(Note: This article contains spoilers)
The popularity of chess has risen dramatically amid a global pandemic that renders so many stuck in their homes starving for activities. That popularity took another sharp increase when Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit in late October. This period drama follows an orphaned chess prodigy as she rises through the ranks of the chess world and battles both formidable opponents and perpetual substance abuse.
The Netflix miniseries, based on Walter Tevis’s eponymous novel, took the streaming world by storm upon its autumnal release. After just four weeks of streaming, it became Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries. Its viewership reached staggering heights with reports indicating that the show had been watched by 62 million households since its release. This massive following came as a surprise to many, as the game at the show’s epicenter is known as a slow thinker’s game, surely not content that could inspire avid attention. Yet the seven episodes that make up The Queen’s Gambit are thrilling from start to finish. In my opinion, there are three elements that have contributed to the show’s impressive success—here they are.
- Authentic Gameplay
If you’re going to create a show about a topic as niche as grandmaster-level chess, you may as well do it properly. The show’s creators understood that their representation of chess in the series needed to be deadly accurate in order for them to sell Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), the series’ main character, as a true chess prodigy. They hit the nail on the head in this department, utilizing both former world chess champion Gary Kasparov and famed chess coach Bruce Pandolfini as consultants. The latter was no slouch at his role, devising hundreds of positions to be used as the script demanded.
The most important chess games featured in the show, such as Harmon’s matchups with Beltik (Harry Melling), Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), are all derived from actual matches between top-level players of the past. The writers did incorporate their own creative liberty, such as altering move orders in some cases, but the spirit of the matches often remains the same. Departures from actual matches only arrive in critical moments to demonstrate the immense chess prowess of Beth Harmon, such as an improvement she brings to a 1998 match between grandmasters Arshak Petrosian and Vladimir Akopian.
The commitment towards giving high-level chess the justice it deserves was not lost on the chess community. British chess champion David Howell labelled the chess scenes “well choreographed and realistic” while current world chess champion Magnus Carlsen gave the show five out of six stars.
- Clever Character Dynamics
Despite the presence of an opponent across the board, the sport of chess can often feel like a competition with oneself. This is because it is a uniquely individual game. When engaged in a chess match, there exists a distinctive double-edged sword; no one else except the player can be blamed for a loss and no one else except the player can be credited for a victory. The Queen’s Gambit capitalizes on this point by framing Beth Harmon as both the show’s protagonist and antagonist. She is responsible for her chess success, building on her natural talent by avidly consuming every chess book she can get her hands on. She is also at fault for her destructive tendencies, which spiral out of control as she refuses help from those around her.
As a result of Beth assuming both the protagonist and antagonist roles, other characters prove wildly dynamic throughout the series, refusing to adhere to traditional binary notions of “good guys” and “bad guys.” Harry Beltik, the Kentucky state champion who is Beth’s primary adversary at her first major tournament, later befriends her and earnestly attempts to give her a wakeup call during her darkest time. Benny Watts, the reigning United States chess champion who both hands Beth her first professional loss and continuously defeats her in speed chess, later becomes not only a cherished friend but also her most important chess mentor.
Even Vasily Borgov, the Soviet-Russian world champion who looms as Beth’s strongest competitor for much of the show, isn’t truly an enemy. While he is consistently framed as a cyborg-esque chess robot for much of the series, a thorough examination of his character reveals otherwise. At the first event they both participate in, he cautions his brain trust not to underestimate her and draws similarities between their chess ambitions. Further, when he is eventually defeated in the series finale, he is quick to warmly congratulate Harmon with a hug. He appears genuinely happy for her success given that she plays such brilliant chess.
At just seven episodes, The Queen’s Gambit checks both the boxes of “low commitment” and “binge-worthy.” The series accomplishes an astonishing amount of character development in so little time, particularly for Beth Harmon, who is just a young girl during the show’s opening moments. A true highlight of The Queen’s Gambit is its ability to make the viewer feel that they’ve been arduously toiling alongside Beth during her journey to the very top of the chess world.
While Beth does manage to defeat Vasily Borgov on his home turf, one match does not make a world champion. Instead of the series forging ahead and displaying a montage of sorts where she does reign supreme in several tournaments and achieve this feat, we are given a more abrupt ending. This close comes in the form of Beth being celebrated in a park by an older generation of Soviet-Russian chess enthusiasts.
The ending, in this capacity, is a little bit like a chess match between strong grandmasters. There comes a decisive moment when a winning advantage becomes clear for one side. The game could continue for a great deal longer until the king is actually checkmated, but instead of this often tedious process, a resignation by the losing player transpires. Seven episodes was all The Queen’s Gambit needed.
‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is available to stream on Netflix.
By David Zahn