Based on the novel ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ by Walter Tevis, published in 1983
If you’re like me, you might find the prospect of watching a mini-series about a chess player about as appealing as watching moss form. How do you make film about a game that appeals to cerebral people interesting to the general viewer, especially when it involves seven one hour episodes? With a little fudging of the realities of chess tournaments, bending the historical record and creating a fictional female prodigy with a host of personal problems, including substance abuse, Netflix has produced a riveting story of a young woman’s rise to prominence in this male dominated game. You don’t even have to be a chess nerd to enjoy the series.
Knowing a little of the historical background of chess and its denizens might enhance the enjoyment of the series as the author’s characters were obviously inspired by some of the real life players of the 1960’s/’70’s. First and foremost were the participants in the world championship match between the Russian, Boris Spassky and the American prodigy Bobby Fischer in 1972. There has never been a chess match that garnered so much international interest from the general populace as the clash between the lone American the Russian chess juggernaut. Occurring in the later part of the cold war period, the element of the west vs. Russia added to the hype and excitement. Dipping further back into history will help explain how the Soviets dominated chess from the post war period into the 21st century.
Prior to 1972 the first American to win the world championship was Paul Morphy back in 1858. After Morphy, the US had one further champion, Wilhelm Steinitz, but he was already an Austrian champion prior to immigrating to America. Steinitz eventually lost to Germany’s Emmanuel Lasker, who still holds the title for the longest reign of any chess champion – 27 years. Jose Raoul Capablanca, a Cuban prodigy who began a spectacular career starting at age four, eventually defeated Lasker in 1921.
Capablanca’s reign was relatively short, losing the title to the Russian born French master Alexander Alekhine in 1927. This bit of history demonstrates that, prior to Alekhine, the world chess championship was a much more international affair than it was after Alekhine. Although Alekhine briefly lost the title to the Dutch player Max Euwe in 1935, he regained it in 1937. There were no championships during WWII and when they resumed in 1948, the Russian Mikhail Botvinnik won the championship and ushered in the era of Soviet chess domination.
The seeds for this dominant position in chess began in the 1930’s when the Russians developed the system that included teaching chess in their schools, identifying talented players early in life and putting great resources into their development. Their most successful players were put on government salaries in order to let them focus on continually improving their skills. The Moscow chess club was a haven for grand masters of the game, who competed with each other for the world title. This elite band was lionized by millions of Soviet citizens – enthusiasts that grew up learning to appreciate the finer points of the game. The Russian Masters also banded together to help prepare their champion in matches against competitors from other countries. The net result was that Russians monopolized the world chess championships from 1948 to 1972 when Spassky lost to Fischer. When Fischer refused to defend his title, the championship returned to Russia with Karpov and continued to be held by Russians for many years after.
Grandmasters of the game in America, by contrast, were often lonely prodigies like Fischer. They often needed to find other work in order to make a living or lived on the edge of poverty. The fictional character in the series, Elizabeth Harmon, is orphaned in the 1950’s at an early age and ends up learning chess in the basement of an orphanage in Kentucky, taught by the caretaker. Her talent blossoms as her personal demons drag her into addiction. She is adopted and, when her new father abandons his family, Beth uses chess tournaments to generate money for herself and her new mother.
Her rise in the American chess community is chronicled through a series of tournaments and her career rather mirrors the kind of career that Bobby Fischer experienced in real life around the same time period. At first her main rival is the American champion, Benny Watts. When she finally topples him, she is faced with the prospect of challenging the world champion, the awesome Vasily Borgov, the ultimate Soviet chess machine. In the story, she meets Borgov in several tournaments before their final showdown in Moscow in 1968.
Anya Taylor-Joy, with her large unsettling eyes, is wonderful as the chess prodigy, battling personal demons that threaten to engulf her before she can achieve her ambitions. We are left to the end wondering if Harmon will master both the game and her inner struggles with addiction. There is a strong supporting cast to flesh out the world of chess, romantic interests and the tournament scene. All in all, this is a terrific mini-series and highly recommended for those that can drag themselves away from vampires, shoot-em-ups and murder mysteries for a few evenings.