7 Reasons The Queen’s Gambit is Glorious

7 Reasons The Queen's Gambit is Glorious - a breakdown of the series, and it's likelihood for a woman to do as well as Harmon did in chess.
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Seven? heheh. I probably could have put 42 and I might be able to come up with that many. Seven is just some SEO Chum. There are nearly an infinite number of reasons why Netflix’s new show The Queen’s Gambit is glorious. But I promise to list at least seven. OK? If you haven’t heard of it, The Queen’s Gambit is Netflix’s new 7-episode series that dives into the life of the fictional character Beth Harmon. An orphan of tragic circumstances who grows to become a champion chess player. But more important than the chess masters she battles across the board from her, it’s much more about the internal battles that Beth struggles through over the course of the series. Alright, let’s go find ourselves 7 Reasons the Queen’s Gambit is Glorious shall we?

First, if you haven’t seen the series yet, I plan to keep this post quasi-spoiler free (how can I give you seven reasons without spoiling some of it?? I mean, it is the point to watch after all.) But if you’d like to recount the gloriousness AFTER you’ve watched it, it might make better sense. You can watch it right here on Netflix. Or come with me through my list of seven, and I’ll let you know when and if you should avert your eyes.

The story of a phenomenal chess prodigy rising through the ranks is an interesting idea. The fact that it’s been done before – both in autobiographical and fictional form – doesn’t take away from this movie in the least. Why? Because this isn’t a chess movie. Chess is just the backdrop, the tableau, upon which Beth Harmon’s larger story is told. The chess? Yeah, all of that is just metaphor for the internal struggle that she is dealing with, and that she finds it impossible to talk about, or even grapple with. As long as you understand all of that, let’s do it – the 7 Reasons The Queen’s Gambit is Glorious!!

7 Reasons The Queen’s Gambit is Glorious!!

Reason #1 – I’ll be honest, the reason I walked into this show in the first place was solely because Anya Taylor-Joy the lead actor of this series. I mean the entire cast is really great. But Beth Harmon her character is alone so much of the screen time – or she might as well be alone anyway. So much so that this needed an exceptional actor necessary to carry the bulk of the load for this show. And carry it she does.

If you’ve never heard of her – that’s quasi-understandable? – you might want to check out a few of Taylor-Joy’s other films. Which is just so shocking a prospect to me. A buddy of mine, while we were watching Peaky Blinders together, mentioned he’d never heard of her before and I was just like… WHAT? She is so distinct and such a natural talent. But her playground is definitely in the world of Indie, weird, offbeat, films. I mean, obviously Morgan, VVitch, Split & Glass, Thoroughbreds, and Peaky Blinders (as I mentioned). Oh, and Emma, of course. If you’ve seen her in any one of these other productions, you’ll know that each part, each character that she plays is multifaceted and always dangerous. I should be allowed to stop at reason number one. But I’ve promised seven, so onward we march.

7 Reasons The Queen's Gambit is Glorious

Reason #2 – Not only is Anya’s acting so very strong, but the entire ensemble is crazy talented. Everyone. But let’s just consider the part of Mr. Shaibel, played by Bill Camp, as an example. In the last eight years, the man has played a part in five movies nominated for best picture. Joker (2019), Lincoln (2012), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Birdman (2014) and Vice (2018). And two of them were consecutive winners, 12 Years a Slave, and Birdman. He was foundational to this show – and carried a ton of emotional weight. He is like the epitome of potential energy. And all of it is released when we see the newspaper clippings towards the end… and he isn’t even there. But everyone in this cast is very, very strong. Beth’s biological mother brought a haunted soul that was terrible and convincing simultaneously. All the chess players were uniquely different and stereotypically correct all at the same time. Beth’s adoptive parents, troubled and complex. The acting was stellar, dang it.

Reason #3 – As I said before, The Queen’s Gambit isn’t a chess movie, it’s a familial drama played out against the 64 spaces of the chess board. The horrible tragedy that is Beth’s backstory is reason number 3. The writing of Beth’s character and her tragic backstory is why we are here. From the moment the show opens, to the moment that it closes, we are here to find out how Beth’s backstory will play out in her day to day. Will she succumb to the weight of the tragedy? Or will she choose to write her own story? And this story needs to be well beyond the fame she is seeking around the chess board. Right? What is that answer going to be?

Reason #4 – The screenplay is really well crafted. Gorgeously written from beginning to end. It’s deft handling of dialog, or the lack thereof, was one of the things that regularly caught me off guard. Regularly I expected Beth to acknowledge, respond, or react to this, that, or the other. This almost never happened though. The uniqueness of how Beth was written was really fantastic. I’ve only just cracked the book today, but it seems to be accurate to the book so far. And it really says something when a screenplay accurately portrays characters from fiction. It’s a lot more difficult than one would imagine. Well, just make the book! Well, it’s not as simple as all that. This screenplay was deftly written by Scott Frank (Minority Report, & Logan) and could have gone any number of directions, all of which were not foregone conclusions.

These are my 7 Reasons The Queen's Gambit is Glorious because we should count the ways

Reason #5 – The Chess. This thing could have been a boring slog. SHE WINS SHE WINS SHE LOSES?? SHE WINS!!!!! Man I hate the standard sports movie screenplay stereotype. Rocky definitely defined the sports movie and the rules inherent within. But to balance the audience on this knife’s edge of potential… potential for enormous loss (sure on the board, but more important, personally) as well as great fame (and again, as a result, enormous loss.) Even the way the games played out could have been horrible. I was curious how they’d play each one. Will this one be a cursory narration of “27 moves later her opponent was shocked at the brevity of it” or a play by play break down? Occasionally the camera was more interested in the players’ eyes which told us who was winning and losing. Other times it was announcers communicating their shock and disbelief at one twist or another. Bruce Pandolfini, who consulted on the original novel (even gave it the original title), has been outspoken about working to making the chess unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. And better, each meet to be different:

“When I started the project, Scott was like, ‘Here’s a bunch of films I don’t want it to be like,’” editor Michelle Tesoro said. “Which was, obviously, all the films that are already out there. He didn’t want it to be like anything else.” So as Tesoro cut the many different chess sequences in the show together, she tried to experiment with alternate ways of conveying what happens in different matches. In some, the focus stays on the competitor’s faces, or on the time elapsing on the clock. In others, the focus is on the movement on the pieces over the board. In one tournament in Paris, when Beth is hungover, the pieces slide around in what she dubbed a “Gumby” effect. In a competition in Ohio, Beth and a rival rise through the ranks in split screens, an effect Tesoro borrowed from the 1971 film Le Mans.

Pandolfini also discussed setting up the various patterns and board setups that they used throughout the film. He originally suggested game board layouts for the book, but they weren’t originally used at all. But in a visual art form like a film, they are fantastically helpful.

“Scott went more or less with what Walter had written in the novel in the script,” Pandolfini said. “So I read through all that and made sure the moves actually matched the scenarios that were going on. I came up with 92 positions, we called that the Bible, that reflected the actual scenes in the series. In fact, many more positions were created beyond the essentials, because you want to have the ambience. Other players, even actors off camera, are doing things that are logical. As many as 350 total positions were brought on, and that wasn’t just myself.”

And fascinatingly, even Garry Kasparov, you know – probably the only other chess master name you know other than Bobby Fischer – the Russian Grandmaster also contributed positions for the film for the Russian play. Which is a level of depth that is just mind blowing really.

Reason #6 – Alright, so far we’ve done 5 reasons – are you seeing how we are marching to our 7 Reasons The Queen’s Gambit is Glorious? Good. Now, reason 6 is the Addiction. This story is heartbreaking, and over on the Patreon Discord chat server we’ve been researching and digging to find out if orphans really were given tranquilizers to level them out. But it wouldn’t surprise me if they were, heck, we are the country that gave syphilis to black men in order to study treatment options. (ref. Tuskegee Study) So if you guys hear that this was a thing, I would love to hear more about it and where it was done.

So Beth is basically born with an addictive personality, from a mother who has psychological disorders. And then you give her over to an institution that systematically drugs her every day? Now, on top of that, introduce her to alcohol? Then on top of that, give her other “casual” drugs… and suddenly we have an issue on our hands. A full blown Chernobyl potential for disruption and chaos. Something that Beth is – generally speaking – going to lose 99 times out of 100. This story is all about that terrible demon, and Beth’s challenge that she doesn’t even fully realize that she has.

<— This Section Gets Spoilery… I wouldn’t read Reason #7 if you haven’t seen the entire series beginning to end —->

If you count, there are exactly 7 Reasons The Queen's Gambit is Glorious... let's count together shall we?

Reason #7 – The Family. Yes, the series is about a wunderkind – abandoned by a suicidal mother who attempted to kill them both simultaneously. Yeah. That’s some heavy @#$% right there. Worse, she is abandoned at an orphanage that hooks her on drugs at an early stage in her life. Then she is adopted, and her new father abandons her and her mother. Oh! and her adoptive mother? She’s an alcoholic that dies of liver disease mid-show. So, as far as the cosmos goes – this girl is dealt a tragic hand. She’s coming up snake eyes over and over again. Wunderkind or not.

And, as the series progresses, we take those isolationist problems, and compound them by comparing the Russian player’s team mentality to the American’s propensity for one-off play. Russians are supportive and look out for each other. And Americans play by themselves. Right? It’s a thing, this idea of solo verses cooperative participation. But, the solution to her problems come from the fact that she desperately requires a social network – a family – that will step in for her, let her know they are worried about her, and support her. There is no other way for her to get out of the hole that she is in. It’s just impossible. But with the help of family? Anything is possible. She doesn’t have a family though. Or does she?

And this is where the movie really kicks in the afterburners in order to solve this problem for this kid. As the movie concludes, we learn a lot of things in a quick succession. First is that Beth learns that Mr. Shaibel has been following her career all along. This is the beginning of her epiphanies. Next she reconnects with Jolene, her only real friend from the orphanage. And she lets Beth know that he wasn’t the only one following Beth’s stratospheric rise within the chess community. And then there are all of the friends she’s made within the chess community. Benny Watts (played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Matt & Mike (played by the brothers Matthew and Russel Dennis Lewis). They all come out of the woodwork to help Beth as her final games reach the ultimate conclusion against the Russian Grandmaster Vasily Borgov.

Bonus Reason #8 – But ultimately, the series succeeds because, throughout Beth’s rise, she is able to play her game intuitively while high. We learn as the movie comes to a conclusion that she is so good she’s able to play IN SPITE of the drugs. Not because of the drugs. And when she is able to get clean, her game finally progresses. This key point, and resonates, gives heft to the real struggle on the screen, which isn’t the chess. It’s only her decision to dump the tranquilizers and passing on the vodka that is her real win. Oh, and by the way, she beats Borgov. Yay. But that isn’t really what the series is about. It was all about Beth. Her tragic situation. And the fact that she was ultimately able to allow herself to be loved by her friends, and her real “family” is the real message here.

Is The Queen’s Gambit A True Story?

It’s a great question. But the answer is no. No, it isn’t. But there is one really extraordinary woman who cracked the chess glass ceiling that you might be interested in learning about. Her name is Judit Polgár and is a Hungarian chess player. She is, without a doubt, considered the best female chess player of all time. Check her out – she was born in 1976 – right? She achieved the title of Grandmaster in 1991. Now, if you are horrible at math like me, I’ll help you out… she was 15. She’s literally the youngest person to ever make Grandmaster, male or female. She beat Bobby Fischer even. She was the youngest player ever to make it to the the FIDE top 100 players list. She jumped to the 55th spot in 1989. Yeah, math? She was the tender age of 12. And she is literally the only woman to qualify for a World Championship tournament. And suddenly, I’m excited for the coming documentary about her life called The Queen of Chess. It will apparently cover both Bobby Fischer and Polgár simultaneously. (As an aside, Fischer was racist bastage that denied the holocaust, and was sexist to boot. He disagreed that men and women could even play each other. Like, he literally said it was impossible. heheh. I just can’t. Don’t get me started.) The thing that really makes me happy though is that Polgár is the first woman to win a game against a reigning world champion. (Here are many of her top wins that you can watch get played out if that is your thing.)

So, no. Beth Harmon is isn’t real – she’s most definitely a fictional character. But, Polgár does show just how realistic this story ultimately is. And, oh, man, how I loved this series. What did you guys think of it and my 7 Reasons The Queen’s Gambit is Glorious post? Did I nail it? (hahahaha.)

Edited by: CY