Review: The game is afoot—The Queen’s Gambit brings an unlikely combination of chess and a coming-of-age story

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words by Jason Inocencio and Nala Ortiz; illustration by AJ Dimarucot

One of Netflix’s newest releases, “The Queen’s Gambit”, has captured a lot of people’s interest–whether it be chess enthusiasts or simply someone looking for something new to watch online.

A game often associated with only the most brilliant and astute minds, chess has often been compared to the principles of warfare. One can’t help but feel a bit strange then to be so engaged in a story of a young female chess prodigy set mostly in the 1960s as she attempts to become the greatest chess player in the world.

chess has often been compared to the principles of warfare

Created for Netflix by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, the miniseries based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name brings an unlikely combination of chess, and a coming-of-age story of a young woman.

Within a week of its release, it has taken social media by storm, leaving hundreds of memes, tweets, and reactions in its toll. Among them are illustrations and forms of art inspired by the show, including a font and poster created by graphic designer AJ Dimarucot that may soon be available to fundraise for those affected by Typhoon Ulysses.

The show centers around a girl named Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon (portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy), who finds herself an orphan after her mother dies in a car accident. Sent off to the orphanage Methuen Home, Beth and the other girls are given tranquilizers to keep them docile and Beth slowly becomes addicted to them. Wandering off to the basement, she is fascinated by the custodian Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) who has been playing chess against himself. Asking Shaibel for lessons, Beth quickly proves to be very good at the game.

The Queen’s Gambit | Official Trailer | Netflix

Defeating the best players in Kentucky, Beth begins to enter bigger tournaments with Alma acting as her manager and accompanying her. Beth meets personalities as varied as awkward Kentucky state champion Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), flamboyant self-promoter Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), and the cold Russian champion Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski) on her way to the top of the chess world.

Perhaps what caught the attention of millions of viewers online is when a journalist tells Beth “Creativity and psychosis often go hand in hand. Or, for that matter, genius and madness.”, which was also featured on the show’s trailer. As the series takes its audiences on Beth’s journey towards greatness and becoming a renowned chess player, it also unravels her flaws as she struggles with drug addiction, alcoholism, and childhood trauma as the show progresses.

As her fame and notoriety increase, Beth is still haunted by images of her mother’s death, her addiction to tranquilizers, her infatuation with rival player D.L. Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), a growing problem with alcohol, and her own insecurities about being able to defeat the best players.

The series also tackles feminist issues, with Beth struggling to make it in an inherently male-centric environment. Beth defies expectations of what a woman should be like during the 1960s, as she grows into someone with a personality ahead of her time.

The show has definitely brought a new kind of light towards chess, as it subverts expectations through the intense and emotional sequences from a seemingly mundane sport. It has captivated audiences with its characters’ rawness, led by Anya Taylor-Joy’s stellar performance.

She captures Beth’s social awkwardness and difficulty when dealing with girls her age who are into what she believes are more shallow things. She also displays the loneliness of someone left in an orphanage who comes to embrace her adopted mother despite all her faults.

Yet Taylor-Joy is at her best in this show when she is in front of a chessboard and eviscerating her opponent on the other side. Her portrayal of Beth’s intellect and competitiveness come together to present a beautiful woman who knows she’s very good at something and is not shy to show it. Call it swag, call it bravado, call it arrogance, Beth Morgan has it and The Queen’s Gambit really shines when she is competing.

The visuals and music further add appeal to the show, with the popular aesthetic of 1960s America ever present, accompanied with Beth’s outfits and vivid color schemes that evolve beautifully through each episode.

By the time the series reaches its climax in Moscow, we see a nation that reveres chess like Filipinos love boxing or basketball.

Every move made by Beth and Borgov is analyzed and discussed outside the event venue like a big-time boxing match. And one can’t help but feel similarities with 1985’s Rocky IV when Sylvester Stallone’s title character begins to get the Russian crowd on his side in battling the unbeatable Ivan Drago as played by Dolph Lundgren.

The show’s title is named after an opening move in chess and fits Beth perfectly as she becomes the undisputed queen of the chess-playing world over the course of the series. A refreshing take devoid of stereotypes that the golden age of Hollywood has placed on its female characters, the conflicts and victories that the characters experience are nothing short of human—making the series an emotionally satisfying journey for any kind of viewer. In the end, The Queen’s Gambit pays off quite handsomely.

 

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