December 1, 2020

The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix

As a youngster, I learned the rudiments of chess, but never got good enough to truly understand the game.

“The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix has given me a much deeper understanding of the skills needed to become a Grandmaster, as well as introduced me to an unforgettable female character. Based on a 1980s book of the same name by Walter Tevis, episode one of the series reminds me of a Charles Dickens novel. We meet Beth Harmon whose mother has died in a car crash, leaving her to be raised in an orphanage. The children are given tranquilizers to keep them docile, thereby starting Beth’s life-long drug problem. She makes two friends there, an African-American girl named Jolene and Mr. Schaibel, the janitor, who introduces Beth to the “game of kings.” Being adopted as a teenager by a dysfunctional couple called the Wheatleys is a very mixed blessing.

Actress Anya Taylor-Joy gives a tour de force performance as the mercurial Harmon. Battling alcohol and drug addictions, as well as mostly male chess opponents, Harmon climbs the chess world ladder. Her few romantic relationships are vanquished chess players.

Her life indeed resembles a chess match: two steps forward as she wins another championship and three steps backward when she succumbs to little pills and vodka.

The soundtrack is especially engaging with classical piano music, pop rock songs of the era and jazz reinforcing the passage of time. The 1960s fashions and cars add visual interest.

The series builds to a climax at a chess tournament in Russia facing the grandmasters, including her nemesis, Borgov. If the series starts out as “Oliver Twist,” it ends up like the movie “Rocky.” The seven episodes took me to a place and time that I wanted to know more about, but didn’t know it!

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