The Queen's Gambit - A review

by Albert Silver
10/28/2020 – Netflix recently released the new mini-series "The Queen's Gambit" portraying a female chess prodigy who rises to the top. What really stands out is how every single element comes together to make it the best chess-related movie or series to grace the screen, from the tour de force performance by Anya Taylor-Joy to the gorgeous cinematography. Read this review or skip it and run to Netflix to see it! (Image: Neflix)

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Chess players always feel a combination of excitement and dread when a movie is released that either contains chess or is actually about our beloved game. The excitement needs no explanation, and the dread is the flood of technical problems that seem to inevitably appear. When I reported the new mini-series on Netflix to a colleague, his first question was, “Did they get the color of the squares for the kings and queens right?” This seemingly sarcastic comment belies the standard chess aficionados usually face. The good news is that not only is chess superbly rendered, with a wide variety of grandmaster-level positions and situations, but the story and production of “The Queen’s Gambit” is exceptional on all levels. Simply put: this is easily the best chess movie or series to ever grace the screens.

The tale of a prodigy

The story takes place in the 1960s and recounts the story of the recently orphaned Beth Harmon, nine years old, who finds herself in an all-girls orphanage run by a Christian group with strict values. These values do not exclude administering tranquilizers to its tenants for ‘mood control’, with lines of girls to receive their pills in small paper cups much like a psychiatric institute.

Mr. Schaibel played by Bill Camp becomes the central male figure in her early formative years. (Image: Netflix)

Our young heroine is introduced to the royal game by the institute’s resident janitor, handyman and chess aficionado who is seen playing over games in the basement in his leisure time. The curmudgeonly figure, clearly jaded with the steady flow of troubled girls in the locale, is highly reticent to take on Beth as a pupil, but her persistence and natural talent win out and thus begins the rise of the prodigy.

After taking her 'green pill', the slightly addled child begins to picture a chessboard with moving pieces on the ceiling of her dorm. (Image: Netflix)

Although Beth shines as a super talent, she is also a deeply flawed character whose only solace lies in two things: her passion for chess and her addiction to the tranquilizers. It is this duality and struggle between her self-destructiveness and natural ability that define her as much as the world in which she lives, a world that sees her as a female chess player with the emphasis on female. Even a woman journalist interviewing her for Life magazine shows an inability to see beyond this and suggests the ‘less competitive’ game of bridge might suit her gender better.

Thomas Brodie-Sangster plays the cowboy hat toting Benny Watts, the top US player prior to Beth. (Image: Netflix)

A Brilliant Performance

There is no question that it all comes down to Beth Harmon. While the chess might suffice for chess fans, it certainly won’t be enough for the wider audience, and therein lies part of the greatness of this series. Anya Taylor-Joy’s characterization is a tour de force and should really do wonders for her career.

The series clearly brought to light the inherent disadvantage American players had at the time, with the national championship being held in a secondary university compared to the state supported Soviet players in plush conditions and packed theaters. (Image: Netflix)

The imagery is a masterclass in backlighting as seen here and throughout. (Image: Netflix) 

Taylor-Joy takes over the main character as Beth enters her adolescence, and we see the evolution of the girl’s social awkwardness and youthfulness not just by subtle changes in her hair, but also in her body language, way of walking and presenting herself, all while juggling the pent-up anger and solitude of her existence. 

(Image: Netflix)

A Masterclass in Cinematography

This solitude is emphasized by the very intelligent camera work. In one scene during her first visit to Paris in the 1960s, we see her arrive at a table with a chess board laid out in a hall exuding elegance and beauty. She hesitates and then sits down to go over a game or position. The camera is quite close at this stage, imparting an impression of intimacy. 

(Image: Netflix)

Then the angle widens and the camera pulls back, and we see the large hall filled with tables, boards, seats, and Old World sophistication, with that lone soul at the board, oblivious to the beauty and emptiness surrounding her.

(Image: Netflix)

The cinematography is no less breathtaking with many carefully composed images that wouldn’t look out of place in a gallery. The palette of colors impresses as well. Most films focus on a very clear and restricted choice of tones and colors, and even the writer/director’s previous mini-series “Godless” (highly recommended) was no exception. Scott Frank’s collaborators broadened this to vary from muted tones and dark blues, such as the scene of young Beth staring at the ceiling, to the warm pastels typical of 60s stills on film, to finally round on the sharp contrasts in the final games played in the Soviet Union.

(Image: Netflix)

While discussed already in many other places and articles, one cannot fail to bring up the matter of the chess itself. Clearly expense and effort were expended to ensure this was not to be an embarrassing stumbling point and it pays off.

Anya Taylor-Joy he and co-star Thomas Brodie-Sangster were coached and choreographed by chess consultants Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparov.

“Having them around made me feel like we weren’t going to disappoint people,” says Taylor-Joy. “It’s an entirely different world, and people care about it so much. I wanted to make sure we were telling the story right.” And that they did.

Fiction and Reality

The mini-series is based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. Walter Tevis seems to be one of those authors blessed with a talent for writing material that filmmakers wish to adapt to the screen. His two most famous works adapted to the silver screen are “The Hustler” and “The Color of Money”, both starring Paul Newman. It should be no big surprise that the miniseries expanded generously on the original material, whilst remaining quite faithful to the story itself. The book itself is solid, albeit somewhat unremarkable, other than the subject matter for the keen Caissans. 

(Image: Amazon.com)

Seen today, obvious parallels will be drawn with the Polgars, and most especially Judit, but keep in mind this was written and published before any of them had made so much as a ripple in the chess world, nevermind the actual tidal waves that ensued, so the idea of a girl beating up on the male-dominated chess world was as exotic as could be when it came out. 

A critical success

The overall reception has been very positive, not merely in the chess world where social media and news outlets describe it as ‘chess done right’, but the general public and critics as well. Metacritic, an amalgam of reviews from critics, has it at a very high 79/100 average, while IMDB, a movie site that allows viewers to weigh in with grades and reviews, has it at a stellar 89/100 as of this writing.




Born in the US, he grew up in Paris, France, where he completed his Baccalaureat, and after college moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. He had a peak rating of 2240 FIDE, and was a key designer of Chess Assistant 6. In 2010 he joined the ChessBase family as an editor and writer at ChessBase News. He is also a passionate photographer with work appearing in numerous publications.
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bebgsurg bebgsurg 11/19/2020 04:27
Enjoyed the show, very nice cinematography, acting and interesting plot with the riffs on Fischer chess history. Later I I reflected on how the typical disgusting Hollywood biases infiltrated the story. To wit : Only straight married men presented in the show were monsters. Other straight males were nerdy and unattractive (Harry) or egotistic and let the heroine down at a crucial point (Benny). Gay man is warm and helpful, all good. Christianity gets several gratuitous slaps in the face during the series. Russian collusion was whitewashed, the more serious charge of making easy draws with each other was ignored. Their positive attribute was presented as their cooperation with each other (communism better than freedom and competition). Black friend was wonderful person and of course she wanted to be a "radical". So in many ways the plot tilted to the typical hollywood leftist cant. Why must it be so?
boiette boiette 11/11/2020 03:44
Probably the best chess film I have seen. It is not just a movie about chess--it is superb film making. Great acting, excellent script and fabulous cinematography. The costume design puts a final fold to a superlative work, with equally intelligent directing. I play chess a lot--initially I wanted to see her grow and have a passion for chess, see her moves and games. But afterwards, I am no longer enchanted by the games. I am bequiled by the how the film was made. The elements I have said above have altogether something one never forgets easily--because one is immersed in a world of struggle, passion and triumph. The fact that it has chess as the center of all this production--makes, to a chessplayer like me, it the more enthralling.
TwoZero TwoZero 11/2/2020 06:48
I'm surprised that they didn't do a tie-in book containing all the games shown in the series.
STEPHEN JAMES STEPHEN JAMES 11/2/2020 12:41
My father taught me chess when I was young. I finally won a match against him when I was 13. I always thought he had let me win, but he told me I had won fair and square The "Janitor " in this movie reminds me of my dad. I miss him so much......
qiqiangzhu qiqiangzhu 11/1/2020 06:48
There is hardly any draw in the games, and the final competes 1 round only, that's not normal.
mythiclott mythiclott 10/31/2020 01:41
I thought it was refreshing and fun. I can personally relate to the substance abuse, living under control of the state etc. I have been through both..and trust me..it is hard for a kid to grow up with both...even though while we go through that we just think all that screwed up stuff is normal while going through it.
And they told that quite accurately. The chess scenes were well shot. The Director did not quite get the feel of playing across (Playing too fast..etc ) but it still was the best chess based series I personally ever saw. I loved when she slapped down the church ladies...(for sure something Fisher would have done.) I agree..a nice collage of Fischer and Lane. The Soviets collaborating on the adjourned position...etc. I also liked the predudicial attitudes she encountered...they got a lot right. She played the part well....I loved when she woke up late all screwed up before she had to face Bargov for the first time...The Rossolimo was a great opening choice Ièm sure most players would agree...The two geek teens analysing the adjourned position was unrealistic but for non chess playing people watching ...yeah sure ...ok. So overall I think Its worth a watch. last point...I am not sure that the Albin was an appropriate choice for the last game but....what do I know.
e-mars e-mars 10/30/2020 07:00
@Arnold Weber
Yes and no. I am very familiar with problems related to drug addiction: this is serious. But the whole series is in many aspect filtered, smoothed. It is like a fairy tale with dark spots. They made it so that even a kid could watch it (even if it's PG13 in some country). Domestic battery, abuse, discrimination, are all issues well known for those years (they're still nowadays!) and just hinted by the series. It is well done this way. They didn't want to show another pulp fiction with violence, open sex, gore, nor a reality show, let alone a documentary.
I totally agree with their choice.
Arnold Weber Arnold Weber 10/30/2020 05:11
The series brings up addiction to benzodiazepines and alcohol but does not develop it through all its consequences, which are severe.

A chess player cannot function at even close to a normal level if he or she is intoxicated with these substances. They take away attention, memory and any form of intelligence.

So, Elizabeth would have had many throwbacks, lost many frustrating games before she would come to a crossroads: do everything to utilize her talent and fight her adduction or let life go on as before. It would have been a stony path of withdrawal, without guarantee of success.

Instead, in the series, she just keeps winning game after game, as if she was taking bonbons with lemonade.
That's the only flaw in the show, but a big one.
Albert Silver Albert Silver 10/30/2020 04:23
For the record, the review explicitly says this is not inspired or based on Judit.

However, while it is normal that a non-chess person might not make any reference, it would be an unforgivable omission to not comment on the parallel. The chess world lived the singular situation of a young girl breaking into the top 40 players at the age of 12! All that, while facing the absurd sexist comments such as Kasparov's famous explanation on her success, "It is because she plays chess like a man."

Nevertheless, Tevis's novel predates Judit's breakthrough by about 5-6 years, more if you include the time to write a novel, as it came out in 1983, and her world-shaking Olympiad result with a 2694 TPR was in 1988.
kurumban kurumban 10/30/2020 11:20
Superb. Thoroughly enjoyed it. The setting in the 1950's and 60's adds to the charm. Hope it inspires girls to take up the game and beat the men!
g_Rossolimo g_Rossolimo 10/30/2020 06:23
A superb film! Beautiful cinematography and an amazing performance by Anya Taylor-Joy. We can nit-pick and hyperanalyze the nuances and discrepancies, but the consulting provided by at least to GM's has helped make this an incredible film and depiction of gifted talent and true genius.
Alex Shabalov Alex Shabalov 10/30/2020 03:07
Please leave Judith out of it. Beth Harmon character is a combination of Bobby Fischer and Lisa Lane. It is funny that Lexington, KY is currently a hometown to 2 GMS, Kaidanov and Novikov.
sraymar sraymar 10/29/2020 11:27
OK - so i am a rank amateur who last paid attention to chess when my son was on a strong elementary school team 8 years ago. But I like good shows, and am going thru Queen's Gambit quickly. QUESTION - episode 3, Double Pawns, the championship match which she loses. At the end, rather than move her rook to prevent an easy check by Black, why not simply move her knight's rook (on her left) down to row 8 and check her opponent, forcing an exchange of rooks. If Black retakes, she has time for a variety of defenses. If Black does not retake, White seems to be able to escape and mount her own attack. I must be missing something, because it was 2 a.m. when I watched - and Kasparov advised on the chess. So what is the easy checkmate against her after he loses one rook ?
cyronix cyronix 10/29/2020 11:12
binge watching ... would have been deemed dissolute just 20 years ago, now its the new normal
Albert Silver Albert Silver 10/29/2020 03:53
It is obvious that if one comes with a mind to nitpick or criticize, one will always find something, and even on basic chess things I could certainly find something to point out, such as the obvious constant chatter at the board from the players. But frankly, these are really just nitpicks as the overall treatment of chess was done exceptionally well, and they managed to turn a slow internal game into something spectators could enjoy with nary a clue.

On the flip side, notice how they managed to constantly explain core things such as touch move, how the clock is used, and more, without seeming to be overly forced. We are sold this idea on the premise that while a prodigy, these are not points she had encountered in an unofficial environment. Many times such things in other games or sports on TV or movies are extremely contrived, but here it went fairly smoothly. Even "The Color of Money" starts with an opening scene explaining the rules of nine-ball, unable to present it any other way.
Andrea Mori Andrea Mori 10/29/2020 10:26
I watched the series in one sitting between evening and early morning hours last sunday/monday. I agree that this is possibly the best movie/series ever about chess and I actually enjoyed it greatly. Still, I was slightly bugged by a few details that didn't look quite right or were factually wrong. For the former, let me say about the fact that even at the rate of 2hours 30' for 45 moves--which by the way is the exact speed of rated games back then--everybody seems to be playing blitz. For the latter, the game Harmon-Borgov was adjourned after 36. h3 (we know that it is the 36th move since that game up to that moment is Ivanchuk-Wolff, Biel Interzonal 1993) and that is impossible because games could be adjourned only after reaching the first time control. Even so, the series makes an outstanding job at depicting chess and in particular, imho, at representing the kind of obsession about the game that captures people deeply involved in it, in fact regardless of their actual stength. I have written my own review of the series for my Facebook page and some of my non-chess contacts have commented that they liked the series and wished they knew more about chess to understand better the plot and the underlying psychology.
Frederic Frederic 10/29/2020 09:10
The point is that this is one of the best films ever, for a lay audience, on chess. It tempts you to binge-watch, which I did, together with someone who is not deeply interested in the game. "Another episode?" was her question, two or three times a day. The visuals, the camera angles and lighting, cinematography, drama – all high class, often superb. I'm sure that more people watched and enjoyed than any chess film in the past. It is just a very well-made series.
pipopalazzo pipopalazzo 10/29/2020 02:17
By far one of the best approaches to chess world on screen, but still has a lot of unnecessary technical mistakes, for example:
a) Dialogues about openings, books or chess heroes of the past:
Even the newest novice amateur in chess has more info about those topics than this chess female prodigie on her road to world chess title. The dialogues are nonsense. You can hear "Sicilian" "Slav" "Rossolimo" but in a total ilogical chess conversation...
It reminded me of Captain Tsubasa anime dialogues that have no idea what the real thing is with soccer.
b) Chess Clocks and Chess Sets:
Come on men! can´t producers check images on the web of chess tournaments in the sixties? It´s like filming a Soccer World Cup in the 30´s with the ball used in Russia 2018 World Cup... It´s not a matter of budget I guess...They hired GK and Pandolfini... I can imagine they observing this, and the producers saying "yeah,yeah...we´ll see that later..." You can see the Euro Chess Set with German Knight - used nowadays in tournaments all over the world, but 50 years ahead of it´s time!!! (Probably Marty and Doc Brown had one of those on the DeLorean and left it in Hill Valley in the 50´s...)
c) Masters, IM and GM looks like amateurs:
Back in those days, the prototype of a chessplayer were totally different, I can´t imagine a player without tie and jacket playing in an official event. They show professional chess player as a gang of geek teenagers playing chess as a hobbie...They look more like amateurs than pro chess players of that time.
Beyond that, the plot is good and enjoyable. "The Queen´s Gambit" and "Searching for Bobby Fischer" are in my opinion the ones that reached a certain degree of credibility -in chess terms.
Edwin Meijer Edwin Meijer 10/28/2020 11:22
@chessgodo
Nobody said that the character was based on the Polgars. It was about parallels.
Albert Silver Albert Silver 10/28/2020 08:36
@JimNvegas - This was actually added by Scott Frank as it is not present in the book at all.
JimNvegas JimNvegas 10/28/2020 08:09
SPOILER ALERT! I thoroughly enjoyed the series and also reading the reviews. What I have noticed in the reviews is how they skip over the force driving the mental storm of Beth Harmon. Surely I'm not the only one to catch that her mother intended for both to die in the car crash. Knowing that your mother intended to kill you would be enough to drive most anyone to substance abuse. That in itself would make a story worth telling.
chessgod0 chessgod0 10/28/2020 04:10
The character isn't based on the Polgars---it loosely follows the life of Bobby Fischer & Garry Kasparov (who consulted extensively on the show, along with Bruce Pandolfini):

https://news.yahoo.com/queen-gambit-based-true-story-190000004.html

It's quite common today to take the stories and achievements of men and gender swap them for the big screen, to thunderous applause. I suspect the mass reaction would be outrage if this kind of appropriation was done in reverse.
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