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  • Published in Arts Review
Queen's Gambit Marshall-Kapablanka 1909.

Queen's Gambit Marshall-Kapablanka 1909. Artist Nina Silaeva oil on canvas. Photo: Personal Work - Nina Silaeva / Wikimedia Commons / cropped original image / licensed under CC 3.0, linked at bottom of article

The Queen’s Gambit offers an engaging critique of official Cold War narratives and Western individualism, finds Nathan Street

The Netflix series The Queen’s Gambit, released on October 23rd 2020 has become an unlikely mini-series hit this year. Set mostly in Kentucky, USA during the 1950s and 60s’, the 7-part series tells the fictional story of Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy who learns the game from a janitor at the orphanage she lives in, and her meteoric rise through the competitive chess world.

However, her gift is double-edged; as her obsessional personality, that gives her the dedication needed to master the game and build upon her natural abilities, is also a curse as she struggles with drug and alcohol addiction and mental health tribulations.  The narrative and subplots extend beyond that which happens over-the-board, such as in this memorable exchange:

Jolene: “The world is f***ed up. And if I’m going to change it... I’m going to be a radical.”
Beth Harmon: “Didn’t know that was a career choice.”
Jolene: “It will be.”

Based on Walter Tevis's 1983 novel of the same name, it has appeal to chess aficionados and non-players alike. Whilst there is some exposition and dramatic license, many professional chess players praise the show for mostly realistic depictions of the games and the positions featured. The success of the series partly contributing to a recent online chess boom, as many viewers try their hand at the game.

Such a story invokes many real-world comparisons:

  • to 1960s would-be contemporary US Bobby Fischer and his ‘game of the century’ tilt with the Russian Boris Spassky, and the Cold War tensions that surrounded both that and featured in the show.
  • to the widely recognised greatest female chess player of all time and former world #8 Judit Polgar, a similar onetime wunderkind, who for most of her career refused to play women-only events, much like the protagonist of the show.
  • to those who invoke the tragic ‘tortured genius’ trope, like the player legendary Paul Morphy, who is referenced within the series, or another who dealt with parental tragedy and battled with drug addiction in the notorious Gin-rummy and poker player Stu Unger.
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Chess is a game that over its history has had many potential barriers to entry. Often this has been due to a lack of opportunities on class grounds and access to the resources and guidance to learn and play a complicated game in a serious way. Chess has also suffered from a bit of an uncool image problem and has been a stereotypically male-dominated environment and activity.

Gender norms, expectations and societal conditioning often act as a deterrence for many potential female players to either start or then continue playing, preventing some potential would-be Beth Harmon’s from ever developing.

All of this would have likely been more pronounced in the era this drama is set in, than in contemporary times. Some of these themes are indeed drawn out within the show, though many real-life female professional players would likely have faced more latent and overt sexism from fellow players and chess institutions than is displayed in the series.

As Beth Harmon ascends the chess world, she inevitably faces off with players from the chess powerhouse that was the Soviet Union and must navigate the pressures of being used as a pawn herself in those geopolitics. The show mostly avoids crude ‘good vs evil’ cliches that tarnish numerous US entertainment media projects when depicting the Soviet Union.

Whilst the series might fall short of a fully-fledged ‘Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism’ stance, there is poignancy in how it portrays the Russian people and their more mainstream cultural love of the game of chess. The series ends up being very much a riposte to Cold War America.

Espousing the merits of collectivism, one of Beth Harmon’s chess rivals from the US comments:

“You know why they’re [The Soviets] the best players in the world?... It’s because they play together as a team, especially during adjournments. They help each other out. Us Americans, we work alone because we’re all such individualists. We don’t like to let anyone help us.”

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