Netflix drama, The Queen’s Gambit, tells the fictional tale of orphan Beth Harmon, who after a difficult start, goes on to become world chess champion. I loved it. As a bit of geeky fun, here is the story of The Queen’s Gambit told as though it were a chess game. Start the clock.
Beth begins as a pawn, the smallest and weakest piece in the game. She has lost her parents and lives in a 1950s Kentucky orphanage. Her fortunes begin to change when the janitor teaches her chess. After showing great promise, Beth plays boys at a local high school chess club. In chess, a king has a similar range of movement to a pawn, which means the most symbolically important piece is essentially a dressed up version of the least powerful. Beth, as yet only a pawn, soon reveals the high school boys as emperors with no clothes.
Now it’s time to move our knights, pieces which are often involved early in a game. Knights are men who owe their important social position to an accident of birth rather than merit. Is there a subtle nod towards the unfairness of life in the way these aristocratic knights come at their enemies in a sneaky L shaped movement, jumping over other pieces. Beth is not a knight. She was born with no advantages beyond her talent. You could say in playing the boys, many of whom have a sense of entitlement, she is playing against the knights.
So we’ve opened with our pawns and knights. Next, let’s get our castles involved. These pieces move in straight lines, vertically and horizontally. If chess is a model of life, then you could say that castles are all about the straight line virtues – rationality, common sense, technical expertise, and discipline. Beth is a castle in many ways. She is supremely competent, does her homework, and as potential boyfriends find to their cost, can be cold and unemotional. However, Beth is not all castle. Playing the Russian master, Vasily Borgov in Paris, she objects to his “bureaucratic” style. The dour Russian is very much a straight up and down castle. Beth is different, often plays intuitively, sometimes even chaotically, especially when she over indulges in alcohol and tranquillisers, which she feels enhance her instinctive play.
And that brings us to the next piece, the bishop. The enigmatic bishop moves not on the castle’s straight lines, but on diagonals. Beth has an intuitive, almost spiritual aspect to her play. She can enter a trance-like state and see chess pieces moving in beautiful patterns on the ceilings of dark rooms. If any of the pieces symbolise this aspect of Beth’s play, it must be the bishops with their oblique direction of travel. However, nothing is simple in chess, and as with castles, there is a downside with bishops. You could see a tendency to self interest in the fact that the two bishops cannot support each other as the two castles do, because they can never back each other up on the same diagonal. When Beth becomes co-American champion with former child prodigy Benny Watts, it is Benny who points out that the dour Russian champions are strong because they support each other. American players tend to be in it for themselves. Americans are bishops in that sense, isolated on their diagonals. They inhabit the same board, but live in different versions of it, closed off in their dark or light squares. This all seems reminiscent of the closed-minded religious group which tries to offer Beth money to attend a tournament in Moscow, on the understanding that she will present her victories as the triumph of Christian America over atheist Russia. Beth tells Christian Crusade to take their money and get out of her house.
As our game gathers pace, we now have to try and use all these pieces together, balancing their strengths and weaknesses. Beth has to do the same thing with her various personal attributes. She needs to bring castle discipline to the intuitive bishop aspect of herself. In this spirit of compromise, Beth eventually stops drinking, throws her pills away, and finds a way to use her instinctive powers without these props. She works with the castle and bishop sides of her, each one enhancing the qualities and minimising the downsides of the other. In bringing disparate elements together, she also finds a way to work with the knights, her former opponents, who show their best, gallant side in giving supportive advice during a recess in a climactic match against Borgov in Moscow. The turning point against Borgov is the moment when one of Beth’s pawns reaches her opponent’s back row, and is turned into the most powerful piece in chess, not the all-show-and-no-substance king, but the queen – the only piece which combines the straight and diagonal abilities of both castle and bishop. The game has come full circle, the most humble piece transformed into the most powerful. And Beth’s subsequent victory turns out to be everyone’s victory, because this is a triumph where different sides combine to win. Her final success against Borgov pleases no one more than the Russians themselves, who as chess enthusiasts can truly appreciate a game played out between two great competitors. Borgov and Beth join hands, both of them triumphantly holding aloft the defeated black king.
The Queen’s Gambit ends with all the diverse aspects of Beth’s life, her qualities and weaknesses, her friends and opponents all coming together in one beautiful game. That I suppose is what chess can be, and what it suggests life should be. A winner does not have to diminish a loser.