Music and chess: Mason Williams' "Classical Gas" in "The Queen's Gambit"

by André Schulz
12/24/2021 – "The Queen's Gambit" is one of the most successful Netflix series and will remain one of the best representations of chess in film. The series contains many impressive and powerful scenes, e.g. the depiction of a tournament in fast-forward mode, fittingly accompanied by the famous instrumental musical piece "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams.

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The Netflix series "The Queen's Gambit" is arguably the best depiction of the tournament chess scene ever put on film. The series was produced and realised by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, and is based on Walter Tevis' novel of the same name. "The Queen's Gambit" was released in 2020 and is one of the most successful Netflix series ever.

Anya Taylor-Joy did an outstanding job of portraying the main character Beth Harmon, who grew up as an orphan, learned chess at the orphanage and rises to become a world-class player, but also has to struggle with her addiction to pills and alcohol.

The series is set in the 1960s and is scenically perfect down to the smallest detail. This also applies to the background music, which is from the 1960s throughout.

In one scene, the progress of a tournament is told in a fast and original way. On the one hand, the pace is set by the intelligent use of fast-changing frames, a technique that was popular in the 1960s, for example in the famous Steve McQueen film "The Thomas Crown Affair". But it is also the lively background music that sets the pace.

Here's the scene:

In the 1960s film "The Thomas Crown Affair", the use of frames looked like this:

Wait a minute, "The Thomas Crown Affair", isn't that a film in which chess also plays a role? That's right! The film contains a famous scene in which Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway start to play chess as a prelude to a double-edged and passionate love affair.

But back to "The Queen's Gambit". The background music to the tournament scene is the famous piece "Classical Gas" by Mason Williams.

Here is a recording by Williams from 1968.

The demanding piece was later covered by many musicians, and is so famous that it has its own website.

Mason Williams was born in Texas in 1938. He studied music in Oklahoma City and only learned to play the guitar during his studies. During his military service he earned money by composing pieces. One of his compositions was "Cinderella Rockefella", which was later successfully performed by Esther and Abi Ofarim. Petula Clark was also one of Williams' clients.

In 1967, Williams began writing for the TV comedy duo Tom and Dick Smothers. Through the show, Williams got a contract with Warner Brothers and in 1968 he wrote the instrumental piece "Classical Gas", for which he received three Grammy Awards in 1969.

The piece was written one weekend after a long tour with the Smothers Brothers. Williams later said that he was looking forward to playing the guitar and wanted to write a piece that would be a kind of "fuel" for the guitar, hence the name "Classical Gas".

Williams also worked for the "Saturday Night Live", and was a successful writer of non-fiction and a successful composer of film scores.


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.


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