‘It’s chess. We’re all prima donnas.’ You can hear it spoken with a wink in the Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, released two weeks ago in seven episodes of about an hour. My heart swelled to hear the game’s essence so appreciated: of course nothing else matters when you’re playing chess. So yes, we are prima donnas, thank you, and roundly indulged by this fine TV series, which is based upon the novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, published in 1983. (My edition includes an endorsement from Lionel Shriver on the cover.)
Anya Taylor-Joy is mesmeric in the role of Beth Harmon, the novel’s troubled hero. Beth’s grim childhood at the Methuen Home for Girls, an orphanage in Kentucky, is assuaged only by the tranquilisers they prescribe the children (it is set in the 1950s), and her chess mentorship by a taciturn janitor in the basement. After her adoption, her talent blossoms and she bounds up the ranks at state, national and international level to set her sights on (fictional) Russian World Champion Vasily Borgov, all the while battling her personal demons and addiction to downers. Her character certainly owes much to Bobby Fischer, but a less well-known influence is (I suspect) the glamorous Lisa Lane, who was US Women’s Champion in 1959 and appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in 1961, well before Fischer in 1972.
Genius and madness, Americans vs Russians. Typically, chess on screen gets subsumed by some well-worn theme. The Queen’s Gambit brushes up against those, along with addiction, sexism and the like, but the series is elevated by its willingness to dwell on the game’s eccentric characters, bohemian lifestyle and hidden psychological complexities. Do you hit the books before that crucial game, or cleanse the mind? Does it throw you off, or encourage you, when your opponent is a jerk, or disarmingly courteous? Is it awkward to encounter an opponent away from the board?
Plenty of chess is played in The Queen’s Gambit and the director (Scott Frank) consulted with American expert Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparov to get the details right.