The Queen’s Gambit

Chess rivals

By Maryam J. Kherulla | February 2021


One jumped when ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ became Netflix’s most watched series. The lockdown was in full throttle and there was great buzz about the film.

Based on the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, the first episode where the young 8 year old Beth Harmon is left orphaned due to an accident engineered by her disturbed single mother, made one feel as if walking into a dark psychological drama. It could have been a story of abuse at the Kentucky orphanage but one was pleasantly wooed by the role of the custodian Mr. Shaibal, played convincingly by Bill Camp, who intrigued Beth’s imagination when she saw him playing chess in the basement of the orphanage. Learning to play from the stoic man, Beth pored over books about the game and amazed the custodian with her genius.

Yet, another thing Beth discovered at the orphanage, which left its mark was an initiation to tranquilizers. Goaded by the effect of the medicine, she played chess games in her head by using the ceiling as her chessboard.

The story was punctuated by flashbacks of Beth’s memories as a child with her mother and how the two coped with life in a trailer and without a father, which takes a toll. As the series progressed, so did the viewers’ knowledge of the young girl’s uneasy background.

queens-gambitBeth was adopted at 15 by a childless couple and life seemed to take another unexpected turn as the young girl now had to cope with peer pressure at high school. Still driven by the 64-piece game played on a checker board, she entered a state championship where she astounded everyone with her determined prodigal win.

The beauty of the period drama is the seamless intertwining of the glamour and costumes of the 60s, meshed with the history of great chess players and the complicated moves of the cerebral game. From the USA to Mexico, Paris and Russia, the visual aesthetics are portrayed magnificently.

Even though the game’s rules and range of openings talked about in the series were all Greek and Latin to the viewer, yet the editing, background score and pace was so mesmerizing that one couldn’t help but be hooked. The chess sequences were electrifying and made one hold one’s breath, squeal, laugh and cry-- sometimes all at the same time.

The role of Beth Harmon played by Anya Taylor Joy was in itself a tale of acting mastery where she conveyed to perfection the loneliness she felt; her obsession with the game and her struggles with drug abuse and alcoholism.

The role of her adoptive mother played by Marielle Heller was a breath of fresh air and her unexpected support to her sporting career made one fall in love with her. The train of chess rivals who later become allies were all enthralling performances by stellar actors – Harry Melling, Thomas Brodie Sangster and Jacob Fortune Lloyd (to mention the most important). They won the viewer over. Yet, the proverbial cherry on top was the intensity of the last episode where Beth vied for the world championship and went head to head with the Russian Grandmaster, Borgov, which had one whooping in triumph and weeping for joy.

The feminist viewer loved Beth’s audacity at defeating men at a man’s game; while the aspect of getting what one wanted through sheer hard work and perseverance, despite a natural gift, was a chord that needed to resound loudly with the current generation. Oscar nominated director Scott Frank’s brilliance stayed with one long after the last scene closed.