Queen’s Gambit

We just completed watching the popular Netflix miniseries Queen’s Gambit, the fictional story of a female chess prodigy Beth Harmon, based on a novel by Walter Tevis.

The story is well told, in such a way as to make it interesting to non-chessplayers. As an ex-chessplayer, to county standard, I can say that it does get over quite well the reality of playing chess at the time – the fictional period is round about the time I was regularly playing chess. You really get the feel of the excitement of playing the games, but without need to understand precisely what is going on at the board. Indeed, the chessplayer cannot easily tell what is happening. But the drama is excellent.

It does give an idea of the misogyny that was prevalent in the game at the time, which reflected the wider society. Boys just did not believe that girls could really play chess as well. Although in the USSR things were different. Women’s world champion Nona Gaprindashvili was a very strong player, as I discovered when drawing with her in a simultaneous diplay in Cambridge in the 1960s.

This is also a deep psychological story, of how Beth copes with a deep trauma from childhood and how this affects her chess and relationships, again well done.

When she goes to Moscow (funnily enough around the time when I was involved in a real chess trip to Moscow), the film also only hints at the extreme measures taken by the USSR to ensure its hegemony at chess. The shenanigins of the matches between Bobby Fisher and Boris Spassky and between Anatoly Karpov and Victor Korchnoi are notorious. She would have needed seconds along with her to survive.

And finally, when she has beat a Russian opponent, he hugs her – a modern sexism for effect in the film, but no, it would not have happened then.

Still, it’s a great story. I give it 5/5.

Featured image is from Netflix publicity.

5 thoughts on “Queen’s Gambit

  1. It’s a great series and I was hooked from the start. I don’t play chess, but being married to a chess player and seeing scenes of chess tournaments as show in the series, it brings it all back and it’s pretty much like it was back in the 60s. I quickly became a chess girlfriend, then a chess fiancee, and then a chess wife. I was hopeless at the game, but then I’m not a games person anyway, but the intensity, the totality and the psychological aspects of the game fascinate me. The series gets this over well & the acting is pretty good. As for women in chess – very authentic for the 60s era. I learned to have a book with me to escape into when he had friends (all male) round and they all talked chess, played chess, played bindfold chess, and speed chess. I was no threat as I didn’t play, but the guys were always very friendly and inclusive of me. I never made them drinks or got food for them; we all went out to eat!

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  2. It was a great story, the pressure was almost tangible during the games, even the practice games. Her childhood was so fraught with trauma and sadness, her life as an adult was plagued with the baggage she carried. I loved the series, it was very unique, I appreciate your chess expertise to sort out the truth of the game and the era. I had a feeling the hug at the end was not authentic, sad.

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  3. As a Canadian, I’m very interested in knowing a bit more about the culture of chess in the USSR/Russia. Is the game very important to the national identity, like hockey is to the Canadian identity? Do men (and women?) play it outdoors in public spaces? Do Russians consider them the best players in the world, or did they at one time?


    • Yes after the war USSR had most of the best chess players pretty well up to its dissolution. Chess was encouraged by the authorities. Only a few Westerners such as Bobby Fisher could compete successfully at the highest level. The playing field began to level up with the advent of strong chess computers and the Internet.


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