The Queen's Gambit

The Queen’s Gambit

Dept. of Drug Addled Geniuses


If you look up the chess move known as the Queen’s Gambit, Wikipedia explains it as:

The Queen’s Gambit is a chess opening that starts with the moves:
1. d4 d5
2. c4

Now, I for one, have no idea what any of that means. And unfortunately, watching Netflix’s new limited series won’t provide you with much clarity either.

The Queen's Gambit

The Queen’s Gambit stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, a young prodigious chess player, and follows her life from the age of 9 until 22, as she learns to play chess in the basement of the orphanage, and faces off with some of the greatest chess minds of the age. The seven episode series is based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis.

The series opens in Paris in 1967, before flashing all the way back to Beth’s youth, to the day she is orphaned in a car accident and sent to live in the Methuen Home for Girls. The first episode focuses on a young Beth Harmon, as played by the enigmatic Isla Johnston, as she is accidentally introduced to chess by the orphanage custodian, Mr. Shaibel. We watch as she quickly progresses from curiosity to obsession in chess. An obsession that is, unfortunately, fuelled by the orphanage’s use of tranquillisers. (Tranquillisers, like the fictional Xanzolam in the series, was regularly given out as a sedative to both children and adults in America in the 1960s.)

The Queen's Gambit

Anya Taylor-Joy’s return as Beth Harmon begins in episode 2, as we see her get adopted into a troubled marriage, wins her first chess tournament, is introduced to her first love, a fellow chess player played by Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, and meets her first rival, Harry Beltik, played by Harry Melling. Enabled by her new mother, Beth goes on a whirlwind tour of regional and national chess tournaments, mopping the floor with her opposition, gaining fame, celebrity, and notoriety as the all conquering female chess player, all while the spectre of the Russians (chess players that is) hover over her every move.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s turn as the obsessive, single minded Beth, reaching out for perfection in her every chess move, is electric to watch. She coldly stares at her opponents across the chess board, never playing the damsel in their macho male-only chess tournaments. Although she was never turned away, Beth was always made to feel like the token female in every tournament she played, and this despite earning everyone’s respect as she inevitably wins each one she enters.

The Queen's Gambit

Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance threads that fine balance between standoffish and aloof. Cool, but not cold. She portrays the manic obsession with just a look. Her lack of facial expression and emotion is just perfection. She is supremely confident, without ever falling into arrogance.

At least until she finally meets her match, first in the form of Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s Benny Watts, and then eventually in the Russian grandmaster Vasily Borgov, played by Marin Dorociński. 

The Queen's Gambit

The Queen’s Gambit is a story of genius. Of an ability born, and then shaped by practice; by intellect. It is also ultimately a story of genius that is fuelled by the accidental introduction of drugs, of alcohol, and of madness. It is a story that is driven by obsession. 

The Queen’s Gambit is also a story of chess, obviously. This series has done as much to make chess sexy and exciting as Top Gun had making fighter pilots glamorous. The fast cuts when Beth and Benny play speed chess in Kentucky are stunning. Beth lying in bed, fuelled by tranquillisers, imagining and playing out games of chess in her mind on the bedroom ceiling are a thrill. Chess moves like the Sicilian Defence, the Ruy Lopez, the Caro-Kann Defence, and the Reti Opening are thrown around like famous songs. Names like José Raúl Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Horatio Caro, and Marcus Kann are name checked like Taylor Swift and Kanye West and Miles Davis. Alphabets and numbers are thrown around like notes at a jazz jam session, only familiar to those in the know. Despite being seven hours long, The Queen’s Gambit never goes so far as to explain to the audience the importance of any of it to anyone other than the chess players in its story. What does d4 d5 and c4 mean? Seven hours later, I still couldn’t tell you. But I’m going to go and find out.

The Queen’s Gambit
Netflix, Limited series, 7 episodes
Director: Scott Frank
Writer: Scott Frank
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Marielle Heller, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Moses Ingram, Harry Melling, Bill Camp, Marielle Heller, Marin Dorociński

Bahir likes to review movies because he can watch them at special screenings and not have to interact with large groups of people who may not agree with his idea of what a movie going experience is. Bahir likes jazz, documentaries, Ken Burns, and summer blockbuster movies. He really hopes that the HBO MAX Green Lantern series will help the character be cool again. Also don’t get him started on Jason Momoa’s Aquaman (#NotMyArthurCurry).

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