Thoughts on 'The Queen’s Gambit'

Watching a show about chess may not sound like the most interesting thing in the world, but Netflix’s new series “The Queen’s Gambit” will almost immediately get you hooked on the game and one girl’s quest to become the world’s greatest chess player. The show, based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, starts in the mid-1950s and travels into the 1960s, a time at which competitive chess was often at the center stage in the media, a battleground for the Cold War, and completely dominated by men. Queue, Beth Harmon. 

*Warning, spoilers ahead*

Beth, fabulously portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy, is an orphaned chess prodigy who learns to play at age nine in the basement of an all girl’s school. She’s dropped off here after her mother kills herself in a car crash. The school’s janitor initially sees her as a nuisance, but quickly realizes her genius and skill at the game. Eventually adopted and entering high school, Beth experiences the real world for the first time and starts to enter local chess competitions, impressing everyone around her. She quickly rises to the top of the U.S. chess scene and from here aims to be the greatest in the world.

Seems like a too good to be true feel-good story, right? But winning chess matches is only one part of this story. Behind Beth’s genius and rapid rise to success is her grief, struggles with addiction, and mental illness shaping both her story and her gameplay. “The Queen’s Gambit” explores the madness behind the genius and the emotional toll it takes on a person to be that young and the best in the world. 

From an early age, Beth struggles with addiction. At the time of her arrival, the orphanage has all children taking daily medication, referred to as “vitamins.” One of the pills is a tranquilizer, apparently used to calm the girls’ temperaments. Beth eventually becomes dependent on this drug, as she finds that by taking large doses of it at night she is able to play chess in her head by hallucinating a chessboard on the ceiling, a form of escapism for her. For Beth, the drug is in direct correlation with her success in chess, eventually taking a handful before important high-stress matches and taking down her opponents with ease. Having known the drug since she was a little girl, Beth doesn’t see this as a problem, though her friends surrounding her become increasingly concerned as this is coupled with her tendencies to binge drink for weeks at a time. 

Obviously, this behavior is not unexplainable. Beth’s life has been plagued with the memories of her mother’s own mental illness and worries that their lives are parallel to each other. It’s revealed that Beth’s mother was somewhat of a genius as well, a mathematics professor, and we are to assume that this is where Beth gets her brains from. As the series goes on, Beth imagines herself as her mother and feels that she must be mad just like her. These thoughts coupled with her later experiences with her adopted mother’s depression and alcoholism play an important role in closing herself off to the rest of the world. Her two main female figures in her life are taken away from her due to emotional issues and she copes with this grief by escaping through chess and other means.

Beth is not by any means a typical girl, as she grows up reserved, awkward, and very unwilling to trust people. Beth casts herself as the outcast in the world outside of the orphanage, finding very little in common with the girls at the high school she attends. This loneliness doesn’t seem to bother her much, as she finds refuge on the chessboard. Like the tranquilizers and later the alcohol, she is deeply dependent on the game, as that is all she really knows how to do. This however starts to change especially with the loss of her adopted mother as she is left completely alone in the world. 

Something I truly appreciate about Beth’s character is her interesting relationship with femininity. It was a fascinating contrast in the way that people in the media and in the “normal” world saw her as compared to those in the chess world and her fellow competitors. As a child when she is first “discovered” as a phenom, she is taken to the local high school to play the all-boys chess team, beating each of them easily. Later on, as she is starting to get noticed again after winning several open tournaments around the country, a reporter interviews her and continues to ask what it’s like to be a girl among all of the men and Beth is unfazed by this, later expressing annoyance that that’s exactly how she’s framed in the article. She never seems to buy into the idea of how novel it is at the time to have a woman dominating the chess world or any field for that matter.

This is particularly refreshing because Beth knows exactly how skilled she is and is never intimidated by the scores of men she goes up against, she strictly only feels pressured when facing opponents who are as equally gifted or better than she is. This is important because in the media it’s so typical to see women get elevated or praised for being the best female version of something. Best female tennis player. Best female musician. Best female politician. There’s always a need for the insertion of ‘female’ into a description, as though a woman cannot be the best at anything. 

“The Queen’s Gambit” is a wonderfully complicated show that truly confronts you with a character that is not your average protagonist. You truly want her to succeed in every match but at the same time, you’re upset with her for constantly sabotaging herself and her relationships surrounding her. Beth comes to learn that you cannot solely rely on yourself and that she’s had people behind her all along. Opening up is difficult, especially when you have lost so much already. But being alone with one’s thoughts can be a dangerous game and it’s necessary to realize the support you have before you get too lost.