Anya Taylor-Joy plays Elizabeth, the orphan who discovers she has a gift for chess. Image courtesy of Netflix.
Culture Movies

A chess player’s review: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ makes all the right moves—well, almost

Netflix’s celebrated series on a chess wunderkind has won the hearts of players and non-players alike. If you have yet to start on it, this might serve as your opening 
BENRE ZENAROSA | Nov 08 2020

On October 30, Wesley So — the Filipino-born super Grandmaster — won the U.S. Championship 2020. He did this by unleashing a performance reminiscent of that of the great Bobby Fischer with the final score of 9 of 11. It’s So’s second triumph in the said national championship since switching federations. He topped the event in 2017 when he convincingly trounced Alexander Onischuk. 

But So isn’t the only fixture being revered these days in the chess universe. There’s also Elizabeth Harmon. 

Elizabeth is the lead character in Netflix’s blockbuster series “The Queen’s Gambit.” Embodied in the seven-episode drama by the brilliant Anya Taylor-Joy, she is an orphan who in childhood discovered her immense gift for chess while battling an addiction to narcotics. The drugs became her way to suppress the visions caused by being abandoned by her father and the death of her mother. 

Based on Walter Tevis' 1983 novel of the same name, the series was created by Allan Scott and American writer, director, and producer Scott Frank, and released on October 23, 2020. The actor Heath Ledger dreamt of putting “Gambit” on screen before he died due to accidental prescription drug overdose in 2008. 

“Gambit” is an unparalleled spectacle. Set during the era of the Cold War, its first few scenes — similar to modern-day bullet chess — are tense, nerve-wracking, high-speed. ‘Beth'. Bath tub. Drenched. A knock on the door. Wet floor. Change of clothes. Pills.

The music score and visuals are astounding. Everything looks and feels true to its time, which is fixed on the 1950s and 1960s. But while period-specific, if you look closely on the aesthetic details applied on Beth, there’s a whole visual evolution you will observe. 

All throughout the miniseries, you will witness how her clothing transforms from worn out, tired orphanage uniform to the glamorous, sophisticated, Hollywood-influenced fashions she dons later on. Consistently, the chessboard pattern is used as motif: the seamless black and white square design, the checks. And her final look? An all-white ensemble, shoes and hat included. She resembles a white queen chess piece — a perfect symbol for beating Vasily Borgov, the Russian world champion.

Like many important dramas of late, “Gambit” subtly, but effectively, touches on gender inequality and racial injustice. There’s Beth’s childhood friend, Jolene — a black girl who, over time, becomes the oldest orphan in the institution, convinced early on no family will come to adopt her simply because of the color of her skin. There’s Beth herself, unperturbed by the persistent barrage of sexism she faces in the chess community. While the story is a period piece, these details anchor the series to the issues of our time. 

The car collision that begins the film might be a bit of a cliche. So is the plot of a timid, quiet orphan who later on becomes influential and powerful. But what makes “Gambit” Netflix’s streaming gem of the moment is, despite the predictable trajectory of the plot, there’s an incessant subversion of the audience’s expectations. While Beth has been unsympathetic, difficult, and aloof, many of the first tier characters, towards the end, opt to rally around her in her fight to become world champion. You have the journalist Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), her fellow player Harry (Harry Melling) who spends time with her to study the game, and US Chess Champion Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). 

Then there’s Mr. Shaibel (played by Bill Camp), the orphanage custodian and Beth’s first chess mentor. He is the second most valuable character in the show because of his impact and influence on Beth. In his funeral, the usually tough mentee shows her emotions for the first time. On a visit to the orphanage, she heads down to the basement where they met and spent many hours playing chess. She discovers a huge pin-up board with all of her newspaper clippings, pictures and other mementos of her journey. But it’s Mr. Shaibel and Beth’s lone photograph together that pierces the heart. 

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As a chess enthusiast and player who’s had his share of wins, I have seen numerous attempts to capture this beautiful game through cinema in the past—but nothing comes close to “Gambit.” Before I watched it a week ago, I imagined the chess opening known as The Queen’s Gambit would be its central theme, knowing Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini served as consultants. But there was none of that. Does it have flaws in terms of portraying the chess universe? 

Maybe in showing that players converse and display bravado during a game—which doesn’t happen as per real life chess protocols—but done for cinematic reasons, it’s completely forgivable. 

“Gambit” addresses the intricate puzzle of unraveling one’s genius, harnessing courage to find the perfect move in a complex, imperfect world, and embracing the fallen pieces with tenderness in the hopes of finding ‘home'. With its snappy performances and staggering visualizations, this “Gambit” provides moments that will stay with you for a long time.

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[Benre J. Zenarosa is an award-winning essayist. He's the recipient of the 2016 Lasallian Scholarum Award for Outstanding Published Column Article on Youth and Education in a Nationally Circulated Publication. His work has appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rappler, The Nation, The Sport Digest, Thought Catalog, and others. In 2019, one of his essays was included in "Young Blood 7" — a collection of the 79 best essays published in the Inquirer’s Young Blood column from 2016 to 2017. He’s also a chess champion in college. zenarosabenre@gmail.com