An illustration of two people playing chess for an article on "The Queen's Gambit."

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Isn’t Just About Chess

In a show seemingly just about a board game, the writing and character representation go way beyond the sport.
January 5, 2021
6 mins read

On Oct. 23, Netflix released “The Queen’s Gambit,” a miniseries about a young orphan girl in the ’60s that happens to be one of the greatest chess players in the world. But that young orphan girl, Beth Harmon, is a very complex character whose world doesn’t just revolve around chess.

“The Queen’s Gambit” is based on the novel of the same name, written by Walter Tevis and first published in 1983. It’s a coming-of-age novel where Tevis takes the reader on the adventure of Beth Harmon’s early life, from the time she is first orphaned at age 9, until the age of 19, when she beats every single Soviet player in the World Championship.

I’m usually one to read the book before I see the movie or show, but this time, I wasn’t aware the book existed. So, when I finished the show, I researched a bit and discovered “The Queen’s Gambit” was based on Tevis’ novel. The book and miniseries are very similar; most of the dialogue in the book is used in the show. It is only better in the way that all books are better than the adaptation: It has more information. But other than receiving a more enriching experience from the book, I have no complaints with either. Both versions are genuinely captivating. And that’s certainly something difficult to achieve.

Chess isn’t exactly fascinating to all. Two people sit opposite each other at a table and move pieces on a board. Most of the action happens in the players’ brains, and this can be boring to outside viewers. However, both Tevis and Scott Frank — the creator of the show — manage to make the matches engaging and fun. The camera angles, lighting and acting make the viewer unable to turn their eyes away from their screen and try to figure out how the characters are playing.

But like I said, chess isn’t the sole focus of the show. It deals with loneliness, adoption, feminism, grief, addiction and racism, among other topics. If you think you can relate to any of these at all, you might want to give “The Queen’s Gambit” a try.

Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor Joy, starts off as an orphan with an addiction to tranquilizers (initiated by the orphanage itself) who has a very hard time getting adopted. She first discovers chess after running down to the basement and finding the janitor playing a match. When Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the janitor, finally agrees to teach her, Beth escapes her classes to play with him. Unfortunately, after an incident with tranquilizers, she is forbidden from both seeing him again and playing chess.

It’s not until several years later, when she’s finally adopted by the Wheatly family, that she gets to play it again. And she doesn’t just play; she competes in a tournament for the first time. In it, she beats every single chess player competing and becomes the winner of the $100 first prize.

Mrs. Wheatly, recently single after her husband leaves them to deal with “business” down south, sees this as an opportunity to make a living for her and her new daughter. In Mrs. Wheatly (Marielle Heller) we see the effort and love put into her relationship with Beth. Mrs. Wheatly also has many layers and it takes a while to understand her. At first, it just seems like she wants to take advantage of Beth’s talent, like maybe money is all that is moving her in life. But, in reality, she’s just another victim of sexism in the mid-’60s. She uses alcohol to survive which, of course, also influences Beth. The two become a sort-of team that goes beyond mother and daughter. It comes across on screen like they’re more friends than family, but their love for each other is certainly family-like and that’s seen throughout their storyline.

As the competitions grow tighter, Beth’s name and presence start to become more known in the chess world — and just because she’s a girl, the rest of the world too. This is a big theme throughout “The Queen’s Gambit”: how she shouldn’t be recognized because she’s a woman in a world of men, but for her true aptitude for the game.

Luckily, the protagonist doesn’t let that stop her. She fights through all of the attention that highlights her gender and just keeps beating her adversaries. Unfortunately, faced with the pressures of the spotlight, her addictions become her safe place. It’s the only area in her life where she can lose control and not hurt anybody but herself. The show deals with it in a way that demonstrates all the hardships that come with addiction, from drinking, to smoking, to pills.

After years of competing, Beth meets a lot of people — other players, mostly, but she manages to make friends with some. And when she’s finally able to realize she has a problem with substance abuse and decides to deal with her addictions, her friends help her hash out the moves to beat the last Soviet player. So, in an emotional group effort, Beth manages to beat him, becoming the World Champion of Chess.

The miniseries has the simplest ending, exactly the same as the novel’s, yet it managed to tug at my heartstrings regardless. Thus it was the most memorable show of the year, for me. If you haven’t yet, go give “The Queen’s Gambit” a chance. It might just make your year a whole lot better.

Eva McCarthy Mínguez, Stony Brook University

Writer Profile

Eva McCarthy Mínguez

Stony Brook University
Creative Writing

Writer in training. Professional reader. In the process of sharing her voice while highlighting others.

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