Check and Mate

If you have Netflix, but haven’t yet watched their brilliant limited (7 episodes) series, The Queen’s Gambit, may I humbly suggest you set aside some time to watch this wonderful show. Don’t be fooled by the splash screen or the title into thinking this is just another show about chess. Although the strategy game provides the backdrop (and quite a few surprisingly tense scenes), this is a story about one player’s journey overcoming life’s hurtles and personal demons to achieve true excellence. It’s also a story of growth in so many different ways. You don’t have to know the game to appreciate this exceptional story, but if you do like chess, you’ll be happy to know the production had two chess masters as consultants (indeed, several of the games portrayed were basically reenactments of actual historical chess matches), so everything you see should please the chess player in you.

The series is based upon the fiction novel of the same name, written by Walter Tevis, which follows a young woman by the name of Elizabeth Harmon. Orphaned at a young age, Beth takes up the game of chess when she sees the janitor for the orphanage playing in the basement. He teaches her how to play, the etiquette of the game, and numerous game strategies. Beth is an apt pupil and student of the game, but not so much of the social interactions that follow. The story follows her fascination (let’s be honest, obsession) with the game of chess, as well as her struggles to meaningfully engage with the people she meets along the way. Because of her difficulty in relating to most of the people she encounters, she embraces chess even more, saying, “It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it.”

Set mainly in the 1960s, Beth must essentially force her way into the male-dominated chess world of the era, hearing more than once, “Girls don’t play chess.” After she displays her unquestionable talent at the game, she is grudgingly allowed her place at the board, although she still faces disdain from higher ranked players as she ascends the ladder. On her quest for dominance, she struggles with personal demons, addictions and self-doubt among other things.

I’m not sure what adjectives I should use to describe actress Anya Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of Beth Harmon. Beautiful, soulful, mesmerizing, poignant all come to mind, and yet all seem insufficient. Taylor-Joy’s performance was brilliant on any level, so much that the actress seemed to effortlessly disappear, leaving only the chess player on our screens. But to say Anya’s performance was the only highlight of this series would be to criminally understate the performances of the rest of the cast. All were simply outstanding. Indeed, everything about this production was wonderful. The score, the directing, the backdrops and settings, the cinematography, all were superb. If you’re into screenwriting, directing or video production, watch this series and take lots of notes.

I can’t say much more without beginning to give away spoilers, so let me just end with my three favorite (spoiler-free) moments of the series, all of which came in the final episode.

#3 – The final moments (and the moments following) of the last match with Soviet champion, Borgov.

#2 – Her interaction with chess master Luchenko after their match.

#1 – The phone call in the hotel room at the Russian tournament. I have re-watched that scene at least a half-dozen times.

If you’ve seen the series, what did you think? If you liked it, what were some of your favorite moments?

I post this with apologies to my wife, who tried to get me to watch it earlier. Yes, dear, you were right.

2 thoughts on “Check and Mate

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