Meet the Female Chess Champion Who Will Win Your Heart

Malcolm Jones
·8 min read
KEN WORONER/NETFLIX
KEN WORONER/NETFLIX

[Contains spoilers]

Let’s start with the most important fact about The Queen’s Gambit: You do not need to know how to play chess to love it. The real drama lies elsewhere.

The premise for the limited series premiering on Netflix is simple enough: the struggles of a female chess prodigy with a serious pill and alcohol problem. In the wrong hands, it could easily be a Lifetime special. But the “hands” here are far more skillful: The lead role is played by the remarkable Anya Taylor-Joy. The script and direction are by Scott Frank, who wrote the screenplays for Out of Sight and Get Shorty. And the source material is a novel by the woefully underrated Walter Tevis, who wrote the books that inspired The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth.

Still, I have to admit, before watching the new series, I had my doubts. The Queen’s Gambit has been one of my favorite novels for years; it’s not just a book you should read—it’s a book to reread, and it gets better every time. So I was feeling a little protective, and worried. Could anyone do this subtle novel justice? A novel where so much of the action takes place on a chess board and in the minds of the players, and where the issue of addiction is treated with far more subtlety than is usually found in films or television shows about this subject.

Oh me of little faith. I didn’t reckon on the formidable talents of either Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays chess champion Beth Harmon, or Marielle Heller, who takes the part of the woman who adopts Beth as a tween. I should add Annabeth Kelly and Isla Johnston, who play younger versions of Beth, particularly Johnston, who carries the first episode, when nine-year-old Beth discovers her affinity for chess and her fondness for the tranquilizers freely dispensed by the orphanage to which she is consigned after her mother’s suicide.

Black Struggle, Chess Redemption

Walter Tevis wrote both realistic novels and science fiction, but his obsessions were always the same: alienation, addiction, and the overweening, near fatal pride that, like shadow to light, piggybacks on a natural gift. Beth is a lot like cocky Eddie Felson in The Hustler and, though never so lost, like the alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth. But Beth is a far more complicated and nuanced character. Like Felson, she has to master self-discipline and gain self-awareness to beat her ultimate opponent, and like the alien on earth, she has a serious addiction problem. But the melodrama that taints The Hustler is nowhere to be found in The Queen’s Gambit. Nor is any easy, reductive treatment of addictions, which Tevis suggests can both help and harm (the miniseries is a little more doctrinaire on this point).

And anyway, addiction in Beth’s case is not the problem so much as a sign of problems. When one of her opponents turned coach points out that her anger gets in her way, she says, “Anger clears my head.” To which he replies, “Anger is a potent spice. A pinch wakes you up. Too much dulls your senses.”

Walter Tevis loved games, or at least the games he wrote about, and few authors have ever written as well about pool or chess. Both the novel and the miniseries scoff at the idea, proposed to Beth by a clueless reporter, that the game is some kind of metaphor, where the queen symbolizes her lost mother and the king her missing father. No, Beth replies, it’s a game. And beautiful for its own sake and no other. Tevis even loves it well enough to kid it a little. When a slightly abashed Beth says to one of her former opponents, “You think I’m a prima donna, don’t you?” he replies, “We’re all prima donnas. That’s chess...”

Books and films play by different rules. There are no swelling soundtrack moments in Tevis’ prose, which is deliberately quiet and pokerfaced. He gives you the situation and lets you decide what it means. Frank’s filming of the novel is more dramatic—there is a soundtrack—but he respects his source material enough not to stray too far. And when he does improvise on the book, he’s smart about it, as when he imaginatively finds visual equivalences for Tevis’ narration: Without anything being said explicitly, we recognize Beth’s maturity, and her growing sense of self-worth, in the way her hair styles change, the increasing sophistication of her wardrobe (she has great taste), and most important, the way she carries herself. Even as a child, Beth is a force to reckon with. The gruff janitor who teaches her to play chess in the basement of the orphanage has all he can do to contend with her talent, her anger, and her pride. By the time she grows up, nothing can stop her, not even her own shortcomings.

But it is Anya Taylor-Joy, playing Beth from the age of 13 to 22 in a seemingly effortless metamorphosis, who makes Frank’s film work, particularly in the way she beautifully articulates the inwardness, the fury, and the intelligence of Tevis’ creation. She does it mostly with her face, where subtle emotions register like a flicker of light or wind on a still pond. This is especially remarkable because Beth is often sullen, never acts out, and speaks with the economy of a miser hoarding gold. Taylor-Joy is one of those actors who make you watch by holding back. There’s something so secretive and private about her character, a withholding that could distance us but instead makes us greedy to know more. And Frank and Taylor-Joy pace the revelations about Beth so well that we’re captivated by her mystery right to the end.

It does not hurt that Frank has surrounded his star with an extraordinary cast, and no one more extraordinary than Marielle Heller as her adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley, a Lexington, Kentucky housewife lost in a bad marriage (Mr. Wheatley is a traveling salesman so ghostly that when he finally disappears, it was almost like he was never there). Awash in tranquilizers and alcohol—the toxic combo so popular in the ’50s and ’60s where the story is set—Alma is a frustrated pianist who never fulfilled her promise, and hardly a role model for her adopted daughter. But where other stories might play up her predatory actions—Alma uses Beth’s tournament winnings as an income supplement—The Queen’s Gambit gives us instead a pitiable but ultimately likable woman. Beth and Alma are more friends and conspirators than mother and daughter, and watching Alma drink herself to death is the saddest part of the story.

Part of the reason that the Beth-and-Alma thread rings so true is that neither actor overplays. Their affection is conveyed in little things—a hand on an arm, a wan smile. Likewise, Alma’s foolishness, and her fear when her husband abandons her, are subtle things. Even her drinking never gets an ah-ha moment, resulting in a jolt for the viewer when she dies suddenly: You realize that her drinking problem was there all the time, but, like Beth and everyone around them, you ignored it. Thus does this powerful story implicate even its viewers, with the result that we are quite reluctant to pass judgment even as we double down and pay closer attention.

Beth’s trajectory from ugly duckling orphan to world-class chess champ is not unchecked. She loses some of her matches. And the first loss is the most bitter, almost derailing her. But not quite. Again, no melodrama. Somewhere along the way, I began to count the plot setups that in many movies would produce big scenes or end in cliche. For example, there’s the moment when the popular girls in high school finally invite her over after school—only after she’s been profiled in Life magazine! Beth goes but she lasts only long enough to realize how boring these mean girls are. But there’s no big showdown, no payback. She just slips away, after stealing a bottle of liquor.

And of course there’s the fact that Beth is a girl and then a woman playing a game dominated by men. The story doesn’t slight this fact, but neither does it dwell on it. Beth is too strong, even as a little girl, to ever indulge the idea that she’s a victim. Instead, she uses to her advantage the way she’s dismissed on account of her sex. And no one does that for long anyway.

As she makes her way toward her ultimate goal of whipping the Russian grandmaster Borgov, she learns, not least through losing to him twice, that she’s her own most dangerous opponent. Self-discovery is this story’s heart: Beth’s belated awareness that no matter how gifted she is, she needs other people to complete herself. That’s what I meant when I began by saying that an ignorance of chess is no impediment to pleasure for the viewer: The drama that matters most is played out not on a board but on Beth’s face and in her body language, and in her heart. And thanks to the stunning collaborative skill of Scott Frank and Anya Taylor-Joy, there’s never any doubt about what that heart holds.

To that silly reporter in the story who tried to coax Beth into saying that chess pieces symbolized people, that the queen was her missing mother, I want to say, maybe you got it half right after all. But the queen is not Beth’s mother, you fool. The queen is the most powerful piece on the board. The queen is Beth.

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