Review: The Queen’s Gambit

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit

The Queen’s Gambit, as is obvious from the title, is a chess story. Stuck in a children’s home by age 5, young Beth Harmon was sullen and undemanding until she discovered chess. Within a few short years, she was a champion player.

The Queen’s Gambit is one of those stories where it is supposed to be amazing that a girl can play chess as well as a boy. It’s reminiscent of Queen of Katwe or Queen to Play. It begins with adult Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy with Isla Johnston as young Beth and Annabeth Kelly as five-year-old Beth) scrambling from the bath, downing some pills and an airline size bottle of booze and running to compete in a chess championship match. She’s in Paris and it’s the late 1960s.

Flash back to the beginning. Five-year-old Beth is in a car with her mother (Chloe Pirrie). She remembers her mother telling her to close her eyes just before she drove into oncoming traffic. Beth frequently flashes back to her mother telling her it was all right to be alone as well as to the day of the wreck.

Her mother died in the wreck. Beth went into a children’s home where tranquilizers were used to keep the children docile. She loved the feeling the tranquilizers gave her. After she learned to play chess, she was convinced that taking them enabled her to imagine complete games on the ceiling as she lay in bed at night. It was only the first substance abuse problem that impacted her life.

Isla Johnston and Bill Camp in The Queen's Gambit

At eight, she was sent to the basement to clean erasers when she saw the custodian, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), with a chess board. After watching him, she demanded to learn. Mr. Shaibel was taciturn and taught her almost wordlessly how to play. When he realized she was a prodigy at it, he talked long enough to share a few basics and give her a book about chess.

While in the children’s home she was allowed to play chess with the all-boys chess club at a nearby high school. She beat them all.

Beth was more than a chess prodigy. She was really smart about other things – especially math. She figured out how to break into the infirmary and steal a gallon jar of tranquilizers. She could crack a joke gracefully. As she grew older she grew beautiful but she never used that to bamboozle anyone.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Moses Ingram in The Queen's Gambit

Beth’s best friend at the home was Jolene (Moses Ingram). Jolene was a big sister to Beth, provided extra tranquilizers, and became a good friend. Beth heard Jolene using bad language and tried it herself. The scene where Jolene explained what a c*cks*cker was was really funny.

At about 15 (although she pretended to be 13), Beth was adopted.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Marielle Heller in The Queen's Gambit

The couple who adopted her had a troubled marriage. She was basically there to be a companion for the mother. The father soon disappeared leaving Beth with only Alma (Marielle Heller). Beth called her mother. There was no money without her husband around, so when Alma discovered Beth could make prize money playing chess she became her biggest supporter. Before long Alma was calling in bouts of mono, colds, flu, and anything else she could think of to explain why Beth wasn’t in school.

Beth was traveling around the country winning chess tournament after chess tournament!

The series has 7 episodes. There is a great deal of attention devoted to various matches, opponents, and people who Beth met as part of the chess world. Her first and only crush was on Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd). She played against him in her home town. As she grew older and more traveled, she tried sex but Townes remained her secret crush.

All the attention to chess games sounds like it might be boring, but it isn’t. The absolute perfection of Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance brings it alive. It also helps that the directing pulls in more than just chess pieces shuffling around a board, even during the actual game play.

Anya Taylor-Joy has been acting steadily since she began in 2014, but this performance should be a star-maker for her.

Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit

Beth played many young men, such as US Champion Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). She’d beat them horribly, quickly. Then they would become her helpers. They wanted to teach her everything they could, help her with difficult matches, research plays. People she defeated loved her and were awed by her.

The few times she lost she became angry and self-destructive.

Anya Taylor-Joy in Queen's Gambit

Her adopted mother introduced her to booze. She began to binge drink on top of the tranquilizers. When she was drinking she was gone – there was no chess, no getting dressed, no cleaning up, just oblivion.

Anya Taylor-Joy and Marcin Dorocinski in The Queen's Gambit

By the time Beth was 20, she was in Russia playing the World Champion, Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). She was famous by then, with flashbulbs going off in her face all the time and people wanting interviews and autographs.

When you are on top of the world at age 20, what do you do next? That is the unanswered question in this series. Also left untouched is what kind of substance abuse issues Beth has to face in her future. So while I found the story inspiring and exciting, it also felt incomplete.

I loved the 60s pop music in the series, and the fashionable and glamorous persona Beth developed when she had money. But I wanted to strip the walls of the awful 60s wallpaper and decor in many of the scenes. Authentic but ugly. What were we thinking?

The Queen’s Gambit was based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. (affiliate link) It was created and directed by Scott Frank, who also created Godless.

Poster for The Queen's Gambit

Here’s a look at the trailer.

Have you see this one, or do you plan to watch it? I’d love to know what you thought about it.

Author: Virginia DeBolt

After many years as an educator and writer, Virginia retired from working life. She's always loved a good movie or TV show and wants to use her free time to talk about them with you now. She's Old Ain't Dead!

4 thoughts on “Review: The Queen’s Gambit”

  1. I lived that sort of life in high school. I would have been one of the people she beat. My wife and I found the story compelling. The fact that the janitor was the guy who got her started was perfect. Janitors were like that then. I had my sessions with janitors and they, to a man, were father figures to many kids. I was disappointed that she never went back while he was alive, but to do so would have been out of character for someone who had received so little affection.

    This movie helped me be able to talk chess with my wife as we watched. Being able to pause the movie and explain what was happening helped too. I’m hoping she will finally relent and let me teach her.

    Women in general are intimidated by chess needlessly. Women, more often than men, have the type of mind needed to excel at chess. They are organized, can plan ahead and remember details men would rather forget. Those who are also artists are also blessed with the kind of vivid imagination that allows you to play chess on the ceiling while others wonder what you are looking at.

    You need a very elastic mind for that, but once you start, it becomes easier quite quickly. You develop skills and focus that cannot be achieved any other way. Your IQ goes up. HIgh IQs are earned most of the time. You can choose to be intelligent or dull at any point in your life. Elizabeth does a version of this all the way through the movie.

    Her substance abuse was troubling and her friends saved her just in time. But as you say, there will be trouble in her future because the drug explosion was in it’s infancy at that time and ready to pounce on people who were emotionally unstable. We all know brilliant people who became victims.

    Chess did enjoy a widespread surge in popularity in the late 60s until the mid-70s. I designed a few chess sets and have a Lord of the Rings chess set that is unique. In this game, the black Bishop on the black side can be captured and used as the black bishop on the white side. That piece is Gollum.

    1. What little intelligence I have is all on the verbal/visual learner side. I have no spacial intelligence and absolutely cannot play chess with any skill. I can get lost in my own living room, and forget the way to get places I’ve gone many times before. I’m so envious of the kind of mind that can make sense of the dimension of space.

      1. Virginia. you are absolutely going to love Season 2 La Niña for that reason then.

        Some of the scenes are so complex that I had to do sketches to track where each character was as they moved through a scene. First time I ever needed to do that.

        As an expert movie critic, you’ve noticed that in fight scenes for instance, even when surrounded, the protagonists only fight one opponent at a time. But real fights don’t happen that way when the objective is to merely subdue. They just all gang up at once. Then it becomes the protagonist’s chore to keep everyone but the main opponent at bay. Often, those extras to the scene become spectators to keep the scene from becoming too confusing.

        But in this story, everyone is in action just like real life – events happen simultaneously. La Niña did a good job of that. That’s why they needed a team of writers I think.

        Not having a team, it takes the same skills Elizabeth used to keep everyone fluid and dynamic without confusing the reader and myself.

        It really is a worthwhile exercise to find out what happens next in La Niña and the same exercise could be used to explore Elizabeth’s future. It’s really a wild adventure that plays out in your head like movie scenes.

        I use the plot progression to put myself to sleep. Then when I start waking up, I revisit where I was to see if it still makes sense or if new elements emerge.

        Awakening is best for me because that’s when that type of creativity flows best. When I’m painting, it happens as I apply the paint or whatever the medium is. People like you are who we live for.

        That’s why I appreciate your reviews. You get into the finer details seamlessly without writing a diatribe like I do. You have a beautiful mind too.

Comments are appreciated!