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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.