A few of my favourite things from The Queen’s Gambit (2020)
This is not going to be a review of The Queen’s Gambit, the riveting chess drama (yes, who would have imagined!) on Netflix that has caught the fancy of the global audience and driven up sales of chess sets and accessories. Frankly, this story has struck a chord with me so intense and so sweet that I don’t feel like dissecting it (though I found myself pausing ever so often as I watched to try and make some sense of the games). This is just going to be a list of a few moments from this limited series that made my heart sing. So, without further ado, here goes: (be warned, there lie ahead spoilers galore!)
- The siren in monochrome
“Chess isn’t always competitive… it can also be beautiful”
Oh yes, it can! Just like a dribble past a posse of defenders in football, a long rally in tennis, or even like the most inspired piece of music — a combination move or a poisoned bait in chess can be a thing of ethereal beauty, where geometrical patterns transcend into an art form in their own right. There are tales of legends being showered with coins on making the most seemingly suicidal sacrifices only to unveil their cards and take the opposition by storm in the subsequent moves. And every chess romantic knows the rush that witnessing something like this can bring on. When Beth visited Rusia and saw the love of the game among the populace there (of which she became a recipient herself, as the admirers embraced “Liza” for her talents, literally), perhaps for the first time, she found an external manifestation of her internal ecstasy for this “game”. And her expression, when she visits the outdoor arena for the first time, said it all.
- Teamwork v/s individual excellence
Benny Watts had remarked earlier in the tale how the Soviets’ teamwork meant they were one step ahead of their American rivals in the game. In the ultimate showdown, it was “Team Beth” who succeeded in getting the better of “Team Borgov”, in a way proving Watts was correct. Even in what seems like a game of one-versus-one, this was a remarkable point. However, Beth benefitted from the people around her throughout the story of her rise both on and off the field. Benny Watts and Harry Beltik, Townes and the twins, Jolene at critical junctures and Alma till her very end — each supported Beth and contributed to honing, sharpening, and protecting her fiery talent in their own way. It had begun with, needless to say, Mr. Shaibel.
- The wry smile
Having lost repeatedly at speed chess to Benny the night before the final, and her pride and money in public display, Beth stormed to her room, and once alone with herself, broke into a bitter, wry smile. Her expression and feelings are something any amateur chess player or lover of the game knows only too well. You believed you could turn it around next time (because we are all “prima donnas”, as Benny himself remarks at one point), and you kept on playing for that elusive U-turn — only to stop too late — exhausted and beaten. Now you wonder how you made such a fool of yourself and there is simply no consolation. Other than, of course, waking up the next day for a fresh start. As in life, so in chess.
Her unwillingness to resign as a kid from a hopeless position, not admitting defeat staring at your face after a blunder, the sting of defeat when you thought you were invincible (Benny, 1966) — there are so many instances which any chess-lover would identify with, but this one really struck out for me. For all its beauty, chess can be demanding and addictive, and this tale doesn’t shy away from that. The quote, “It’s foolish to run the risk of going mad for vanity’s sake”, captures it perfectly.
- “Did you bite off more than you can chew!”
In possibly the most emotionally devastating scene of the story, Beth discovers how much her life and chess career had meant to the man of modest means who had taught her the game in a basement of a nondescript orphanage, who had even lent her money to pay for entering what was her first competitive tournament. A debt that she could never pay back, both literally and figuratively.
- First mover’s advantage
The discussion that the twins — Matt and Mike — had with Beth by the poolside about the advantage of playing white — all other things being equal — was a premonition of sorts. When Beth lost to Borgov for the first time, she was consoled that at least she lost playing black. When she defeated Borgov, she was playing white. Discounting their second match for obvious reasons, this makes the Beth Harmon-Vasily Borgov score one-all, with each winning once when playing white. This seemed to me a way of concluding the story without calling out who was the superior player among the two. Neat, superb!
Well, there’s so much more… The lipstick-stained cup that reminds Beth of Alma, the first time Beth returns home alone after losing her; Beltik’s evolving relationship with and attitude towards the game; Luchenko’s sporting resignation; Borgov’s remark in the elevator, at one respectful and cautious — The Queen’s Gambit is an unadulterated package of magic that keeps it simple and avoids gimmick. One to be relished time and again!