The Queen’s Gambit: Apophenia, Addiction, and Grand-Mastery

Rare is the day I learn a word I don’t know. Recently, I learned the word apophenia, in The Queen’s Gambit. The Queen’s Gambit is a quest, one of greatness beyond the average consumer of the show. The fictional story follows Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy, an obsessive quest for greatness, coupled with addiction during the Cold War era. Apophenia is defined as a connection between creativity and psychosis. A connection between unrelated things. To put it frankly, The Queen’s Gambit is escapism at its very best adopting a 60s aesthetic, a coming of age novella, vast traveling, and drug-induced spiraling.


The Queen’s Gambit shot up to the number 1 spot on Netflix extremely quickly, just two days after its release. It was adapted from a book of the same name written by Walter Tevis in 1984. Beth Harmon’s Journey towards grand-mastery mimics the alluring, binge-worthy nature of the show. Pulling us in, providing an escape we all seek, and evaluating the true goal of chess. I’ve gathered that the true quest of chess is not a move or checkmate, but in the constant psychological battle between you and an opponent. Chess has a million games you could play, and that is part of the catch. In a lifetime you attempt to master as many games as you can, and earn the title of “Grandmaster”. 


Chess is a game about more than strategy. It’s about obsession and perception. How your opponent sees you, or how you want them to think they see you. It’s how you choose to present yourself, and how to create a reaction. Newton’s 2nd law, for every action, an equal and opposite reaction. Chess, as it is, requires an unrelenting focus, intuition, anticipation. A basic read on people, if you will.  As with mastery of any art form or sport, to be a grandmaster of chess requires a step beyond the simple focus. It requires total consumption of combinations, a mania where chess and only chess is at the forefront of the mind. Greatness or grand-mastery in this way requires a mind that is unlike what is classified as normal. Beth of course is characterized as a prodigy, expected to be talented at chess naturally. 


Beth Harmon’s quest is coupled with a strong substance dependency, one that she has had since childhood. The orphanage, Methuen’s Home For Girls is where she was administered tranquilizers, a common tactic used to keep children compliant. The first episode shows how her mother was also a prominent mathematician, plagued by her own addiction to pills and unhappiness. Beth is sent to an orphanage at the age of 9, when her mother crashes her car, with Beth still in the vehicle. Methuen is where she learns how to play chess from a janitor, Mr. Shaibel. Beth’s early dependence proves to benefit her focus throughout various chess combinations. 


As cabin fever and isolation kicks in, our anxiety heightens, we’ve got all the time in the world and nothing to measure with, a show like this is a treasure trove. The show heightens the stakes of chess very well, similar to that of other sports, and moves rather seamlessly with Beth’s coming of age. From episode one to seven, the viewer sees her from age 9 to 20, and experiences various milestones with her. We see her grow from Methuen’s home for girls, to handling her first period, to beating grown men at her first chess match and beyond. She goes from a girl to a young prodigious woman right before our eyes. Her dependency on pills also increases over time, as she believes she needs them for optimal performance. 


In this same stream, we witness her spiraling from consistent binge drinking and smoking. These spiraling traits are often a tactic used for male characters, and it is refreshing to see it used in an original sense. Beth doesn’t know she’s spiraling at all when the camera spins, and unlike the way addiction is portrayed in male characters, she doesn’t blame anyone for her behavior. Beth’s obsessive mind, coupled with addiction is an escapist fantasy on what greatness can look like albeit it’s coupled with tragedy. Beth’s foster mother also passes away, and her foster father abandons them both. She is able to live independently in her home but reaches a point where she loses sight of why she started playing chess.


When Beth started playing chess as a child, it was so she could do something that wasn’t expected of her. An escape in her way from what was a terrifying situation for a child. She wasn’t into the same things other girls her age at that time were into like clothes, dolls, or etiquette classes.  It was something she gravitated towards naturally and unexpectedly. Chess famously is not very welcoming to women, and while Beth is a trailblazer in the show, she did not see her game, in her own mind for its truest potential. Over time she started playing to win, losing sight of the love of the game, and taking more substance to help her win.


Many of the episodes include a montage of Beth seeing a larger than life chessboard on her ceiling whether she’s asleep, or taking medication. She had a reason for using pills which she explains in the final episode saying her mind needs to be cloudy for her to fully focus. Considering how apophenia has been defined as being closely related to psychosis, it makes a viewer consider their observation.  If the audience can see what Beth sees i.e. the chessboard, what does that say about the power of the mind? Are we the ones suffering a delusion, or like Beth, can we unlock our greatness if we let ourselves?  Beth believed that the pills helped her unlock her greatness. In the finale, she sees the chessboard above her head, only she is sober this time. She came to realize before making a move that it was her own mind all along that was able to visualize the board. She knew the moves already, and never needed substance to unlock her greatness. Beth made a connection: Substance with chess and greatness, otherwise defined as apophenia.