Chess player watches Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit”


A tournament chess player watches Netflix’s “Queen’s Gambit” and explains what he did right, what he did wrong, and why it matters.

Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Queen’s Gambit”. (Netflix / Charlie Gray)

After more than 40 years (intermittently) of chess tournaments, I’m used to inaccurate representations of the game and its followers. So I launched Netflix’s original new miniseries “The Queen’s Gambit” with a little bit of hope and trepidation.

I had read Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name (“The Hustler”, “The Color of Money”) when it came out in 1983, and I remember that some details of chess were quite precise, and others quite wrong. However, I was only 19 at the time and I was much less forgiving of the sacrifices that must be made for a good dramatic arc.

First, let me add to the chorus of vocals praising Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as intense chess prodigy and flintlock Beth Harmon, who climbs to the top of the chess world in a remarkably fast fashion, thanks to his raw talent and determination.

She’s presumably shuttled between being consumed by gambling and being a kid who can suddenly wear cool clothes and young men and appreciate the distinctions that talent and achievement can bring.

I was also stunned by the ferocity of Isla Johnston, playing Harmon as a young girl who discovers chess in the janitor’s basement of a dark Kentucky orphanage.

The story itself eventually faded into something familiar and sentimental. I warn there are spoilers below, but you’ll probably see them coming from a mile away.

Of course, one of the growing stereotypes of chess players in pop culture is that we are a bunch of ultra-sensitive nerds who get unreasonably picky about how their game is portrayed. So, I must have spent a long time thinking: How important does all of this matter?

Well, we’ll make it happen. Suffice it to say that the “The Queen’s Gambit” thing is most wrong about chess and chess players has nothing to do with what happens on the chess board.

True and false

By the end of the seventh and final episode, my impressions of the novel were basically confirmed: the series has some of the most accurate portrayals of chess tournaments I’ve ever seen, which made some of its most screamers. even more confusing.

With chess advisers including legendary world champion Garry Kasparov and longtime New York chess professor Bruce Pandolfini, it’s easy to see how the show got the precise details, and harder than ever to understand how the errors happened.

The chess content in “The Queen’s Gambit” falls into two categories: the positions seen on the chess boards and the references to games, techniques and tactics that Beth and her fellow adversaries throw into the conversation.

The action of the game is remarkably realistic. As Pandolfini recently told Chess Life, the games were drawn from ancient and recent chess history, with Kasparov calling a key post in his travels – a wonderfully complex endgame. While the actors are a bit patchy at remembering to write down their moves, they’ve clearly learned to pick up pieces and move them with a familiarity that can’t be faked.

It is in terminology that “The Queen’s Gambit” often produces moans: the janitor advises Beth to take “the Levenfish and the Najdorf”, which is like telling a budding football player to work on roads of crisp reception and rushing the passer – they are not complementary.

This inaccuracy is also included in the book; Pandolfini told Chess Life that he read an early version of the novel in the early 1980s and made some suggestions for more plausibility. Oddly enough, while Tevis thanked him profusely in the book’s acknowledgments, Pandolfini said the author didn’t take any of his suggestions – except for the title.

None of this, I know, is so important to anyone except chess players – although it should always matter, for such a mistake takes audience members out of the world that has been. created. A doctor hears a character shout: “Cauterize the Achilles tendon infarction STAT!” will think of something other than whether the patient will be okay.

Sometimes it’s understandable to sacrifice a detail or two for creative license – the sporadic attention of “Queen’s Gambit” players to the requirement to write down your moves is an example of tolerable inaccuracy. Yet these errors could have been corrected so easily.

Does it matter?

The most important thing wrong with “The Queen’s Gambit” is beyond the chess.

On the one hand, the almost complete lack of sexism Beth endured in the chess world of the late 1950s and 1960s is optimistic at best. Harmon’s spiraling drug use, on the other hand, creates some fascinating scenes, but international master Jennifer Shahade, who liked the series overall, told Vanity Fair that no one plays chess better under it. influence of a drug, especially downers.

What really stood out to me was that hardly any of the chess players on “The Queen’s Gambit” play much chess.

The culminating Moscow tournament is perhaps the fifth event featured in the series. Presumably, she performed more than that, given that she’s between 13 and 20 in seven episodes, but we don’t see it.

The same goes for his foil, Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), who seems to play a few tournaments a year. In real life, he either spent his days teaching classes, or he played somewhere every week – and maybe hustled chess or poker alongside it.

It’s not just about the dramatic squeeze: anything can become a chore if you do it enough, and while “The Queen’s Gambit” presents chess as a powerful and captivating force in the lives of gamers, it is never described as grinding, a difficult job it is.

I thought such a moment was going to come when Beth returns from Paris and a few days later is back in the gymnasium at Henry Clay High School in Louisville, Kentucky, but it turns out that she is only there to make a appearance – not to first grab a rent price from a bunch of local tyros.

More than the nerd thing or even the crazy thing, the most squeaky stereotype of great chess players is the idea that their natural otherworldly talent means they don’t have to work very hard. The obscurity of chess in the United States means that these people work harder than most, for much less reward. It’s a more compelling way to show the dedication required, as well as the cost.

The price of genius

As Beth stays awake much of the night analyzing her latest adjourned stance against her Russian nemesis Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), Watts assembles a team of her admirers, ex-lovers and adversaries in her New York apartment for the also examine, surprising her in the morning with high-quality analysis showers shared during a long distance phone call.

The problem is, some of these players, who gathered on short notice from Kentucky, aren’t even as good as me (and no one is bringing me to New York to analyze). While it can be painful, it’s unrealistic how everyone will forgive Beth for everything and will do anything for her. In the end, his stubborn pursuit of his genius came at no cost to him.

I’m no chess genius, but I’ve met enough to know that’s not how it works, even if they don’t realize it. Even “The Queen’s Gambit” portrays this isolation beautifully in my favorite scene, where Beth tries to be a normal high school girl for a night. (It’s not going well, and I haven’t pulled “You’re the One” from The Vogues out of my mind since.)

Thus, “The Queen’s Gambit” is compelling and reasonably accurate. But while some of the deviations from a chess player‘s reality have helped the drama, there are places where more realism would have been even more dramatic.


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