“Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful.”
The Queen’s Gambit is a Netflix mini-series created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott and based on the 1983 eponymous novel by Walter Tevis, focusing on the life of a young chess prodigy, from her childhood in an orphanage to her first twenty years.
Beth Armon, the main character, is played by actress Anya Taylor-Joy; Beth finds out about chess thanks to Mr. Shaibel, a janitor in the orphanage where she lives, and they both soon realize her immense talent.
Her life is set in 1960s America (spanning the entire decade) and we get to see all the different sides of her personality. Beth as a child is lonely, introverted and very different from her peers. It is easy to play chess for her, but it is harder to understand how to find her own place in the world.
She seems somehow confused in her relationships with other men, has a loving relationship with her new stepmother (although a bit complicated at first), at some point she develops alcohol and tranquilizer addiction so her path is made of trial and error, rise and decline, while searching for balance and victory.
The story could not exist outside the context where it is set; the events take place against the backdrop of the Cold War and the USA – USSR conflict, enriching the tale with a few political connotations. Beth’s story and that of her dangerous opponent, chess champion Vasily Borgov, brings to mind the 1972 chess game between American player Bobby Fischer and world champion Boris Spasskij.
The series title recalls a chess move designed to secure control of the center of the board( “the queen’s gambit”). It is one of the most common chess openings and involves white sacrificing a queen-side pawn.
Beth is obsessed with chess; it is the only thing she thinks about during the day and even at night (as evidenced by the scenes where she mentally plays chess against the ceiling).
She studies famous games of the past, frequently reading books and magazines about chess. The theme that keeps coming back throughout the series is the fine line between passion and toxic obsession and whether it is right to focus exclusively on one’s goal while losing touch with the world outside of it.
There is also a strong message about the possibility for women to emerge in a context dominated by men; Beth does not care about it, so other people eventually stop noticing her presence as something exceptional. It is considered normal for her to be the only woman taking part in chess championships. The only noticeable thing remains her genius.
Chess is what really makes people passionate about the show; it inspired a great chess revival when The Queen’s Gambit first came out. It is a game that has been around for about 1500 years and it started to see a rapid resurgence in popularity due to this Netflix series. There is a rhythm, a suspense in each episode that keeps people glued to the screens, regardless of their own ability with chess.
Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth’s character with intelligence, keeping it always faithful to itself while at the same time going through changes in the course of the series.
It is interesting to notice that while Beth is a prodigy, she is not invincible. She needs to hone her talent and develop her skills, so the creators show us the whole process, from her devouring book after book, spending the night studying chess moves and having to measure up with talented players like Benny Watts, played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster.
Fashion plays an important role in Beth’s development both as a player and a person; while as a kid she wears the same orphanage uniform as the other girls, she takes control of her style after winning her first tournament. Her first fashion purchase is a plaid dress. Gabriele Binder, the costume designer behind the series, explains how the choice of plaid was intentional , having a similar pattern to a chessboard. She told Vogue: “I always try to mirror what is happening inside a character with what they are wearing on the outside […]. She would intuitively choose to wear pieces that are connected to chess.” Beth keeps wearing a black-and-white color scheme, which represents chess and gaining confidence in her playing abilities.
The most famous fashion piece she is wearing in the series is probably her white coat and hat ensemble, to symbolize a white queen chess piece. This was meant to “convey the idea that she is now the queen on the chessboard and the chessboard itself is the world,” as Binder told Vogue magazine.
The Queen’s Gambit is a show that deals with many different aspects; it is a coming-of-age story not only about chess psychology but also about female empowerment and the making of a champion. Its messages are relevant and important for us as human beings: get up after every fall and surround yourself with people who believe in you. Even though your journey can sometimes be hard, if you are surrounded by people who support you and believe in you (like Beth is), it makes all the difference in the world and gives you the right strength and motivation to achieve your goals.
OTHER MOVIES/ SHOWS YOU MAY ENJOY: the movie Queen of Katwe (also about a chess player). If you are into biopics, you may also have a look at the Netflix TV show about fashion designer Halston.
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