The Queen’s Gambit —An Analysis

If you haven’t heard of The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix original miniseries currently trending at #1, the photo above already says a lot. Pictured on the cover is Beth Harmon, a fictional 1960s chess champion whom many viewers believe is meant to serve as a more dramatic, more likable version of Bobby Fischer. That sentence alone is already somewhat controversial, but let’s continue.

Some chess pieces are replaced by alcoholic beverages, and her king’s bishop is replaced by tranquilizers — we can interpret just from the image that alcohol and substance abuse are not just involved in Beth’s life, they are things she treats as a necessary part of it.

Now, without spoiling anything but the series’ cold open, let’s talk to the first five minutes:

An adult Beth Harmon emerges, fully clothed, from the bathtub of a hotel in Paris. Someone knocks on the door because she has an important meeting. She has apparently drunk heavily. She frantically dresses, pops pills of some kind that are colored like her clothing, and reaches for a chess board that does not have a single chess piece and is 100% populated by different bottles of alcohol. In the elevator, a little girl stares at her and it seems to bother her. In the next shot, after a rough entrance, Beth Harmon steps into the flashing cameras of journalists. In spite of everything we have just witnessed, she now looks somewhat composed. She approaches her opponent, who looks much more collected than she does. She meets his gaze and has flashbacks to her upbringing.

We are then teleported back to her childhood, a devastating scene of Beth as the sole survivor of a tragic car accident. Here, until later in the series, we remain to see how this young girl deals with the aftermath.

And all of this occurs in the first five minutes.

The State of Chess Today

Hey look, I just drew a game with 10-year-old Beth Harmon (according to chess.com)

I could write that Chess is a dying art, something that the world is quickly forgetting about because people think it’s boring and no one has the time for it…but that just wouldn’t be true. By all counts, Chess is experiencing a resurgence — some people might even call this a new Golden Age. Magnus Carlsen, the current world champion, is better than anyone in history has ever been. Former world champion Kasparov routinely makes appearances on the Internet. Nakamura, the second best player in the world, has 500,000 followers on Twitch. If we could bring a player like Fischer back from the dead, I would be curious to know what he had to say about modern Chess.

My favorite interaction in all of Reddit, from Magnus Carlsen’s AMA

Sometime shortly after Kasparov lost a series of matches against Deep Blue, AI became unquestionably superior to the world’s best Chess players. No one today can touch the best AI, although the competition to beat the best AI with another AI is interesting in and of itself. Instead of destroying the game, it can be argued that AI has actually made it more interesting.

Now you can log into Chess.com, create a free account, and quickly match with a real person your level. You can then use an AI to break down your game, show you where you played well, where you went wrong, and a score for which player was favored at any given time. It is possible that Carlsen is the best player in history because he is simply the smartest, but it is also possible that he is a great player standing atop generations of technological achievements. No one is allowed to use an AI in game (except in some test tournaments where they tried that), but people can use whatever they want to analyze past games.

…And all of that being said, the setting for The Queen’s Gambit still feels refreshing. Chess research requires books. Chess games in Russia are observed with binoculars and put up on large boards for spectators. The Soviets and the Americans see Chess as an ultimate battle of wits, and the world watches.

Hollywood has approached numerous Chess stories, with varying success. Fischer is a subject of fascination because of his supposed paranoia and madness. Carlsen had his own documentary, which many critics (unfairly, in my opinion) panned for being boring. There’s a lot of potential here to make a movie about Kasparov, who is more interesting than all the other chess players combined, but Netflix just did the next best thing and hired him on as a consultant for The Queen’s Gambit.

This story is fiction, it has dramatic turns, and it currently holds 100% on RottenTomatoes.

The Analysis

*Spoilers*

Let me first give credit where credit is due…I watched the Jeremy Jahns video on this, which is a pretty quick watch, and then I watched the one by Amanda the Jedi. I’ll link the latter below: It’s the best written or spoken analysis of the series I have found, but it is also pretty lengthy.

So…final spoiler warning…this miniseries continually focuses on a few key things. It circles back to the viewer’s realization that Beth’s mother actually died in an attempted murder-suicide, but there are already strong hints of this (“close your eyes”) from early on. The reason Beth struggles so much with substance addiction is because she has been abandoned or mistreated by virtually every paternal figure she had. Her own mother tried to kill her. Her biological father gave up on her. The heads of her orphanage effectively got her addicted to tranquilizers, then punished her for it by forcing her to give up on Chess, the one passion she had. There is one good paternal figure and one real friend she has through all of this, but the viewer only gets to realize this near the end.

When Beth gets adopted out of the orphanage, which is likely a premeditated action by her adopted father to feel better about leaving her adopted mother, she begins to have agency. She enters a chess tournament on her own volition and wins money to buy clothing, which presumably sparks her interest in fashion because it represents the first time someone is not picking out clothes for her. Her relationship with her adopted mother evolves, though Beth becomes as dependent on her new mother’s affection as her mother becomes on alcohol, and then everything comes crashing down.

Beth stays with Beltik (Dudley has really grown up!) because Beltik offers her the companionship she craves — it is obvious that he has little to contribute to her Chess game. He leaves her, either because of an inferiority complex, a dark feeling of unrequited love, a learned realization that she seems to represent the very passion for Chess that he now lacks, or some mix of all three.

This is around the time Jojen Reed really comes into play.

Benny Watts, everyone!

Benny Watts is a slightly older Jojen Reed who adopts a very convincing American accent, wears a cowboy hat, and refuses to pay his parking tickets.

In the beginning, Benny seems like either the first of many tough rivals, or the series’ equivalent of an antagonist. Benny points out a flaw in Beth’s previous thinking before the game begins, which psychologically throws her off and helps him to beat her. But instead of becoming the villain, Benny actually reemerges to help her. Even before losing in a rematch, Benny seems to understand that she has more potential than him and actually falls for her in the process.

This sounds like a stretch, and it probably is, but I think there could be something deep and symbolic about Benny’s character. Benny is a narcissist: He brags about his book, wears nice clothing, and insults someone who idolizes him even though he seems to relish the fame. Then we see Benny’s apartment, a dingy but well-kept basement in New York City that contains no alcohol, drugs, or sunlight. This is Beth’s training ground. This is the place where Beth is able to recover.

I don’t want to summarize the plot any more than I already have, but each of these characters represents a light on Beth’s road to recovery. They give her companionship. They give her something to focus on. Without a caring biological mother or a best friend in her adopted one, these people are Beth’s new support network. One person she meets, a model, is actually someone who threatens to send her astray. She represents a world that fascinates Beth, but she also shows herself to be a bad friend by returning at the worst possible time and bringing Beth back into the fold of alcohol abuse.

After her second lapse, it’s not Beltik who brings her back: He actually fails to reach her, even though his own family history allows him to understand the symptoms of alcoholism. It’s not the woman Beth first beats, who goes out of her way to tell Beth how much she admires her, because in this state Beth is actually disturbed by being idolized in this way. It’s probably not even Jolene, though she does help.

It’s Shaibel.

Shaibel, we learn, tracked down Beth’s progress since the day she left. Shaibel is the one who first introduced her to the game. Shaibel is the one who believed in her when everyone else misunderstood. Shaibel gave her life lessons as well as Chess lessons, valued their time together even though he rarely visibly showed it, and Shaibel continued to be proud of her even when Beth made no second attempt to reach him. This is the father Beth never had, and this is also the man Beth never properly thanked.

She does thank him, after he’s dead. Better late than never.

Main Themes

Madness

I was listening to the “Perpetual Chess” (get it?) Podcast, which talked quite a bit about Bobby Fischer. Was Bobby Fischer clinically insane? Bobby Fischer’s friend doesn’t seem to think so, though he did go through something of a spiral.

Magnus Carlsen was asked how he never went crazy. His response was that he is only in his 20s, so the crazy has not yet manifested.

Because of Beth’s mother, and maybe because of familiar “chess tropes,” we suspect that Beth Harmon will lose her mind. At the end of the day, the theme of Queen’s Gambit is almost the antithesis of that of Searching for Bobby Fischer: Beth can be driven by and maybe even obsessed with the game, and she can still live her life. It isn’t binary.

Addiction

Beth Harmon seems to have her biggest low after listening to a woman who reminds her of her adopted mother. Beth needs companionship, and her mother is no longer there to provide the friendship and paternal guidance she so desperately needs.

Was her adopted mother perfect? Absolutely not, though she was still likable and misunderstood in her own complicated way. If anything, the two were parallels, two alcoholic women who seemed more like sisters than mother and daughter. So what did Beth do when her mother was no longer there? What her mother taught her: She kept drinking.

As cliche and as groan-inducing as it sounds, love and friendship are more valuable than any drink of substance.

The Game

It is implied that Beth may choose to stay in Russia, as she enjoys witnessing such a widespread love of Chess. Everyone tries to fit Beth into a box. A religious organization pulls her funding when they realize Beth is not playing for God. Beth’s bodyguard believes Beth is playing against the evils of communism. Beth’s high school friend sees her as a symbol of a woman breaking the glass ceiling, and a journalist tells a young Beth that she is using the game to see pattern where there is none.

The series’ Russian “antagonist,” who calls Beth a “survivor” while his companions mock her, loses to her in a significant game and then applauds for her. This is the same thing Spassky did for Fischer.

As much as I liked Pawn Sacrifice, I took issue with the name. Beth, in contrast, is no pawn. Her final shot is in Russia, at a park, playing Chess for the pure enjoyment of the game.

Closing Thoughts

This could be the best piece of media the Chess community gets for a long time, and I have no issue with that. You are welcome to ping me when we have a Chess anime — I would love to see a Food Wars style anime where we see well-animated Chess scenes framed like battles, complete with an epic soundtrack, likable characters, and pacing so good that it distracts you from people constantly spoon-feeding technical chess information to you between games.

The series is pretty short, and I do wish for more. There isn’t very much focus on Beth’s growth in Chess itself — it is only implied that she reads lots of books and practices a lot between scenes. Technical details of Chess games are often lacking, probably because they wanted to keep this show accessible to people unfamiliar with the game. The community on YouTube and chess.com has, of course, analyzed the living daylight out of every game they had the chance to freeze frame. Many are actually famous games recreated by Beth and her friends.

Until then, this is the best thing to watch during lockdown and chess.com is the best way to play.

Send me a private message if you would like to play a game. In these days, there really is nothing better to do.

A software engineer who writes about software engineering. Shocking, I know.