The Queen's Gambit in Netflix

by Shahid Ahmed
12/5/2020 – A lot of movies have been made where chess was either a backdrop, centerpiece or just one of the key elements to a mystery or climax. But there has not been any mainstream drama series where chess is the main focal point in a series. Netflix decided to adapt The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis into a seven episode mini-series. Special Consultants are Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini. So you can be rest assured that there won't be odd chess board orientation or or incorrect checkmates. Photo: Pinterest

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The Queen's Gambit is a Netflix Original with seven episodes. Each episode is roughly about 60 mins or slightly longer. The series is adapted from the book authored by Walter Tevis. Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini are Special Consultants for this mini-series, and the late Iepe Rubingh, founder of Chess Boxing, was the on-set chess consultant.

Plot summary from IMDB

Eight year-old orphan Beth Harmon is quiet, sullen, and by all appearances unremarkable. That is, until she plays her first game of chess. Her senses grow sharper, her thinking clearer, and for the first time in her life she feels herself fully in control. By the age of sixteen, she's competing for the U.S. Open championship. But as Beth hones her skills on the professional circuit, the stakes get higher, her isolation grows more frightening, and the thought of escape becomes all the more tempting.

Episode 1 - Openings

Beth encounters chess for the first time when she goes to the basement of her school to clean her teacher's eraser. There she sees the custodian playing a board game – against himself.

She asks him if he will teach her, but he was not interested in "playing with strangers". When she returns and and asks again the custodian sternly says "Girls do not play chess". Beth walks up to the board and describes to him how the rook, pawn and queen move. The old man picks up the bishop and then the knight to ask about their movement. She answers correctly, and he invites her to play.

The custodian ends the game with a "Scholar's Mate": 1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Nc6 3.Qf3 Nd4 4.Qxf7#. After getting checkmated, Beth wants to know how he did it, but he won't explain. "Not today," he says.


Beth discovers she is able to visualize the entire board along with the pieces on her dorm ceiling, and replay the moves. She starts playing other moves to figure out a defence. She starts playing a game with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6. The scene cuts to the following wide-angle shot of the board:
 

Custodian - Beth

Black to play

It is evident that black is winning here. We see the game unfold as 1...f4 2.N3g2 f3+ 3.Ne3 Bxe3 4.fxe3 f2 and the custodian says, "You should learn the Sicilian Defense" and explains the first two moves in descriptive notation: 1.P-K4 P-QB4 2.N-KB3. Beth exclaims, "The squares have names?"

A few days pass and Beth makes it a regular habit to practice with the custodian. He shows her the Levenfish variation - 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.f4. On another day, he shows her the Najdorf - 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6.  Beth is surprised when she sees the white pieces being set on her side. The custodian explains, "From now on, we take turns. It's the way the game should be played."

Beth plays with white pieces for the first time

Beth - Custodian

White to play

The game is over in the next two moves - 1.Qe8+ Nce7 2.d5#. 

The custodian hands over a book, "Modern Chess Openings," to Beth and says "You'll need to learn chess notation before you can read it."

It may not be the actual MCO, but they definitely did not use any prop book, it was an actual chess book as the diagrams visible in the photo gives it away.

In the next scene, we see Beth reading MCO during a class because she is intrigued with chess while she finds the class to be boring. During my 7.5+ years stint as a chess teacher in a school, I heard the principal of the school saying similar thing happening in one of the classes. Luckily she was cool with it because it was chess, not something silly the kids were focusing on during a class.

How many of us have done a color toss like this in our childhood? | Photo: Netflix stream

The custodian introduced Beth to Mr. Ganz, a high school (Duncan High) chess coach of a chess club. When Mr. Ganz put his fists forward with hidden pawns, she looked at the custodian and he explained, 'You play the color you choose'. The game started with 1.Nf3 f5 and we cut to the following position:

Can you find out the finish here? | Photo: Netflix stream

Here is the complete position:

Beth - Mr. Ganz

Position after 5...Nc6

Well now the mate in three is obvious. Beth shows the checkmate after announcing mate in three.

 
Beth - Mr.Ganz 1-0
The Queen's Gambit Ep.1 2020.??.??
1. f3 f5 2. e4 fxe4 3. e5 d5 4. d3 exd3 5. xd3 c6 6. h5+ g6 7. xg6+ hxg6 8. xg6# 1-0
 

When the high school chess coach asks her where she plays, she answers, down here and upon further query she says - in her head, on the ceiling. He gifts her a doll, she reluctantly accepts but asks for another game.

We see Beth playing against Shaibel - the custodian | Photo: Netflix stream

Beth - Shaibel

Position after Bg5+

We see Shaibel knocking his own king down as the checkmate is inevitable in the next move with Qxg5#. The camera moves to the next board and we are made to realize that Beth was playing simultaneously against both Shaibel and Mr. Ganz.

Beth playing simultaneously with both Shaibel and Mr. Ganz | Photo: Netflix stream

Upon closer inspection, we can deduce that the position between Beth and Mr. Ganz has quite possibly arisen from Caro-Kann opening.

Beth - Mr. Ganz

Position after dxe5

Beth gets up from the chair and moves away from the board. Mr. Ganz says, 'I moved my queen to rook four - check.' She says the bishop blocks without seeing the board. Ganz continues with, queen takes king's pawn. She says, castles. He continues with knight takes knight. Beth very calmly says, 'Mate in three. First check is with the queen. The king must take. Then the bishop checks on knight five and it's mate next.' Notice how the character Beth says the move to make it sound organic and not the exact squares to make it seem like memorized. In case you are wondering what happened, these are the moves - 6.dxe5 Qa5+ 7.Bd2 Qxe5 8.0-0-0 Nxe4 9.Qd8+ Kxd8 10.Bg5+ Kc7 11.Bd8#. A very popular miniature played between Reti and Tartakower in 1910.

 
Beth - Mr. Ganz *
The Queen's Gambit Ep.1
1. e4 c6 2. d4 d5 3. c3 dxe4 4. xe4 f6 5. d3 e5 6. dxe5 a5+ 7. d2 xe5 8. O-O-O xe4 9. d8+ xd8 10. g5+ c7 11. d8# *
 

After a few scenes, we see Mr. Ganz propose the idea of taking Beth to his chess club to play a simultaneous exhibition which Beth initially doesn't understand. Then he explains it to her that simultaneous means playing against them all at the same time.

Beth playing a Simul | Photo: Netflix stream

We see Beth going to the Duncan high school and she plays a Simul against at least twelve players (as implied by the different camera angles). She returned back to Shaibel after it got over and shared that how bad her opponents were, 'They left backward pawns all over the place and the pieces were wide open for a fork... A few of them tried stupid mating attacks. This boy, Charles Levy, he was supposed to be the best. I had his pieces tied up in 15 moves. I mated him in six more with a knight-rook combination'. We see many players knocking their own king to add to the dramatic effect of resignation. She says that she was told by Mr. Ganz that she beat them all in an hour and 20 minutes. She also said that she felt good as she had never won anything before.

When Kasparov and Pandolfini is involved, you can be rest assured about the technical aspect in the mini-series | Photo: Netflix stream

The first episode ends in a dramatic cliffhanger as a scene from the movie 'The Robe' is shown where plethora of chess metaphors shown and the protagonist of the mini-series making a huge mistake to echo that thought. Those who watch a lot of series will be quite familiar with this technique of story-telling.

Conclusion

It makes a promising start in the opening episode with a good amount of time spent in chess. I couldn't find any technical error except in the opening scene which I believe to be a deliberate one or the director's choice. I have watched over hundreds of series comprising of over thousands of episodes. While chess definitely piqued my interest in the series, the story-telling part is also good and can make non-chess fans interested too especially those who like a drama series. For chess players, enthusiasts and fans - of course the episode has a lot and I am sure if you watch it, you will definitely like it and might love it too.

The mini-series is adapted from The Queen's Gambit book by Walter Tevis | Photo: Penguin

Watch the entire episode of The Queen's Gambit Episode 1 - The Openings on Netflix. The series is meant for adults only. So kids if they want to watch the episodes for chess purpose, they can take an adult's help in watching only the chess elements of the mini-series.

Links

The Queen's Gambit on Netflix


Shahid Ahmed is the senior coordinator and editor of ChessBase India. He enjoys covering chess tournaments and also likes to play in chess events from time to time.

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