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Queen’s Gambit: Sex, Drugs, and Chess ★★★★

The pilot commences with protagonist Beth Harmon emerging soaked but fully clothed from a bathtub to the sound of banging on the door. “Mademoiselle!”. It becomes evident that she is late as she announces “je descend tout de suite!” Throwing open the curtains she reveals a gorgeous Parisian hotel suite, wrecked from a night of heavy drinking, featuring a sleeping stranger in the bed. Disoriented, with a face full of smeared mascara, she washes down several mysterious green pills with a mini bottle of spirit, and with haste, descends to the hotel lobby, bursting through double doors to the flashing of cameras. The grandiose, dead-silent room is full of suited spectators and paparazzi, who trace her every move as she makes her way to its centre. There, she shakes the hand of a Don Draper look-alike and seats herself opposite him – commencing a game of chess. Sex, drugs, alcohol, suspense, and celebrity are hardly themes associated with chess. Yet, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ subverts expectations, starting with its opening sequence. 

Like an aggressive opening chess move, Scott Frank’s new Netflix limited series wastes no time as it jumps straight into the action. Chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) is captivating and believable in episodes filled with lavish 1950’s sets, resembling a mixture of Mad Men and the Crown, from rural Kentucky to stuffy Chess Halls in Paris or Las Vegas, giving the show a pleasing overall aesthetic. Each cast member is almost without exception perfectly suited to their role. There are familiar faces in the form of her love interests: Harry Edward Melling (Dudley Dursley) and Thomas Sangster (Jojen Reed, drummer kid from Love Actually) making it seem at times like an ambitious crossover of Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. Its 7 episode-run easily earns its place on the podium with other fantastic Netflix female-led limited series (Unorthodox, Kalifat) supported by its impressive IMDb rating of 8.8 and 100% Rotten Tomato score, at time of writing.

The plot takes place in the ‘50s and ‘60s, following orphan Beth Harmon’s journey to chess stardom. Along the way, she is exposed to addiction in the form of tranquilizers issued by her orphanage as a way of keeping children calm, and later on to alcohol by her albeit charming adoptive mother. The game serves as an escape from her sorrowful reality. In her teens she progresses from city to state, and finally national chess champion, beating men and boys alike, before finally being selected to face the Soviet Grandmasters for the world title. At this point, the series does begin to draw some similarities with a sports thriller, none more so than Rocky IV. Cold War tensions, an American underdog, both series and film situating their climax in Moscow, and (spoilers) ending up with Russian citizens outright cheering for the American. Cheesy? Well yes, at times. 

The series is based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, of the same name heavily inspired by the events of American chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer’s defeat of Boris Spassky in 1972, which ended a 25-year Soviet winning streak. As was typical in the Cold War, beating the Russian’s at any sport instantly made the athlete a celebrity, despite chess being highly unpopular until that time in the U.S. The novel, much like the show, reads like a psychological thriller. It shows the path to chess stardom as lonely and often toxic. The unmatched complexity and demands of chess (some games can last for a gruelling 4 hours) leave players little time for much else, rendering one obsessed if they wish to succeed.

Loneliness in Chess is one of the reasons given for the low overall rate of female participation in the sport. The Queen’s Gambit, featuring a female protagonist, elevates the series as it brings up the debate – why is chess not more popular with women? At the time of the book’s release, it was heavily criticised for its “unrealistic nature” as women were believed to lack the stamina necessary to successfully participate in chess. Judit Polgar, widely considered the greatest female chess player of all time, retired in 2014, from a career filled with consistent triumphs over the world’s best Grandmasters, thereby discrediting the ridiculous stamina theory. In the New York Times, she revealed that the series was unrealistic in its portrayal of Beth’s opponents accepting their loss to a female often admitting she is the best player they have had the privilege of facing. In Judith’s personal experience, checkmates did not usually go down that smoothly. As the series takes place in the 1950s and ‘60s, it is looked down upon for a woman to even show interest in such activities. If anything, this series begs the question: have times changed much? 

Queen’s Gambit makes chess accessible for the regular viewer in a way that the sport never could. The real cherry on top is the series’ heroine who plays chess, not so much against greying old men but addiction and misogyny. For this, the series comfortably earns a four out of five-star rating. 

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