Culture Film & TV

A Brilliancy – Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit

Sitting in Jericho Café alone this Saturday morning, I opened up my laptop and began my daily routine of reading the latest Covid-related news. Realising that this ritual was in fact doing nothing to help my lockdown depression, I ordered another coffee, closed all my safari tabs, and opened a new one. I logged into chess.com and played a couple of games.

Over lockdown, like many people, I have really got into chess. I’ve always had a fairly decent awareness of the game, and I have fond memories of playing good friends at school, which usually saw me on the losing end, especially to one of my friends who went on to play for Oxford’s university team. My interest waned for a few years but since lockdown I’ve become obsessed, playing every day, memorising various lines of opening theory, and learning the history of the game and the distinct playstyles of the great masters, mostly by watching far too many YouTube videos, which it must be said are surprisingly addictive.  

As I finished my second game in the café, to my great pleasure the chap on the table behind me tapped me on the shoulder, said that he played some chess too, and offered me a game. We quickly added each other on the website, saw that we were pretty closely rated, and played what actually turned out to be a fairly sharp Sicilian. After we stopped, we had an enjoyable conversation about how we both took lockdown as an opportunity to get into chess, and parted ways, saying if we saw each other online we’d give each other another match. 

Spontaneous interactions with people were already becoming increasingly hard to come by, even before this second lockdown. Moments like this instantly guarantee my happiness for the rest of the day, and chess has become a retreat that has helped keep me busy and sane. How pleased I was, then, to see that Netflix had decided not only to make a show about chess but even better, had managed to make a damn good one at that, exciting fans and novices in equal measure.

The Queen’s Gambit is one of the best things that Netflix has released all year.

The miniseries of 7 episodes is an adaptation of the eponymous novel by Walter Tevis. It tells the fictional story of Elizabeth Harmon, a young chess prodigy, between age 8 and 22, as she rises from the basement in the orphanage where she learns to play with the custodian Mr Schaibel, to international stardom, taking on the Soviet chess machine, all the while dealing with tumultuous relationships and a drug and alcohol dependency. She is not in fact a real player, which many people are surprised to know. Her career is loosely based on Bobby Fischer, the American genius, who similarly took the world by storm, established a level of total dominance that has never been repeated, and single-handedly defeated the Soviets at their own game, becoming World Champion when he beat Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972 in ‘The Match of the Century’.  

The chess in the show is described virtually perfectly, and the acting, screenplay, and production value are just as good. The characters are all believable, flawed, fantastically realised, and sympathetic. Anya Taylor-Joy shines in the lead role. She somehow renders the moments of her sitting across her opponents, as she dismantles them one by one, just as enthralling, if not more so than the rest of the show. The supporting cast, led by Moses Ingram, who plays Beth’s best friend Jolene, and featuring Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Bill Camp, and Marielle Heller, is really something. As with all good dramatisations of chess, it balances a fascination with the game itself with the way of being a good chess player helps one become a better decision-maker in life. As Beth masters all aspects of the game, overcoming her tendency to get emotional, and learning the patience to become a great endgame player, she becomes an ever fuller, warmer, and more delightful character. Her opponents are just as transfixed with her chess as they are with her grace, beauty, charm, and intelligence off the board. And rightly so.

Bruce Pandolfini selected the games and coached the actors on how to look convincing, and Garry Kasparov, perhaps the greatest player of all time, was one of the masters who was consulted for the show. As a result, it is full of superb detail that will delight players and avid fans of the game. Most films and shows about chess make a hash out of showing the way the game is actually played, a common feature is when they play about 10 checks, one directly after the after, each with a close up of the faces of the ‘grandmasters’ who never see the next move coming. Not this show.

Each aspect of the game is described accurately yet accessibly. The games featured are presented remarkably, and more often than not are from real-life Grandmaster matches. Harmon’s game against Beltik is a great aggressive game by the attacking legend Rashid Nezhmetdinov from 1955 vs Genrikh Kasparian; the Opera Game, the most famous chess game of all time, played by Paul Morphy, features at one point if the viewer is quick enough to spot the famous mating sequence; and the final game shown is, for the first 37 moves, a closely fought battle between Vassily Ivanchuk and Patrick Wolff from the 1993 Biel Interzonal (do see here for an in-depth analysis if you’re interested). The real-life game ended in a draw, but for the show, they found an improvement that allows white, Harmon, to push for the advantage. It features a fantastic queen sacrifice resembling one from Nezhmetdinov-Chernikov and, once he resigns, Harmon’s fictional Russian rival Borgov stands to give her congratulations, a reference to Fischer-Spassky Game 6, the game dubbed ‘The Applause’. The show is called The Queen’s Gambit, but like Fischer, who never played that opening in his entire professional career until his match against Spassky, Harmon does not play the queen’s gambit with white until the final game. Such attention to detail is indicative of a show made with real passion and love of the game. Each episode is full of tension, comedy, and elation. It is a charming tale of female genius and highlights one of the most attractive elements of chess: the fact that it is a great level playing field. No prejudices, biases, or privileges matter; all that counts at the board is good moves. Like the actual greatest female chess player of all time, Judit Polgár, Beth Harmon refuses to play in women-only tournaments, and in doing so wins the admiration of all her rivals. The show is likewise a delight to all who watch it, and I would encourage everyone to follow Beth’s advice at the end: grab a board, and play a game.