The Queen’s Gambit: what’s it all about?

Is it about chess?

You may be tempted to say yes. It seems to be about chess.

In high school English—a hundred years ago or so—I learned to distinguish plot from theme. If we’re talking plot, then The Queen’s Gambit might be about chess (though the photo below suggests something else). If we’re talking theme, it’s about… well, what?

First, some more context. What are our priors here?

  • You have probably seen the recent Netflix mini-series. I have too.
  • You probably have not read the original novel by Walter Tevis. I read it when it came out, 38 years ago!
  • Needless to say, I remember the mini-series a lot more than I remember the book. But it’s the book that impelled me to sign up for streaming Netflix last month. Now I’m going to have to re-read it.
  • My dad taught me to play chess when I was eight or so, but I never became good at it. In middle school, however, I did read A Short History of Chess, the book my dad had written while stationed in New Guinea during World War II, and in high school I participated regularly in the chess club, so I suppose that counts for something.

Even if you’ve neither read The Queen’s Gambit nor seen the mini-series, you probably still know something about it. You probably know that it’s about an orphaned girl with a troubled childhood whose successful quest is to become a chess grandmaster (and more). You probably know that in real life there have been very few female grandmasters (only 39, actually, and you may know that they are all alive today). At the time Tevis wrote the book, there had been only one. At the time the action of the story takes place, there had been none.

That’s why they call it fiction.

As the photo above suggests, while the protagonist is Beth Harmon, the antagonist is her addiction to pills and alcohol. Is chess also one of her addictions?

I started writing this post just as Magnus Carlsen’s win as the 2021 chess champion of the world was announced. The scoreboard reminds me of one of the few unrealistic parts of The Queen’s Gambit: there are no draws! In real-life chess at the highest level, most games end in a draw. But of course dramatic tension requires wins and losses.

Anyway, I found the mini-series totally captivating. Plot, theme, settings, pace, acting—all excellent. If you watch it through streaming Netflix, I highly recommend staying all the way through the end, as the follow-up discussion of how the show was made is both fascinating and illuminating. Otherwise no more details here, as I want to be sure that I don’t commit any spoilers.

Categories: Books, Movies & (occasionally) TV, Teaching & Learning