Friday, November 13, 2020

Staring at Squares: The Queen’s Gambit

I’m no chess player. Years ago my father tried to teach me the game, but quickly gave up. For me it was too solemn, too complicated, too slow. So why was I mesmerized by a television drama in which the most passionate moments take place over a chessboard?

 The Queen’s Gambit is a seven-part Netflix miniseries about a young girl who grows up to be an international chess master. Sounds like a snoozer, right? But not if you think of Beth Harmon’s story as Cinderella with a modern twist (and a dash of Through the Looking-Glass thrown in for good measure). Before Beth evolves into the belle of the ball—or rather the belle of the chess tournament—she’s a waif in the Grimm-est of fairytales. Her birth mother is crazy and suicidal. Her father seems non-existent. After surviving a catastrophic car crash, she’s sent off to live in a spooky old orphanage where the religious instruction is heavy-handed and little girls are dosed with tranquilizers at bedtime to keep them under wraps. And down in the basement there’s . . . . no, not a monster but a gruff old janitor who loves chess. His lair becomes little Beth’s salvation.


When a teenaged Beth is adopted into the cozy home of a middle-aged Kentucky couple, things seem to be looking up. But more heartbreak awaits. Her new father doesn’t want her, and doesn’t want to be married. Her new mother is a neurotic soul who encourages Beth’s chess talents but also passes on to Beth her own dependence on pills and alcohol. The kids at school don’t know what to make of her, and more and more chess comes to  seem both her emotional and her economic salvation.


Chess tournaments also introduce her to a host of young men, many of them infatuated by her good looks and aggressive, intuitive style of play. Love seems to await her, along with fame and fortune (she earns major cash prices and graces the cover of major magazines), but her own inner darkness usually gets in the way of successful relationships. So she settles for sex, along with her other vices.

 The series builds to a climactic tournament in Soviet-era Moscow, a sort of paradise for chess players, where fans gather in the street outside the palatial chess hall to breathlessly await the play-by-play. Will Beth slay the Soviet dragon? Or will she succumb to the dangers and temptations that have dogged her along the way? Since this is a modern fairytale, we suspect a happy ending, but of course one that springs some sort of unexpected surprise. And The Queen’s Gambit (the name of a classic chess move) does not disappoint.

 Anya Taylor-Joy, an actress new to me, is a revelation as Beth, who grows from gawky wallflower to stunning (though deeply troubled) young woman of the world.  Bill Camp as that crusty old janitor and actress/director Marielle Heller as the adoptive mom head a strong cast. But the real star of the series may be its inventive staging and cinematography, which manage to imbue numerous games of chess with real drama, even for those of us who can’t tell a rook from a bishop. Chess players revere their calling, and this series has been praised for its accuracy. I’ve read that some of the high-level games played in the series were borrowed from the historic record, though of course the glacial pace of a real chess match has been speeded up for the benefit of the TV audience. Hmmm, maybe this is a good sport for quarantine.


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