I do love a good drama and there is no better one that I’ve watched this year than The Queen’s Gambit. Who would have thought that chess could have been so captivating and stylish?
When I saw The Queen’s Gambit come up on Netflix, I wasn’t sure about it because it was about chess. I mean, I can play chess of a fashion and I very much like the idea of it as a game but I was never very good at it as I find it quite demanding: working out all those permutations and predicting where your next move would lead you was beyond my very small brain. The closest I get to chess nowadays is playing with my boys and wondering if I’ve moved a piece correctly, and also, using giant chess pieces as ornaments in my living room.
I have a lot of admiration for anyone who can play the game well and so, when some of my Facebook friends recommended that it might be quite good to watch, I thought I’d give it a go.
I wasn’t disappointed.
The story revolves around Elizabeth Harmon, known as Beth, who is brought to an orphanage when she survives a car crash which kills her mother. Here, she is introduced to the game of chess, coming across it by chance and finding her developing adeptness at the game a solace in a life that seems quite bleak and lacking in prospects in many ways.
She also gains a rather disturbing dependency on tranquillizers, which help to augment her ability to work through scenarios in chess play to sort solutions and win the game.
But it is clear that she is uniquely talented. The story follows her from orphanage occupant at the Methuen Home for Girls to her first chess competition, from there to state championship and onwards and upwards towards world competitions. The road is a rocky one; she is adopted and leaves the relative safety of the orphanage to become a cushion between the two members of an unhappy marriage. Her adopted mother, Alma is lonely, drinking a little too much for it to be healthy and needs a focus – her husband, Mr Wheatley, is pursuing career goals in a different part of the country. Alma is a talented pianist but freezes up whenever she has to perform so it remains a latent talent only indulged on the piano at home.
However, when she discovers Beth’s chess playing prowess and yearning to play competitively, she does everything she can to encourage her, seeing Beth as a conduit to better things; a way to see the world, a way to generate income, a way to happiness. These are happy times for both of them and whilst it may not be a conventional relationship between mother and daughter, the need for someone other than themselves means that they gain comfort from their mutual proximity and presence.
Beth storms the chess world and makes friends of other competitors along the way. It is clear that chess is a male-dominated sport and that females who try to enter it are generally viewed as less capable. Beth shatters this myth from her very first tournament: she is formidable.
There are lots of things about this drama to recommend it to you. Firstly, the fact that the hero or heroine, I should say, of the story is a female showing mastery in a male-dominated world is rare but not unheard of but the fact that she is doing it using her intelligence probably is, rather than her feminine wiles. And Beth is a very attractive girl, perhaps not at the start of her chess career but she blossoms into someone chic and confident, capable of using her femininity to coerce or coax but she doesn’t. The fact that it is about the chess and her mastery of it and the grudging respect of the men she beats as time goes on made this a stand-out drama for me.
Secondly, Beth’s battle with addiction. I have already mentioned the tranquillizers which were administered by the orphanage and were quite a common way of controlling behaviour in the 1950s. Unfortunately, they are also highly addictive which Beth finds out quite early on. Her dependency on them stems from their ability to create a visualisation of games, a vision, which she sees on the ceiling, of an inverted chessboard and pieces with which she is able to pursue different combinations of moves to see the outcome. Bizarre, I know but one of the visually distinctive images of the drama.
The tranquillizers become a crutch, a toxic support which Beth feels she needs to be the best at chess. From a storyline point of view, it is something that she must conquer in order to live a relatively stable life especially as she is influenced too by her alcoholic adopted mother’s dependency and the way that drinking is used by Alma as an emotional support as well as a means to escape.
At the start of the story, chess is all that Beth has but as time goes on and she comes into contact with more and more people, the need for an outside influence like drugs or alcohol recedes, replaced instead by solid relationships and support of a human nature. As she becomes bolstered by people who care for her and want to see her do well, people like Jolene who was an early friend at the orphanage and her fellow chess players, so her confidence in her ability grows and her knowledge of herself and her capabilities becomes more secure, leading to a clear-headed and capable young woman.
I like the fact that she struggles, goes under but still keeps coming back.
Finally, the way that The Queen’s Gambit is produced makes this a pleasure to watch. This is partly due to when it was set in the 1950s and early 1960s; the atmosphere that that time period provides adds to the visual spectacle with the advent of colourful fabrics and a nod to a freer movement in fashion whilst maintaining a formality in tailoring. The clothes that Beth wears especially towards the end of the drama are very evocative of the time and whilst Austin Powers uses the velvets and ruffles and the psychedelic to poke fun, in The Queen’s Gambit, there is a sense of style and sexiness, even in the world of chess, perhaps not seen as a hotbed of sauciness traditionally but having its moments nonetheless.
And it’s not just the clothes: it’s the soundtrack, the drama being augmented with music of the period. My particularly favourite scene is when Beth is at the finals of the US Championships. She needs to win this to get to the Soviet Union and compete in the World Championships. To do this, she needs to get past Benny Watts, a friend, a fellow chess player and someone who she has not been able to beat up to this point. All of her and Benny’s games up until the point where she meets him in the final are shown in a montage and are accompanied by Classical Gas by Mason Williams, a piece of music truly of the period and one that I couldn’t get out of my head for days afterwards. It is a great bit of film and the best piece of music – I don’t know, it just seems to add something more that wouldn’t be there if that piece hadn’t been chosen.
Does Beth make it to Russia? Well, I think that you may have to find that out for yourself by watching it as this really is a treat in so many ways. There are only seven episodes and I really wished that I had eked them out a bit longer, it was that good. I may have to revisit it which is a rare thing for me to say as once I have watched something, I generally am not keen to return to it but I may have to make an exception for this.
Alternatively, I have reserved the book at the library: Walter Tevis’ narrative may be as good… I will let you know.