The extent of my chess knowledge is limited: there’s a board that looks a lot like a checkers board, fancy-looking pieces and the word “checkmate.” However, my lackluster chess education did not stop me from enjoying “The Queen’s Gambit,” which dropped on Netflix on Oct. 23. The seven-episode miniseries, based on the 1983 book by Walter Tevis, was directed by Scott Frank and set in Cold War-era Kentucky. Captivating from the start, “The Queen’s Gambit” drew me into the world of chess in a way that was so organic that I considered buying a chess set for myself.
“The Queen’s Gambit” follows the life of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a troubled orphan who discovers her uncanny knack for chess in the basement of the orphanage she resides in. Battling an addiction to tranquilizers that aid her chess-playing, 9-year-old Beth proves prodigious in her ability to beat men more than twice her age. Determined to become a world chess champion, Beth, accompanied by her adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), takes on fierce competitors like Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), D.L. Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) and Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). While Beth wins chess game after chess game, she is also playing another, more dangerous game with drugs and alcohol, constantly on the edge of spiraling into self-destruction.
“The Queen’s Gambit” gets many things right: it’s smart, compelling and introduces you to the world of chess in a way that doesn’t feel forced or fanciful. Chess, at least to me, doesn’t sound particularly appealing — watching two people move pieces around a board for hours sounds headache-inducing. However, “The Queen’s Gambit” makes the game feel exciting and often beautiful. Beth Harmon may be a fictional character, but she feels as real as the game itself — quiet and unassuming but with a fire burning inside her. When Beth folds her hands and looks up at her opponent with wide, unperturbed eyes, there’s nothing left for you to do but root for her victory. Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of Beth may be one of the best aspects of the show as she takes on the role with poise and intellect.
While the show does an excellent job of making chess look like an exhilarating sport, the game would be nothing without Beth’s undying love for it. Drugs, alcohol, sex and chess prove to be her only forms of escape from the world. She’s a deeply flawed individual who struggles with her connections to others. She is lonely and angry, always in danger of losing control and always pushing away the people who truly care for her.
When Beth struggles with addiction, the show portrays her addiction negatively. The show illustrates how disruptive addiction can be to one’s life, affecting relationships and putting substance abusers on a path to hardship and misery. There is nothing romantic about Beth’s downward spiral, yet there is a certain beauty in her self-destructive tendencies because they’re so human and so honest. Beth is the epitome of a talented but tortured mind, a reminder that brilliance can come at a cost.
“The Queen’s Gambit” also succeeds in challenging traditional gender stereotypes in the male-dominated world of chess. Beth is genuinely baffled by peoples’ fixation on her gender, confused as to why her identity as a woman makes her chess-playing all the more incredible. Although she plays mainly men throughout the series, Beth doesn’t let this bother her. If anything, it is her competitors’ ages and abilities, rather than their gender, that initially unsettle her. Still, age and ability are no match when faced with an opponent as fierce and unrelenting as Beth. She is unafraid to look her opponents in their eyes, unruffled by their fame and the legions of chess trophies they have acquired over the years. She doesn’t care to be the best female chess player — she just wants to be the best chess player, period.
Beth also proves, time and time again, that anyone can play chess and look good while doing it. While chess is often thought of as an unglamorous, male-oriented game, Beth shatters this perception when she strides confidently into a chess match in understated-yet-stylish dresses, donning winged eyeliner and red lipstick. With each game she wins, Beth shows she has both beauty and brains.
I cannot emphasize enough how phenomenal “The Queen’s Gambit” is; it is truly a series that anyone, chess-lover or not, can appreciate. While I’m still mixing up rooks and pawns, Beth Harmon shines as the queen of the game, living an extraordinary life among the checkered tiles of a chessboard. You would be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t binge “The Queen’s Gambit” at this very moment.