceiling? I do get the feeling that that those scenes are when she is entering her “zone,” her safe place, but for the first umpteen times she only gets to that safe place by means of drugs or alcohol, so it’s kind of a mixed message to say the least.

Hepatitis. Speaking of alcohol, I have one non-chess quibble. In a scene that is supposed to be tear-jerking, I guess, Beth’s adoptive mother dies in one day from hepatitis. Previously her only symptom had been a slight sniffle. I’m not a medical doctor, but really? She did drink a lot, and after the fact one character suggests that she had actually been sick for a while. Anyway, the implausibility of this scenario jarred me out of the story and made it hard to take this supposedly tragic event seriously.

One thing they got wrong on purpose: One appealing thing about this series, for a chess player, is that it’s a deep dive into an alternative history where Bobby Fischer never existed. Of course, the whole story was inspired by Fischer and his one-man crusade against the Russians. And Beth takes some aspects of her story line and personality from Fischer. But even though she is a poor role model at times, she is vastly less objectionable than Fischer ever was. So this series lets us enter a pleasant fantasy where we get our Fischer-like hero without having her turn into a Fischer-like villain.

Unless there’s a sequel? Well, I doubt it, but when you have a TV series that is this popular, there’s always a possibility. As we all know, you don’t actually become world champion by beating the world champion in one game — it takes a lot more work and a much longer time than that. If they really wanted to show what chess is like, the sequel could explore that whole process. And there’s another thing: after Fischer, there is always a Karpov; and after Karpov there’s always a Kasparov.

At one point, Beth plays against a Russian boy who is younger than herself, and it’s one of the few occasions when she actually says something nice — she says that he’s the best person she has ever played. In a sequel, the boy could be grown up and challenging her for her title. I would like to see that. Perhaps he could also be trying to defect at the same time, a la Korchnoi. Such a story line was hinted at in “Queen’s Gambit” with Borgov, but it never actually happened. Maybe they could resuscitate it in “Queen’s Gambit 2.”

For the few people out there who haven’t watched “Queen’s Gambit,” I do recommend it. Yes, for chess players there are some cringe-worthy misconceptions, but they are mostly quibbles compared to the important things that the series got right. For people who like numerical rankings, I would give it four stars out of five.

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{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Jason Braun December 1, 2020 at 4:26 pm

Nice writeup on the Queens Gambit. I agree with your observations. I remember adjournments but didn’t the tournament director call for it rather than one of the players at a convenient time? It also drove me crazy to see all the eye contact and facial expressions on the faces of her opponents. Nobody at that level would ever look surprised at a move (well, except maybe for Nakamura). I’m hearing that we’re going through a chess boom that we haven’t seen since 1972. I hope all those new chessplayers don’t give up when they find out it’s a lot more difficult than portrayed in the series!


admin December 2, 2020 at 1:24 pm

Yes, in general it was the arbiter (or in America, TD) who decided when to adjourn. This brings up another quibble or perhaps just a mystifying thing to me. In Beth’s game against Borgov they get to move 40 and then they both turn over their score sheets to the reverse side. I thought, “Aha! They can adjourn now!” And indeed they did. This turning over the scoresheets was such a tiny detail that 99 percent of viewers would never notice. And that makes me wonder: What was so important about making that detail authentic, while misrepresenting the more important detail of how an adjournment is initiated?


Brabo December 5, 2020 at 4:38 am

In fact it was move 37 in the final game when they adjourned. Bruce Pandolfini confessed in an interview as a little lie to make the story look better. I think this is forgivable.

I remember from my early days that adjournments were also possible by the decision of one of the players.


Hal Bogner December 1, 2020 at 9:20 pm

Aha – Borgov played the Albin Counter because the show is The Queen’s Gambit. 🙂


Paul M Gottlieb December 1, 2020 at 9:55 pm

Chess is difficult! That’s one of the things we love and hate about it. But it can be difficult for newcomers to get used to a world where you lose quite frequently, at least at first, and there’s no disgrace in it. If experienced players want to help chess retain a good percentage of these newcomers, we are gong to have to be welcoming and helpful–even while we’re beating them! Chess players are not always known for their warmth and sociability, but we need to try


Brabo December 5, 2020 at 4:46 am

One thing I remember from my early days of chess is that chessclubs were full of smoke from cigars or cigarettes. There are people smoking in the film but it is rather limited. Maybe in US smoking was much earlier prohibited than in Europe. Maybe the movie-director decided that smoke would make it hard to visualize the scenes well on the screen.

As a teenager I always had to change my clothes because of the smell of the smoke when I entered home after my clubvisit.


Paul M Gottlieb December 5, 2020 at 11:40 pm

I think modern audience would simply refuse to believe that tournament chess, as well as air travel, was conducted while we were all wreathed in dense clouds of carcinogenic smoke. Looking back on it, I’m kind of amazed myself


Mary Kuhner December 8, 2020 at 2:33 pm

My grandmother, with whom I was living for my first 2.5 years of college, believed I was a secret smoker because I’d always come home (from the Last Exit on Brooklyn, the famous Seattle chess cafe) reeking of smoke. I loved that place (long gone now, alas) but I don’t miss the smoke.

We had blitz opening variations designed specifically around the fact that all the Last Exit kings had had their crosses knocked off, so if you swapped your king and queen around early in the game it was quite likely that your opponent would find himself, later in the game, triumphantly mating your…queen. I’m amused to see that the kids in my local community have re-invented these openings, though without the excuse of worn-out chess sets.


admin December 6, 2020 at 9:10 am

I read a cool theory on Facebook this morning and wanted to pass it on. (spoiler alert) The author of the post thinks that when Beth hits her head near the end of episode 6 and passes out, she actually dies. He thinks that everything after that is a fantasy in her dying brain. When you think about it, from that point forward everything happens unbelievably well: Harry knocks on her door and says he was worried about her, then her friend Jolene appears out of nowhere and she is looking so great, driving a fancy car, on her way to success. Then Beth goes to Russia and gets the kind of acclaim she has always wanted. And the final scene goes especially well with this interpretation: Beth is transformed finally into the angel-like White Queen of the Queen’s Gambit, wearing a beautiful white coat that we have never seen before and that she could not have gotten in Russia.

I have to say, I don’t believe that the author actually intended this interpretation, and one skeptical commenter said that you could interpret almost *any* movie with a happy ending this way. If you hate happy endings, you can just say that it was all a dream or a fantasy. But at least this theory does make you look at the series in a different way.


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