How could a TV series based on a silent, sedentary sport captivate millions of Netflix viewers? Reviewers say that a great deal of its success is likely down to solid casting (starring Anya Taylor-Joy as the female chess prodigy), mesmerizing cinematic style, absorbing drama, and believable chess matches.
For someone who used to play chess, I watched “The Queen’s Gambit” with apprehension, preparing to get disappointed. Why? It was just hard to imagine how the writer and director would make a board game engaging unless the viewers are avid fans of the sport.
I can tell from my own games from elementary to college days, it’s rare to find spectators who are non-players, except for the players’ family or close friend. As a player, I didn’t get offended whenever people say that chess isn’t a sport as it only exercises the fingers. It’s simply untrue so I’ve learned to ignore these kinds of comments over the years.
Anyway, while watching the series, I kept wondering how the pieces on the board would come alive, how the matches would not bore the average viewer, and what would happen to Beth Harmon, who probably has the most unfortunate childhood experiences.
Spoiler alert. Beth’s mom died in an intentional car crash, leaving her to seek shelter in an orphanage, where she developed a drug dependency at a young age. Filled with rage and unchallenged in school, the only good thing that happened to Beth was meeting Jolene and Mr. Shaibel, the taciturn janitor who taught her chess and discovered her astounding talent.
Another Bobby Fischer?
The Queen’s Gambit isn’t a true story, and I’m glad it is so. It’s based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same title, which I haven’t read yet (I added it to my must-read books). Since it’s fiction, it leaves room for imaginative manipulation. Unlike the documentary “Bobby Fischer Against The World,” which is based on a true story of the mad chess prodigy, Beth’s story is filled with hope, even for someone as self-destructive as she is.
I thought Beth would encounter more traumatizing events when she left the orphanage, but she was actually pretty lucky to meet supportive people along the way. The story was almost like a fairytale, except for Beth’s own struggles with drinking and drug dependency.
Beating the Russians
From the early days of Beth learning how to play chess to beating the incredible Russian chess grandmasters and world champion, the series did a fascinating job delighting viewers. I wouldn’t know for sure what it’s like to face a grandmaster as I haven’t reached that level, but I can surely recall the familiar competitive spirit while sitting across a board, trying to outsmart an opponent with traps, zaps, gambits, or even a pawn advantage.
Garry Kasparov, a longtime reigning chess world champion, has been consulted to ensure that the mini-series depicted the ideal atmosphere at most chess tournaments. Kasparov, however, commented that the positions didn’t make much sense very often.
But the feel of the room, the sound of the chess clock, the desperation or fierceness etched on the faces of the players over a checkmate – they were realistic.
Every chess player watching Beth’s matches could relive those days when they were actively playing in tournaments. Watching Beth play with men who doubted her skills sends nostalgia down my spine. And hearing Mr. Shaibel talk about chess sportsmanship reminds me of my father who used to tell me to resign after a blunder (and not drag out the game out of respect for myself and my opponent).
If there’s anything that I find lacking in this series, it’s more games. I wish they had shown more matches. But as I said, the director/writer had to strike the right balance between storytelling and sports telling. If there were more chess games, the series wouldn’t have enjoyed massive success.
I didn’t love The Queen’s Gambit for its chess matches. What I love about it is its glamorous portrayal of the game and the era. Most of all, I liked how the series showed that giftedness has hidden sorrows and costs.
We see Beth playing as if she barely lifts a finger but in the background, she forgoes socialization and devotes her free time obsessively analyzing every possible move and combination on the chess board.
Kudos to Netflix for giving us a compelling chess-related masterpiece. I give it 10/10.