Most films and TV shows about sports aren’t really about the sport at all but about life and all the philosophical waxing that goes with it. From “Rocky” to “Caddyshack” to “The Karate Kid,” it’s not about making the score, it’s about doing the right thing outside of competition.
Although not a traditional sport, I’d say the game of chess is almost as good as boxing when connecting life to a contest, and it’s wonderfully on display in “The Queen’s Gambit,” the new Netflix miniseries about a fictional girl chess prodigy who battles society and her inner demons on her way to becoming a Grandmaster.
While a game of chess may not sound as exciting as a football game, this intensely personal and heartbreaking coming-of-age story makes chess thrilling because of the stakes at play. I never expected being on the edge of my seat waiting to see a 16-year-old girl avoid being put in check by a 20-year-old boy during a chess tournament, but here we are.
Led by the always spectacular Anya Taylor-Joy in her second starring performance this year following “Emma,” the story is a snapshot of American life in the 1950s and ‘60s through the eyes of a girl and young woman who’s had all the odds stacked against her but continues to rise above. But by the end, it’s also a cautionary tale about the choices we make and living with those consequences, just like in chess.
Nine-year-old orphan Beth Harmon is quiet, sullen and by all appearances unremarkable…until she plays her first game of chess. As Beth’s senses grow sharper and her thinking clearer, for the first time in her life she feels herself fully in control.
By the age of fifteen, Beth (played now by Taylor-Joy) makes a splash by winning the first tournament she enters. Traveling around the country with her adoptive mother (Marielle Heller), Beth is soon competing for the U.S. Open championship.
But as Beth hones her skills on the professional circuit, the stakes get higher and she turns to drug and alcohol addiction to help make it through. As Beth’s isolation grows more frightening, the thought of escape becomes all the more tempting.
Because the original novel “The Queen’s Gambit” by Walter Tevis is only 250 pages long and the series is seven 45-minute-plus episodes, I’d imagine almost everything that happens in the book happens in the show, which is unfortunate because as the series goes on, the fluff tends to get in the way of the development. Watching Beth go through the same temptations and life experiences over and over can become boring, especially on a binge-watch.
Thankfully, there’s enough that’s great about this show — particularly the first two episodes — that suck you in and keep you hooked for the entire run. Seeing the mental and emotional trauma 9-year-old Beth is suffering through as an orphan, and then turning that into fuel to become a champion chess player is just as hopeful as it is sad.
Of course, us siding with and rooting for Beth, even as a lonely, alcoholic drug-addict by 16, is all dependent on Taylor-Joy’s performance, which may be my favorite of hers so far in her young career. From sci-fi and horror to superhero movies and period dramas, it seems she’s done it all in just six years, but Taylor-Joy always brings a mature and deeper presence to her characters that makes me want to see more.
Plus, these championship chess matches are incredibly entertaining. Similar to Martin Scorsese’s approach in “Raging Bull,” each one is shot and edited differently. This isn’t just static coverage from ESPN2, but a Napoleonic battlefield broke down to 64 squares.
As I said in the beginning, playing chess for Beth is only a metaphor for playing life and winning it at all costs. As a girl who no one thinks should be great at chess, she has to think several moves ahead and plan a strategy to survive in a world where the men and boys don’t give her a second thought, that is until she annihilates them in 20 moves or less.
Although it has some subplots that drag in places, “The Queen’s Gambit” is a tightly crafted story about a young woman learning not only how to become the best chess player in the world, but how to live her life despite the pieces set before her.