Being a former chess player, I went into “The Queen’s Gambit” with some reservations. After all, how could a TV show about a sport as slow, silent, and stationary as chess possibly appeal to a wide audience? I’m not sure if the show would really capture the attention of non-chess players, despite the fact that its success has been credited to its excellent cast and captivating cinematic style.
As someone who played chess from elementary school to college, I know that it’s a game that rarely draws people who aren’t already big fans. Many people think of chess as nothing more than finger exercise, but I’ve always considered it a sport nonetheless. So, I was ready to be let down by the show’s adaptation of the game.
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.
The series is based on a 258-page book by Walter Tevis and not a real story, and it felt like a fairy tale. The protagonist, Beth Harmon, faces and conquers insurmountable obstacles, such as the death of her mother in a car accident and the subsequent development of a drug addiction while living in an orphanage. Despite her struggles with self-destructive behavior, she miraculously finds supportive people along the way. It all seemed too easy and didn’t have the gritty realism I expected.
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 the 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 champions, 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.
But the show’s lack of chess matches disappointed me. World chess champion Garry Kasparov said that while the tournament atmosphere was accurately portrayed, the positions of pieces on the chessboard didn’t make much sense very often. The show seemed to put more emphasis on narrative than actual chess gameplay, which was unfortunate because I wanted to see more games that revealed her game’s strategic depth and complexity. Yet, 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).
My interest in “The Queen’s Gambit” was piqued not by the chess games themselves but by the glitzy presentation of the game and the era in which they took place. The show painted Beth as a talented but troubled lone wolf who gave up friendships for her chess career. It highlighted the hidden sorrows and costs that come with exceptional talent.
In spite of all the acclaim and praise “The Queen’s Gambit” has received, I just couldn’t get into it. As a chess enthusiast, I was disappointed by the lack of genuine chess depth and detail. It may have captivated those who aren’t familiar with the game of chess, but I found it to be unimpressive. There are better depictions of chess in other mediums, which is why I can only give this one a 7 out of 10.