Not even the most ardent chess player could have foreseen the glamour that would be attached to the game by the end of 2020. With the release of The Queen’s Gambit, sales of vintage chess sets have soared as viewers seek to recreate the intrigue of the game at the heart of Netflix’s seven-episode drama. This coming-of-age story, adapted from Walter Tevis’s novel of the same name, centres around Beth Harman, a young girl who discovers a latent talent for chess. The game becomes an escape from the cruel reality of life at a Christian orphanage, where her increasing dependence on the tranquilisers she is given is the start of a struggle with addiction that permeates the whole series, a story detailing Beth’s unlikely rise to national and global fame.
The show tracks the formative events of her young life, beginning with the car crash in which her mother died, leaving Beth in the care of an orphanage. Frequent flashbacks recall this trauma at the centre of her childhood, forming, along with frequent cuts to scenes illuminating her addiction to tranquilisers, part of a psychological framing of Beth. The show does well to get across the archaic and cruel practices at the orphanage without resorting to excessive pathos, swiftly moving on to the protagonist’s teenage years, more materially comfortable but nonetheless challenging. There are obvious echoes of Beth’s biological parents in her absent foster father and volatile mother, Alma, and while the progression of her relationship with the latter is moving, Beth remains without a responsible adult figure for most of her young years. The alcoholism she develops is evidently learned from Alma, and it is only her fellow players that make any attempt to intervene and help her with her addictions. There are various poignant moments that reflect on the tendency toward self-destruction so prevalent in geniuses of her kind as she struggles to cope with the loneliness of fame, unable to manage her time away from big tournaments and falling into patterns of addictive behaviour
There are various poignant moments that reflect on the tendency toward self-destruction so prevalent in geniuses of her kind as she struggles to cope with the loneliness of fame
Set in the 1960s, the show has a slick aesthetic and mise-en-scène characteristic of Netflix originals, with the ongoing Cold War a loose background for the drama, most obviously during the protagonist’s games with Soviet players. It is in these moments where it looks towards the outside world that The Queen’s Gambit falls slightly flat. Critics have noted the fairy tale quality of the narrative, and it is hard to deny the implausibility of Beth’s rise to fame being met with minimal mistreatment and sexism (beyond a magazine’s insistence on her gender in their reporting.) What’s more, The Queen’s Gambit resorts to many of the clichés of such ‘against all odds’ stories (the cruel orphanage staff, parental neglect), while Beth never really suffers a major setback in her career at any point. It must be said, though, that it manages to do so in a way that still feels captivating, and the ease with which Beth progresses in her chess career is in marked contrast to the difficulty she has in her private life. Her success relieves her from the woes of her private life much as the tones of the scenes differ, the euphoria of her victories juxtaposed with difficult scenes showing her out-of-control binges used as a coping mechanism for her loneliness and trauma.
Indeed, if you look beyond the show’s implausibility and lack of social commentary, it can be enjoyed as a work that comments pertinently on the destructiveness of addiction and traces the long-lasting impact of trauma and a lack of suitable role models. As a stand-alone spectacle, it more than holds its own and is engrossing throughout as scenes flow effortlessly into one another, always holding our attention. Above all, it has reminded us just how thrilling a simple game of chess can be.