For a game that is, by its nature, about victory, defeat, and the subtle art of outwitting the person across the board, chess can be a very solitary game. Of course, you need an opponent (or a partner, depending on perspective) but to be good, to be really good, chess requires some commitment to solitude, to studying your own games and others’, scanning for weaknesses and learning which patterns to use against others, and which might be used against you.
Like most creative, athletic, or intellectual pursuits, there’s no way around studying, practicing, competing, and more studying until you figure out whether you’re good, great, or mediocre. Many of the wide cast of characters in Scott Frank’s new Netflix Original miniseries think of chess constantly – in bed, in the bathtub, in all of their relationships with one another – with the series refusing to shy away from their unusual loneliness or the way it strains their relationships and their minds.
I suck at chess. Despite the best efforts of friends and family, I still class stalemates as victories and had to be convinced that castling wasn’t just something people did to show off that they knew how to. I agree with a minor character in the show who declares chess ‘too cerebral’ – who has the patience to learn all the countless strategies you need to actually win consistently? Yet in spite of my utter lack of skill, I couldn’t look away. Each game is as tense as the best sports movie you’ve ever watched and the stakes, even when it’s just $5 or a mentor’s respect, are gripping. It’s become a running joke on social media to have no idea what is going on and still be absolutely enthralled when a king is moved delicately to the left, but it’s true. The inventive ways the series finds to visualise Beth Harmon’s (Anya Taylor-Joy) instincts and strategy definitely play a big part of this (with looming chess pieces hanging like stalactites over her bed being a particular stroke of genius), but for some reason I doubt that’s all there is to it.
In the month since The Queen’s Gambit has been released, it’s already taken on season 4 of The Crown to become Netflix’s latest darling. So far, 62 million households have started watching the show, chess board sales have spiked, and interest in the game seems to be at its highest since the legendary Fischer-Spassky clash the series alludes to. Not bad for a Netflix original that could have easily flown under the radar. I suppose it’s no surprise that many (including me) have been inspired to dig out their old chess sets recently. Just like the pandemic fixation on jigsaw puzzles and other activities that can be done alone or inside, something of Beth’s loneliness echoes with our current predicament. Many trying to make the most of lockdown have committed to learning a language or finishing decorating their bathroom or upping their creative skills. So why not commit to improving your chess game? In the past few weeks, I’ve certainly found myself trying to emulate Beth Harmon’s comfortable solitude and single-minded focus, and while I still suck at chess, The Queen’s Gambit helps me find some glamour and excitement in being alone, when all any of us want to do is socialise again.
That being said, every element of the sumptuous production design works to remind viewers of the great wide world outside the game. While Beth’s checkered and geometric clothing reminds us constantly that chess is her identity, the rest of the world feels no such attachment. Even when Beth’s games are at their most intense, the Cold War-era politics of nationality and gender sometimes overshadow the games themselves. Plus, all the while, the crowd of minor characters watching (and often cheering on) her every move become more focused. Marielle Heller’s quietly devastating performance as Beth’s adoptive mother, is a tragedy we see play out over Beth’s own lifetime, with her lonely, plaintive piano-playing a sad reminder of the lost potential of many women in the 1960s. Alongside this, stunning performances from Thomas Brodie-Sangster as maverick chess cowboy Benny Watts and Harry Melling as proud prodigy Harry Beltik provide Beth with a found family that defies her self-enforced solitude and poses a viable second option: when Benny points out that the Russian players thrive because they work as a team, it rocks the very foundations of how both we and Beth view the sport, presenting something of a utopia of competition. While in reality, chess icons have implied that women simply aren’t smart enough for the game, Beth’s opponents have a refreshing respect for her, even in spite of her ruthlessness and sharp edges both on and off the board. When the game is over, life goes on, and the constant, claustrophobic loops of the professional chess-circuit mean that an opponent one day is a mentor the next. Commitment to success doesn’t necessarily mean commitment to loneliness, nor to crushing rivals. The Queen’s Gambit might be about one woman’s rise to the top of her field, but it’s a show grounded in empathy for both the winners and losers.
With most of us spending a lot more time alone this year (and a lot of that in front of a screen), it’s easy to drift into comfortable viewing habits. For a while, I couldn’t watch anything more stressful than Queer Eye. We might be in the golden age of prestige television, but more stress and tension are the last thing any of us need right now. The Queen’s Gambit is the rare case where prestige TV can be stimulating without being stressful, something that’s a welcome relief from both intense psychological dramas and mind-numbing trash. It’s impossible to look away from, even as Beth self-destructs, and while it’s not exactly a relaxing viewing experience, her climb is so consuming that it might make you forget all the stress and anxiety of the real world (at least for seven episodes).
Image courtesy of Ravi Kumar.