The Queen’s Gambit: Fairy Tale and Sport

Netflix has produced a seven-episode TV series The Queen’s Gambit, a serious treatment of the game of chess that has become extraordinarily and unexpectedly successful. Released in October 2020, estimates are that over 70 million people watched it. The series has sparked a boom in the game of chess and stores have been bombarded by demands for chess sets. The present excitement resembles the furor in 1972 when Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union in Reykjavik, Iceland to become the world’s chess champion, the first American to do so. It is compelling to watch genius at work.

Apart from the appeal of the brilliant TV production, a remarkable mélange, intimate and emotional yet cerebral, it is likely that the success of the series is reminiscent of present difficulties, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and elsewhere allowing the time available to watch it. But more important, it provides a positive image of ability to deal with and overcome difficulties caused by the virus, and can be viewed as wish fulfillment for a final triumph over the handicaps people are experiencing in this era of the pandemic.

Queen’s Gambit offers a double picture, the image of a classical fairy tale of a girl transformed into a princess, and a sports story of competition through determination despite obstacles and sometimes self-destructive behavior.  In this latter respect it recalls the sports drama of another underdog facing challenges, boxer Rocky Balboa, the poor, uneducated character who fights his way to his destiny: the world’s heavyweight championship.

The Queen’s Gambit is a tale of an individual overcoming handicaps to achieve success. The very end of the series is symbolic of this triumph, with the behavior of the defeated chess world champion Vasily Borgov.  He says to his challenger Beth Harmon, “it’s your game,” and instead of upsetting, as is the custom, his chess king on its side, he gives it to her.  For her part, Beth, at the end, wears an all-white outfit symbolizing the transformation from the once orphaned nine-year-old into the queen.

The series is compelling in many ways. It is authentic in background, clothes, hair, costume designs,  and its stunning visuals of the details of life. It is also realistic in its offhand references to the game of chess, among them  the Sicilian Defense,  Najidorf, Rossolino, and Caro-Kann, and to personalities such as Jose Capablanca. It is most telling in the portrait of Beth Harmon, a flawed person, complex, stubborn,  but brilliant, highly disciplined as well as having a natural talent for the game of chess. Despite handicaps, she does not suffer from self-pity, but takes responsibility for her life  and has  a positive self-concept.

The story of Queen’s Gambit is of a young woman, an orphan in a home who at age nine reveals a talent for chess, becomes absorbed and driven by it and begins an unlikely ascent to stardom. She is also autistic and becomes addicted to and dependent on tranquillizer pills and alcohol, as well as having emotional problems, partly because of memories of her biological mother who died in a car crash.

The portrait of Beth is instructive in a number of ways. It portrays a person totally dedicated to the game, one who does not rely on intuition, works hard, is disciplined, studies her chess opponents and their games, rehearses her own games and going over the mistakes she believes she made in her few losses. Beth lives in an entire world of just 64 squares.

Above all, Queen’s Gambit appeals as an example of an individual overcoming obstacles and  finding a way to get over them and reach a successful conclusion. At the end of the story she forgoes her pills and liquor and is able to win while completely sober  and to see the fictional chessboard on the ceiling without drugs. She is now fully self-confident and in charge of her own destiny. Implicitly for us today, it indicates a path to overcome some of the obstacles of the pandemic.

The story and the denouement is appealing, even more because of the  brilliant production and acting, especially the stunning and memorable performance of Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth.

Yet it can also be seen as an up-to-date version of a standard romantic trope, the voyage of a poor handicapped person overcoming obstacles.  A parallel figure might be the eponymous heroine of Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 Bildungsroman of the growth of a poor girl, an orphan, lonely and abused, suffering privations and obstacles, but a strong person of independent spirit who has a happy, if bittersweet, ending.

The success in Beth’s life in  Queen’s Gambit  evokes memories  of admired  figures who have conquered handicaps to achieve fame. One can note two of many. Helen Keller, born on a homestead in Tuscumbia. Alabama, author, political activist, who lived “at sea in a dense fog,” was the first deaf-blind person to earn a college BA. Abraham Lincoln, born in poverty in a one-room log cabin, self-educated, became a prairie lawyer, and then the 16th U.S. president, and the symbol of freedom and moral behavior.      

There are countless individuals who have transformed themselves in similar fashion. One can take the world of sport.  Of the highly competitive sports heroes perhaps two will suffice.  Jackie Robinson, born in a family of sharecroppers in Cairo, Georgia, and living in relative poverty in Pasadena, became the first African American to play major league baseball, second base for the Brooklyn Dodgers starting in 1947. He symbolized the virtual end of racial segregation in professional baseball and was a proponent of the civil rights movement. Robinson was one of the most popular individuals in the country: he was second, after Bing Crosby, in a 1947 popular poll.

Billie Jean King, daughter of a firefighter and  a conservative Methodist family, in Long Beach, California,  became  the world champion women’s tennis player, the no. 1 professional player with her hard-hitting style. 

The miniseries was adapted from a 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, a novelist with an addiction to the game of pool. He spent most of his life gambling and drinking in pool halls before turning to chess. His life to some extent mirrors that of his character Beth. He was diagnosed as a youngster with a rheumatic heart, placed in a convalescent home, drugged with phenobarbital, and abandoned by his parents. He found comfort in pool and was fascinated by the game and the atmosphere of the poolroom, experiences which led to his novel The Hustler, very similar in theme and treatment to Queen’s Gambit (and made into a classic film starring Paul Newman and George C. Scott). He died of lung cancer at age 56.

Tevis was aware of the fierce determination of players of chess: he remarked that Bobby Fischer had “the killer instinct written on his face.” He also knew the intensity of the drama of the game. In the book and in the miniseries, Beth is shown humiliated and losing control after one of her rare losses to an inferior opponent.  The miniseries is a powerful assertion that many professional players of chess, as of pool, are loners, highly intelligent outcasts from society, trying to escape from personal problems. In the light of this it is a real pleasure that the magnificent production of Queen’s Gambit has given us the opportunity to probe the life of Beth Harmon, the complex figure who uses a gambit, an opening move making sacrifices in order to gain a pivotal position, control of the center of the board.

Image: Random House