Netflix miniseries "Queen's Gambit" planned

by André Schulz
5/9/2019 – Netflix is ​​planning a mini-series about a chess player. "Queen's Gambit" takes place during the Cold War. An orphan, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), grows up in difficult conditions and discovers her chess talent. She tries to get to the top while battling her own demons and the best Russian grandmasters. After a novel by Walter Tevis, the series still has no release date, but is expected in 2020.

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From the author of The Man Who Fell to Earth

Queen's Gambit is a novel by Walter Tevis, who already put billiard players at the centre of his stories with his books "The Hustler" and "The Color of Money". Both novels were filmed with actor Paul Newman. Perhaps Tevis' most famous novel adapted for the screen, is "The Man Who Fell to Earth". Released in 1963, this novel is about an alien who has landed on Earth in search of water for his planet and is trying to cope here. In 1976, Nicolas Roeg ("Don't Look Now") filmed the story with David Bowie in the lead role and created a disturbing visual aesthetic. 

In Queen's Gambit, Tevis focuses his imagination on the life of a chess player. The story and its main character shares thematic elements from the lives of Lisa Lane and Bobby Fischer.

The story of "Queen's Gambit"

Beth Harmon is orphaned at the age of eight after her parents were killed in a car accident. She is being housed in an orphanage in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, where the children are treated badly and kept sedated with medication. Harmon learns the chess game from a caretaker in the basement and develops a great talent.

She is adopted by Alma and Allston Wheatley, and attends a proper school, but remains an outsider. When the Wheatley family falls apart, her foster mother seeks refuge in alcohol.

Beth, now age 13, is keen to develop her chess skills, but has no money for books or a coach. So she steals a chess magazine from a newsstand and a classmates money to participate in a chess tournament, which she wins.

As a 16-year-old she participates in the Open US Championship. At 18, she becomes the US champion. Then she travels to Russia to compete with the Soviet chess players, but faces setbacks. Plagued by self-doubt and addicted to tranquillizers, her career stagnates, but then Beth receives help from a friend from the orphanage, who teaches her discipline and leads her to the right path.

Queen's Gambit was published in 1983 by Random House. Rafford Films bought the film rights already in 1997, but the story never made it into production. In 2007, actor Heath Ledger (who also played chess) set to make his directorial debut with Ellen Page in the leading role, but that effort was derailed following Ledger’s death in January, 2008.

Now the film adaptation is on again, this time produced by Netflix, as a six episode series. Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) will take on the role of Beth Harmon.


Filmography of Anya Taylor-Joy


About Walter Tevis

Walter Tevis was born in San Francisco in 1928. At the age of ten, his parents brought him to Stanford Children's Convalescent Home for a year, having acquired land in Kentucky and trying to gain a foothold there. At the age of eleven, Tevis traveled alone across the US to join his family. Tevis attended Lexington High School, learned billiards and developed an affinity for science fiction novels. 

At the age of 17, Tevis first learned the carpenter's trade and served on the USS Hamul, an American destroyer, in Okinawa. After his release from the Navy, he studied literature at University of Kentucky. After completing his undergraduate degree, he taught various subjects, from sports to science to literature at several smaller Kentucky schools, and began writing short stories for The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Redbook, Cosmopolitan, and Playboy.

His first novel was The Hustler, published in 1959 by Harper & Row. The Man Who Fell to Earth followed in 1963. Tevis joined Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, teaching English and Creative Writing for 14 years. In 1978, he moved to New York and started to write again. He has published four novels: Mockingbird, The Steps of the Sun, The Queen's Gambit and The Color of Money, as well as a collection of short stories: Far From Home. In 1984, Tevis died of lung cancer. His novels have been translated into numerous languages. 

Chess players in literature

ChessBase editor Johannes Fischer's 2003 essay for the German chess magazine Karl, as well as his blog Schöner Schein deals with the representation of chess players in the literature, not only in Tevis, but in general. The summary of his observations reads as follows:

Meeting chess players in literature or films is not always a pleasure. They often claim to be able to calculate 50 moves ahead or to remember 100,000 variations but fail to know the proper names of the openings they play. In films they often get the starting position wrong and touch the pieces like a non-smoker a cigarette. They talk about Lasker, Capablanca and Alekhine like a philosophy student in the first semester talks about Heidegger and Wittgenstein and their knowledge of chess history usually ends just before World War II — unless they talk about Fischer. Pleasant people are rare among them. The sensitive are crazy or will soon become so, and the more robust use their minds to plan perfidious crimes.

Though Johannes Fischer likes "The Queen's Gambit" in general he is not particularly happy about the way chess players are depicted and thinks that the many inaccuracies in the novel spoil the pleasure:

A happy end in a novel about chess, that is rare. But why does “The Queen’s Gambit” still evoke ambiguous feelings in the reader? Is it the presentation of the game that despite all suspense it creates still seems to be too naïve at times? Though it seems familiar when Beth feels unexpected and strong moves of her opponents in her stomach and develops aggressions against them, and though the portraits Tevis draws of chess players and their mannerisms are reminiscent of characters you meet at every larger open, it is odd that in Tevis’ description of chess games it seems to be the most important to remember as many opening moves as possible and to know that you are playing the Löwenfisch variation. Moreover, the representation of the tournament scene in America, in which Beth after a few successes is already considered as an American Champion, also remains oddly abstract.

We'll see if Netflix can manage to hire a chess consultant to address some of the novel's shortcomings.

Correction May 10: Tevis' novel The Man Who Fell to Earth was published in 1963; the film came out in 1976, not 1978.

Translation from German: Macauley Peterson

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Topics: Television

André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.
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notebook03 notebook03 5/11/2019 05:30
Chess plays a part in another story by Tevis called 'Echo', available in the short story collection 'Far From Home'.
JimNvegas JimNvegas 5/10/2019 08:27
If they show the board set up properly it will be a big improvement. It irks me to no end when I see a scene involving chess and the board is set up wrong. Second would be when they move pieces wrong.
treetown treetown 5/10/2019 05:49
Chess is one of the few intellectual activities that can be shown on film in a tangible way - someone loses, wins or the game is drawn. A film about a writer or painter has to use the reaction of someone else to show the action - another character has to exclaim that the work is great or there has to be a scene where the author/creator is being lauded - often in a work of fiction and not biographical, there isn't anything that can be shown that could elicit that response so the audience has to depend on the reaction of the characters. Sports are now too difficult to do - the athletes are too well known and the speed and size just can't be duplicated on screen.

Chess is actually ideal for TV or movie drama - it has discrete moves, moments of tension, traps, a clock, and one-on-one play.
geeker geeker 5/10/2019 12:28
Good news. I very much enjoyed the novel, though of course all the chess portrayals are not ideal. It has the potential to be a highly entertaining series. I just hope the chess segments are not too cringe-inducing.
jaberwocky jaberwocky 5/10/2019 12:13
Our game is very fascinating and challenging. There is a temptation for chess players to get too absorbed in it, and not have enough other activities also. Those who succumb tend to have shorter and grimmer lives.
It's similar for musicians, artists, poets and so on.
Novels and films may exaggerate things to try to make a more interesting story.
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