Jonathan Rowson on "The Queen’s Gambit"

11/25/2020 – In November 2019, three-time British champion Jonathan Rowson published The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life (Bloomsbury Publishing), a wonderful book, abounding with thoughtful reflections about the game and its place in our world. A year later, after watching the Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, Rowson posted a 35-minute YouTube video in which he highlighted how some of the major themes in his book connect with this successful Netflix series. In an interview with Olimpiu G. Urcan, he elaborates further. | Photo: Netflix

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Olimpiu G. Urcan: In your video about The Queen's Gambit Netflix series, you called it "phenomenally successful" in today's very distressful context and you emphasized the power of Bildungsroman, the character, education and identity development story. You identified with that and attributed some of the success of this series to the fact that "the main character is hot, frankly, and the game is cool." How so?

Jonathan Rowson: Anya Taylor-Joy looks set to become a megastar. It's not so much a matter of how she looks, but how she acts, how she plays with silence, and how she commands our attention on the screen. The Irish poet John O'Donohue describes beauty as "that, in the presence of which, we feel more alive." There is something going on in The Queen's Gambit that is about Eros, not in the conventional meaning of erotic desire as sexual, but something deeper about desire as such, and even the world's desire for us to become who we are meant to be.

In terms of chess being cool, the game is often thought, usually by cliché merchants, to be anything but cool, but that seems to be changing again. "Cool" here is a signifier of whatever is socially desirable and inviting, and chess currently has that allure in many places and certainly online, though who can say if it will last.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit (© Netflix)

You liked the well-done aesthetics. What is it about the 1960s that made this show extremely stylish? The fashion, the music? I don't remember similar commentary about pretty much the same era and the way it was captured in Pawn Sacrifice, for instance. Is it Harmon? Is it Anya Taylor-Joy? Is it a more refined sense from Scott Frank?

I don't feel qualified to say, but as I implied in the video, aesthetics are not just about how things look but how they feel - it's a matter of sensibility, of how we relate to the world. There was something about The Queen's Gambit as a whole that felt beautiful; that was about the characters, but also the lighting, the setting, the costumes, and even the music. Above all, it was refreshingly analogue, and yet on the cusp of the digital too. This was close enough in time for many of us to identify with it as "the same world," and yet it was very different, and it felt different in, I think, mostly a good way. There was never a scene where I wished one of the characters had a smartphone.

You did talk about how the show offers us an analog world we long for, as a counterpoint to our heavily digital world, with all its addictions and conveniences. Despite Harmon’s other addictive problems, is there a subtle point to be made about Harmon’s freedom in that respect and her way to genuinely connect to others?

Beth is an enigmatic character, and although she did have some real relationships it wasn't easy to decipher how deep the connections were. Her deepest relationship probably was with Jolene, who was a kind of sister really and appeared just when she most needed somebody who had known her since she was younger - those relationships where you share the experience of having been young together are often the deepest. I think what we loved in watching was the sense of expansive time, the feeling that many days could go by and then there might be one single phone call that mattered, rather than, as is the case now, where we have scores of emails every day and social media streams and 24-hour news. So, yes, I think that sense that Beth had lots of uninterrupted time was an important attractor, reminding us of what we've lost in what we've gained.

You referred to "a quality of the feminine intellect" and its possible connections to real-life female leaders around the world who have shown they can handle a crisis better. Do you think this also coincides with the type of boorish masculinity as exemplified by Donald Trump and Boris Johnson? Is Harmon more likeable and relatable because of us having had enough of the Trump-filled media avalanche for the past few years?

Perhaps, yes. We can't be sure, and we risk over-generalizing, but in my video review I landed on the term "the charisma of the feminine intellect," and I've noticed it has made an impression. We hear quite a lot about ‘femininity’ but not that much about the feminine intellect, and I think that’s noteworthy. Beth's charisma is partly about the nature and power of her intellect being in some sense different from the men around her, and also, ultimately, more effective. Yet an impressive feature of the series is that her struggle is not primarily presented as female versus male, young versus old, American versus Soviet - those themes are part of the setting, yes, but the plot is mostly about Beth battling with her own demons and, mostly, winning. So while her charisma is distinctly feminine, it’s tied to her intellectual power which is active and assertive and even aggressive too. Just as we think men are no less manly when they, for instance, look after young children, it’s important to be able to say something is distinctly feminine without that having to collapse into stereotypes of prettiness or gentle receptivity.

Beth Harmon (© Netflix)

Tell us a little bit more about how chess can "completely possess your soul," from your personal experience...Not long ago I tweeted out a line that the most powerful dope in that orphanage was not in the dayroom's dispensary but in the basement: it is the game itself. Do you see that possession taking place with Harmon and, ever since her first contact with the game, was she on a journey to control the "demon"? 

That's a big question! My book The Moves that Matter is the long-form answer. What I can share here is that some of the dramatic details were extraordinarily acute and astute. For instance, Beth observing chess from a safe distance but wanting to come to see it more closely, her enchantment at different kinds of learning frontiers; the rules, the openings, the notation, the clock, and then her daydreaming about how the pieces feel in her hands and moving her fingers as if something was moving through her – that’s how it goes! And then the way she imagines the board by looking at the ceiling – I found that totally credible, in spirit at least. And then the search for frontiers in new tournaments and the car and plane journeys and hotels that entails – how your world expands - and then how your expertise of the game sets you apart from your peers but mostly in a good way... I could totally identify with all of that. It is a kind of infatuation in which the answer to the riddle of life feels, for a time, like it is all there in the game of chess, and you want to be right at the centre of the experience - which means you want to be playing or thinking about chess as much as you possibly can. Most chess players get this feeling for at least a few weeks, some for years, some for their whole lives. For me it came and went, and I felt it most intensely from the ages of 10-15 or so, and then again from 18-20 or so. I feel quite relieved to say I don’t have it anymore, and enjoyed the moment where the character, Beltik, said words to the same effect.

On the theme of concentration is freedom, you seem to suggest that William Shaibel, the janitor, gave Harmon a remarkable gift: her path to freedom. Similar usage of the game has been seen in difficult environments (e.g. POW or internment concentration camps, prisons, mental asylums, war trenches, and so forth). This theme seems particularly flattering for the game. Does it actually have an ability to save people?

At the very least chess offers a reprieve or a place to escape, and for some people that is tantamount to salvation at certain points in their life. But we should remember the game can also be a trap, and there are many lost souls in the chess world who may have lived fuller lives if they could have found or forged a way, but that often means saying goodbye to chess for a while, and that can feel like sacrificing your queen when you can't be sure of the compensation. So I don't see chess as a panacea for the challenges of life, but if you find the right relationship to it can grant a certain quality of freedom. I’m referring to "positive freedom," which is mostly about aligning our lives with a vision of what freedom is for. This notion is contrasted with "negative freedom," which is mostly about the absence of external constraints on our desires. Concentration is necessary for the kinds of discipline, commitment, service to higher ideals, and maturation that makes positive freedom possible, but it’s hard to achieve in a world suffused with commercial advertising; where freedom is often reduced to mere choices, like whether your new phone colour should be silver or gold.

 Harry Melling (as Harry Beltik) with Anya Taylor-Joy (© Netflix)

Regarding "the mattering that matters" - another theme you touched upon: do you see Harmon as a fierce competitor in that regard? What drives her really? What's she after?

She is clearly a fierce competitor, and it remains a little mysterious what exactly is driving her. In my book, and my New York Times piece on the subject, I suggest that whatever chess players are looking for, it does not appear to be happiness as such; look at your average tournament scene and consider all that strain and struggle for hours on end, all that regret. No, it's something else. It might be the kind of joy that can only arise through struggle, but I suspect it is more like "ontological guilt" - that item stems from a Buddhist view on the unreality or virtuality of the self, but it simply means that we are not sure we are real, and we play chess to help us feel real. Ontological guilt applies to all humans, because our sense of self is contingent and fragile, and grounded in mere memory, but it applies to some more than others. Beth's experience of her absent father, suicidal mother and perplexing orphanage presumably made her doubt her legitimacy, her reality, at some level. When you play chess, and especially when you play it well, what you feel is not just fulfilment but empowering validation through palpable agency: "That, there. I did that. Those things happened because of me." I suspect what drives Beth is the doubt that she's actually real, and what she's after is the conviction that she is, after all, supposed to be here, and is worthy of being alive. She is right about that, of course.

Throughout your career as a chess player, have you ever seen any female player that came close to Harmon's charm?

Yes, more than once, but the less said about that, the better!

Marcin Dorociński (as Vasily Borgov) and Anya Taylor-Joy (© Netflix)

How did you see Harry Beltik, Benny Watts and Vasily Borgov as chess players in relation to Harmon's learning journey? 

I'm reminded of the poet Rilke's line that the purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things - each of them at one point in the story seemed like a formidable obstacle and in some sense haunted Beth, but all eventually succumbed. I liked some of the character nuances though, and I struggle to separate their roles as people and chess players. Beltik getting his teeth fixed to attract Beth was somehow bittersweet, and his decision to preemptively leave when he realised she would never really love him was a strange and impressive mixture of courage, compassion and self-preservation; in chess terms, it was a good move! Benny reminded me of Stuart Conquest, though I found his statement that the Caro-Kann is "all pawns and no hope" just didn't ring true as the kind of thing a serious chess player would say, even playfully. The idea that he could be a weaker player and still beat Beth repeatedly at blitz did ring true though - we have all been there. And I found his dilapidated New York apartment somehow credible, a useful note of grit amidst the glamour of much of the rest of the later episodes. I liked Beth's early description of Borgov's machine-like accuracy and power – that sense of "The man’s too big, the man’s too strong" to quote an old Dire Straits song. And I liked that she didn't beat him immediately and had to keep learning and growing and then play extraordinarily well to do so. And the elevator scene where the Soviet Grandmasters identify with Beth and see her as one of them was touching and credible (and apparently a detail suggested by Kasparov).

Do you think that the lack of a nasty villain (or several) could actually be a weakness of this series? In a recent New York Times interview, based on her own experiences, Judit Polgar remarked that "they were too nice to her." Was Harmon's character too shielded from a reasonable amount of nastiness?

Popularity is not the ultimate mark of quality of course, but the fact that the series has done so well and been so good for chess makes me hesitate to suggest anything should have been different. That said, I am sure Judit is correct. More generally the series is a bit like a fairy story and not "realistic." However, that idea of something being realistic is not straightforward because reality has so many layers and some of them are mythic. There is a famous line about the Greek myths: "these things never were, but always are." I see The Queen's Gambit like that - it captures the soul of the game in some way, and that is true to life, but it is a screen adaptation of something, and a lot of artistic licenses are taken. So it is not a truthful representation of all of chess life or all of chess culture or even all of male behaviour perhaps, but I think it is faithful to the interiority of the chess experience - what it feels like to fall in love with the game and to be part of that world, with all its geometric delights and intensity. And that's a great achievement given that, unlike the novel, you can only get there on the screen with things that are not on the inside as such.

Jacob Fortune-Lloyd (as D.L. Townes) with Anya Taylor-Joy (© Netflix)

Is there any criticism you would offer? 

Only because you asked! I think it's also worth noting that the story is based on a very familiar plot structure of the orphan who finds their way in the world, and it can even be seen as a formulaic fairy tale with an implausibly complete and happy ending. There is plenty of innovation in general, but not in the narrative structure. So for instance when Borgov passes on the mantle at the end, as if one generation (and gender) was passing on to another, I did not really believe it - it had a "just so" feeling. I could imagine an alternative scenario quite easily in which Borgov might have recovered, and beaten Beth the next day or at the next event. But all of this feels a little churlish given how many people loved the series!

And despite Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini being chess consultants, I did notice some chess errors. For instance, at the end of episode three, the game opens with an Open Sicilian but when Beth resigns there is a white pawn on d2, which is rule-defying. I only noticed that because it wasn't obvious why she resigned and I wanted to look more closely. And at one moment on the road to New York City in episode 6, Beth and Benny begin a game in their heads and they reach a Sicilian Dragon position but the moves start becoming incomprehensible; Benny plays P-B4 (6.f4) and Beth herself replies with the same move P-B4 (f4) then Benny says "The Levenfish - never liked it" - but he's White, and the one who played it! And then, somehow they reverse colours and Benny, now Black, plays "knight to bishop three" (Nc6) which is a standard theoretical move, but what he actually says is "King to bishop three," which is clearly illegal, to which Beth says "I'll take the knight" (and she's clearly playing White now) It's chaos! Most viewers wouldn't have noticed, and a very generous interpretation would be that they were just playing and analysing together, and understood each other fine, and we should just play along. But it looks more like a mistake to me. I grew up "bilingual" in a chess sense - descriptive notation was just on the way out in the 1980s so I learned it alongside algebraic as a boy. These details only matter because it was otherwise a charming road trip scene, and for me at least, it slightly spoilt it!

A deeper issue is that I didn't find the chess language authentic. As a player, I kept thinking: chess players would never talk like that. In most cases, there was a jarring lack of specificity. For instance, when Benny tells her in her adjourned game with Borgov that she "has to open the file" in my experience serious players would always say precisely which file had to be opened. But more generally the verbal descriptions of positions and games all sounded slightly off key. There is a chess language, and serious players know how to speak it with a bit more precision, indeed we enjoy doing so. And when we speak to people who don't follow the game, we talk at a different level of generality. Most of the time I felt the language was pitched somewhere in between – that was perhaps "good enough" for the purposes of the story, but I disagree with those who say they got the depiction of the chess details just right. To put it anthropologically, I felt the chess language in The Queen’s Gambit was Etic, an external interpretation of a culture, not Emic, arising from within the culture itself.  And, as you noted, there was scope to ground the games in question in great female players of the past, rather than only high-level games played by elite male players.

Other than Harmon, which other character fascinated you the most and why?

They were all well done, not least Beth's mother and Jolene perhaps, but for the sake of saying something that may not have been noticed yet, I really liked the way they portrayed her adoptive father. He seemed weak, and a failure, and uncaring, and lost, and perhaps even spiteful, while at the same time he remained recognisably and relatedly human. He did not seem evil, or unredeemable, and since most of the other male characters were relatively helpful and generous in spirit, he played an important part in reminding the viewer that there are also negative influences in life. The moment where he learns his ex-wife has died and tells Beth she can live in the house was hardly a high point of compassion, but it did make me feel like this was a potentially good person who had somehow lost his way, rather than simply a bad guy. And then when he makes Beth buy him out, I still felt he came across as somebody who wanted to be good, better, but just didn't know how to. They say "to know all is to forgive all" and I felt Beth saw her adoptive father that way - who knows what he went through, and she never seemed to judge him, even though she had good reason to.

In regard to chess as a complicated form of escapism for Harmon (and others, including Shaibel), how do you read the final scene in the show? What's your interpretation on that?

Yes, it's an enigmatic ending in lots of ways. Initially, I didn't notice that the opponent she finally sits down to play outside is the same actor who played Mr. Shaibel, Bill Camp, but I did feel the way it was orchestrated is a kind of choreography, almost a dance, as if the crowd makes way for her to see who she has to see. The fact that she says to this mysterious person sitting down waiting for her, in Russian, "let's play" to "the same person" she began playing with at an orphanage basement was a lovely detail, suggesting she had somehow come full circle and completed her journey. You could see it as a deliberately playful breach of the fourth wall, directly addressing the viewer in the manner of, for instance, House of Cards. But I prefer a deeper interpretation. It's almost as if this unnamed person in a Moscow street, like Mr. Shaibel in the basement before we knew his name, is the chess-playing equivalent of "the unknown soldier", not a real chess player but a symbol of all chess players. There is more going on too, because Beth seems remarkably joyous and at ease in that crowd, as if she is, for the first time, ready to merge into a collective, after a story of fierce and heroic individualism. But maybe it's also just a way of saying that even after achieving all there was to achieve, she is still in love with chess. So I'm not sure how to read it, but it's a great ending, placing Beth back on earth after her transcendent look to the skies to win against Borgov. Perhaps it was a way of saying: she’s one of us.

Jonathan Rowson (@Jonathan_Rowson) is a grandmaster and three-time British champion. He is co-founder and director of the research institute Perspectiva, based in London. He is also the former director of the Social Brain Centre at the Royal Society of Arts and an Open Society Fellow. His books include The Seven Deadly Chess Sins (2001), Chess for Zebras (2005), Spiritualize: Cultivating Spiritual Sensibility to address 21st Century Challenges (2014), and The Moves that Matter: A Chess Grandmaster on the Game of Life (2019).


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