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'The Queen's Gambit' is an impressive opening in chess storytelling

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as a prodigy battling addiction and trauma in Netflix’s newest sports drama, which is a breath of fresh air for chess enthusiasts

Anya Taylor-Joy in 'The Queen's Gambit'
Anya Taylor-Joy in 'The Queen's Gambit'

Salman Rushdie’s 2017 novel, The Golden House, features a chapter where the author describes the Queen’s Gambit as a rare Queen sacrifice in chess used, amongst other Grandmasters, by Bobby Fischer in his famous “Game of the Century” against Donald Byrne. Since being penned by one of India’s greatest novelists, this depiction survived all the way to print and escaped the ire of critics who reviewed the book even though the chess trivia dropped here could hardly have been more wrong. (The Queen’s Gambit is a pawn sacrifice in the opening, and Fischer did not play it in the game of the century.)

To any discerning chess player going through the history of storytelling around the royal game, this is hardly the only example of an unforgivable blunder. Movies involving chess have often featured erroneously set boards and positions that make no sense, when they haven’t indulged in outlandishly contrived climactic games such as the one in Steven Zaillian’s Searching for Bobby Fischer. To sum it up in Garry Kasparov’s words to the New York Times, “you can see that chess is being used unprofessionally”.

Even when such nitty-gritties are correctly portrayed, as in Edward Zwick’s 2014 biopic on Bobby Fischer, Pawn Sacrifice, filmmakers have struggled with capturing the cerebral nature of chess in compelling representations which straddle the line between lay and expert audiences. Against this historical backdrop, Netflix’s original miniseries The Queen’s Gambit comes as a breath of fresh air, and has chess enthusiasts raving about how it captures the sport’s technicalities, references, mannerisms and tournament atmosphere admirably.

Adapted from Walter Tevis’ novel 1983 of the same name, the seven-episode coming-of-age sports-drama tells the story of orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon battling trauma, substance abuse, and the gift of an unstable genius in her journey of self-discovery and self-destruction starting with a janitor in a basement and culminating in a match with the Soviet world champion of chess on behalf of America at the height of the Cold War. Along the way chess becomes a mirror of Beth’s emotional turmoil as well as a shelter of predictability and control in her otherwise spiralling existence.

The show masterfully externalises the psychological undertones of Beth’s chess games, which have hitherto proved the hardest to put to screen. It does so using some powerful visual innovations like Beth’s recreation of the chessboard on the ceiling of her orphanage while high on state-mandated tranquilizers, which merges motifs of trauma, creativity and addiction seamlessly into a cinematographic language which puts its sincerity to an authentic recreation of the sport’s internal complexity front and center.

Pivotal to this portrayal’s success has been director Scott Frank’s commitment to accuracy and detail, and his enlistment of former World-champion Garry Kasparov as well as celebrated chess coach Bruce Pandolfini. Pandolfini coached the actors on handling the chess-clock and moving the pieces around like professionals, and designed a database of games for Harmon’s fictional career at its various stages. The most critical games, though, are designed by Kasparov himself, and they include homages to masterpieces played in competitive chess as well as Fischer’s playing style (Harmon is seen playing the Fischer-Sozin variation of the Sicilian). This expertise, combined with Kasparov’s experience as a Soviet chess champion, he assured the New York Times, recreates an atmosphere “as close as it can get” to a real chess tournament.

Credit is also due to Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance, conveying volumes in a gesture, a look, a piece movement with her fingers. Hers is the standout performance of the show, and she breathes life into her character of Beth Harmon. Further help is lent by chess’ own history, especially that of Bobby Fischer and his single-handed triumph over the entire Soviet chess machinery and its world champion, Boris Spassky. Much of Harmon’s persona as well as her games are modelled after Fischer’s, and the Cold-War era atmosphere from the show, its setting, and much of its plot in the 1960s are obvious echoes of the history of chess’ most celebrated World Championship.

However, the most rewarding aspects of the show are its departures from history. The most significant of those is the protagonist’s gender, which allows the story to probe the nature of a sport which has always been, and continues to be, dominated by men. The notion of “genius” is vastly overrepresented by men in history as in art and sport, while stories of female geniuses like Emmy Noether and Ada Byron fall through the cracks. Kasparov confessed that, until very recently, he didn’t think female players could ever match up to men as they lacked the necessary aggression. Fischer himself ridiculed female chess players every chance he got.

Beth Harmon’s character is a powerful subversion of these stereotypes. Not only that, it allows the show to construct a more glamorous, sexy, dark and complex narrative than the traditional obsessive stereotype of the mad chess-genius. Fischer never played another World Championship after he beat Spassky, forfeited the title, and slowly lost his marbles as well as his US citizenship. In its choice of ending too, The Queen’s Gambit makes a meaningful departure from history, and shows chess not as Harmon’s undoing but as her anchor, her redemption.

Former British champion Bill Harston said, “Chess doesn't drive people mad; it keeps mad people sane”, and the show agrees with this assessment. Its optimism serves well in contemporary chess, when the image of madness and genius have travelled far from the times of Fischer and Morphy. For these times, the fictional figure of Beth Harmon can serve as a role-model for young girls playing chess who don’t take up the game because they don’t see any stories of females succeeding at it. The Queen’s Gambit triumphs in creating such a model for the female creative genius, which has few and far between authentic depictions.

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