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A grandmaster’s chequered life: The Queens Gambit

ByCherie Bradley

Nov 28, 2020

Rating: 5 out of 5.

What dimension involving a board allows a woman to be unquestionably all-powerful despite being saturated by men? For the moment, the chess board. Netflix’s The Queens Gambit is a retelling of a book of the same name by Walter Trevis.

Playing the almost unbeatable ‘queen’ of chess, the ruthless and graceful Beth Harmon, is the American actress Anya Taylor-Joy. The woman protagonist of this tale of pawns, knights and kings moves through competition to competition, state to state in the U.S effortlessly executing her opposition.

Set in 1950’s America, the fictitious story explores the life of a young orphaned girl who discovers she has a talent for playing chess. Beth faces many challenges before she even gets to the chess table but her journey is unpredictable and always leaves you guessing. Never sure of the next move or direction the movie will go makes for interesting viewing that will leave you hooked.

Despite the subversive elements of the story, it still prevails as believable but most importantly, exciting and gripping. The various people emerging and retreating in Beth’s life are often supporting characters and reinforcement so it is surprisingly feel-good for a tv-show that deals with challenging issues such as drug addiction and alcohol dependency, again, in very unpredictable ways.

Beth is a loveable, interesting protagonist that descends from a mother struggling with mental health and many flashbacks offer insight into the nature of their relationship so it does not shy away from difficult issues.

‘How does it feel to be a girl among all those men?’ Beth’s response is simple but effective ‘I don’t mind it’.

The many relationships Beth has with her opponents begin on a square, the chess table. It is not surprising that we meet two identical twins at the reception of her first competition resisting her entrance to the game similar to the pawns that act as gatekeepers for the distinguishable characters that emerge just like the Rook and the Bishop of the chess table.

The story is told in a chess-like fashion and if you don’t know chess, don’t worry, the story reveals quite a lot about how the centuries old game works. It is not just about strategy but it will leave you pondering on your Troisky line from your Spanish bishop. Ultimately, It is not unlike a sequence of relationships and interactions with different characters that don’t define the whole narrative, instead the journey and the people are the key focus of the story.

Without giving too much away, one of the mesmerising things about this tale is that almost no component of the story escapes the theme of chess, even the pills that Beth is given as a child in the orphanage have a chequered quality to it in appearance. This calls us to question, is it the story that aligns itself so precisely with the idea of chess, or is it the fact that human life easily blends to this narrative structure? Are we just pawns moving from one square to the next meeting people, some bearing more significance than others?

How is it so believable that a woman should excel in this man-dominanted game without being met with hostility and resistance? Beth is met with respect, awe, and admiration by the opponents she beats. Perhaps there is more than a chess lesson here, perhaps we are shown a dimension in which women can move in all directions, with agency and there is a space where she will be met with the respect she deserves.

Illustration: Harriet Getley