• Writer's Collective

The Queen's Gambit - Review

Updated: Mar 17

An unsurprisingly assured story about an orphan with a board.

The Queen's Gambit is a story about chess. And also about a chess player. A young woman, Beth Harmon. A young woman who works her through a stint with a suicidal genius of a mother, a stoic time at an orphanage, and an adopted home where the father disappears, leaving her with a kind but alcoholic mother.

But as you'd already see, she redeems everything through her one talent— the 64 squares and what it contains. With the help of a janitor in the orphanage where she grows up, she becomes an exceptional player of chess. She quickly understands the intricacies of the game. Starting from a Sicilian Defence to diagonal attacks through pertinent pawn sacrifices, she understands and perfects everything.

But there is a dark side. The orphanage gives tranquilizers to the children daily. She gets used to them, gulping them every day before sleep. She can visualise her chess games better with the meds. And as she starts playing consistently across the nation and winning, her drug dependence only increases. Closely followed by her reliance on alcohol.

It is a story that follows the template of a good sports saga. The difficult childhood, the first win, the climb to success, the mishandling of the victory, the significant loss, the regrouping, and the final climax that enthrals us.

But it is also a sad story of people who cannot make friends, who cannot open up and talk about themselves, who cannot cry, who keep things pent up and try to be smart alec about it or rude or angry, at worst.

Anya Taylor Joy is Beth Harmon. She's beautiful. Has mannerisms that hook you. The director, Scott Frank, who is also the co-creator of this limited series, intends on her eyes during the games and on her profile when she isn't playing. It's a simple plot of showing her calculating self while a game is on and then showing her assured yet unsure self when she isn't playing. This works. When she meets and makes friends with chess players of repute from her first tournament, her framing tells us about her intent at every turn. Alan Scott is the other Co-creator, and so we aren't surprised at all.

Each character around her is assiduously arranged. There is Townes with whom she has a near intimate relationship. Benny Watts is a fellow chess player and a national championship winner, who trains her when she is on the cusp of greatness but does not have the discipline to march ahead. There's Harry Beltik, who is liked by her for his penchant for truth. And then there is Mr. Shiebel, who teaches her chess in a basement, and Jolene, a mate from her orphanage days who comes back later to save her from self-destruction. This is intimate drama and lovely to see.

The music is enthralling, and the collection of sixties rock n roll would have a music enthusiast drooling. It's possible that you may watch the series just for the music too.

Keep trying. Keep dreaming. Easy enough motto. But watch this limited series to understand what goes on between trying and dreaming.

And if you did want an Indian chess player's story, there's always 'Shatranj Ke Khiladi'.

- Indraneel Majumdar

The Queen's Gambit

Available on Netflix

Stars - ****

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