The Queen’s Gambit (2020) reviewed

Over a few weeks, I’ve gone through three limited series. I started off with The Queen’s Gambit before taking in Bodyguard. Chernobyl was the latest miniseries I devoured. The last two shows won acting Globes. Yet while all of them are well-received, this week, I will tackle the best of them: The Queen’s Gambit. Since being released in late October, the show has maintained a perfect score on the Tomatometer. Critics have gushed about Anya Taylor-Joy’s ‘magnetic’ performance. Apart from trending, Gambit was the top show on Netflix. The programme chronicles the life of chess prodigy Elizabeth Harmon, from her humble beginnings to a jet setting life taking on the best chessmen on the planet.     


The show examines the troubled home life of Harmon. She ends up at an all-girls orphanage where she becomes friends with Jolene, a tempestuous black teenager. The latter admits that she is too old to be coveted in adoption. At the orphanage, Mr Shaibel – the custodian – teaches her how to play chess. In no time, she outclasses him. At the home, they give them pills which quickly hooks Beth. At night, she indulges her chess move on the ceiling as a result of the pills. A couple finally adopts her – after she lies about her age. She then attends school, where she is not one of the popular chicks.  

Chess prodigy

She enters a chess tourney after securing a loan from Shaibel. The table people immediately count her out, given she’s a girl and has no ranking. Her first opponent tells her about the comp rules: using the clock and tallying each move. Beth makes light work of her foe and the rest of the field. She advances to the final where she meets Harry Beltik, a much more seasoned adversary. She refuses Beltik’s offer of a draw and soundly beats him. Harmon always employs the Queen’s gambit, one of the oldest opening moves.

Winning the local tournament became her foot in the door. She hires her foster mother as her manager, accompanying her to glitzy hotels and managing her finances. Early on, she nicked a Chess magazine and doctored a script for the tranquilisers. As she kept on winning, her reliance on the pills grew. She sets her sights on Benny Watts, who was the American champion. Though their chessboard tussles were brutal, Watts eventually becomes her mentor and friend. Every chess great needs an eidetic memory, and this is standard across the characters.

Facing the best

Mrs. Wheatley, her foster mum, also has her demons. She eventually succumbs to them, leaving an abyss in Beth’s heart. Soon, her life becomes erratic. Returning to town, she begins cancelling appearances. Harry drops in and lives with her for a while and soon discovers the pills. They talk about Morphy and Capablanca, two Chess titans. Harry tells her that the former ignited fast and fizzled out just as quick. At age 22, he retired. He was said to walk the streets alone at night. Upon leaving, he tells Beth to ‘be careful.’ When she beats Watts, Harmon prepares to battle the Russian, Borgov. He is the current Soviet champ.

They first meet in Paris, where Borgov overwhelms the challenger. Their next encounter was in Moscow. The date with Borgov wasn’t without drama. She was tardy for the match, having spent the night drinking with an old friend. With her crew urging her on, she went toe-to-toe with the tactician. Play was halted to be resumed the next day. Unlike in all her prior matches, she was pill-free for this one. For a change, she had the chance to nab a victory without help. This was much more than a chess match; the fifties were the height of the Cold War. To beat the Russians at their home soil was unheard-of.  

High praise

I can see why this production rated so highly. The period feel was well-constructed. The retro fridges and ballrooms, the vintage attires and cars, added charm to this drama. The chess moves weren’t excessive so that even casual enthusiasts could keep up. The series was adapted from the Walter Tevis novel. The late American writer also penned The Color of Money, itself also made into a major film. Aside from Anya, Marielle Heller also gives an inspired outing as Mrs. Wheatley. Harry Melling, formerly Dudley Dursley, is convincing as Beth’s confidant. Thomas Sangster is a long way from the lovestruck boy in Love, Actually. He is also known to younger audiences as Newt in the Maze Runner trilogy. The series is obviously chess-centred but it likewise vital social commentary. For instance, when Beth was studying, the popular girls bullied her. Once she turned into world beater, they invited her into their sorority. Beth would later find one of them pushing a pram. She noted the bottle in the stroller.

Wistful thinking

I feel nostalgic as I watch this drama. Chess was popular in school and a couple of my colleagues could even be labelled great. During intervals such as morning tea and lunch break, we would cram a match in between. Frank and the late Chico were the best on campus. They had some epic battles. Early on, I noticed that having an eidetic memory was key to a remarkable chess mind. You almost have to be like Amos Decker, the hero of David Baldacci’s recent series.

Knowing merely all your opponents’ moves is not enough; you have to recall the ones that inspired the classic matches. Both Frank and my classmate Chico had that in spades. A few times, they even played blitz matches and the younger Frank did not back down. Unlike Harmon, Frank was formidable – even during quickie matches. Frank lived and breathed chess and Bobby Fischer was his idol. I was in the audio-visual room together with my club-mates when I heard Frank’s voice next door. He was part of the speaking chapter. I almost tittered upon discerning his remarks on Kasparov. His chess hat is always on.

Record breaker

Audiences love a good underdog story. While as a child, Beth could do little right. As a teenager, she could do no wrong and had the world at her feet. The charismatic leads, period pieces, and winner storyline all merge to create a feast for the eyes. In addition, the imagery from spots around the globe likewise add flavour. Gamble is also a cautionary tale of the perils of excesses. Beth was lucky to have the backing of Jolene and other friends, who lifted her in her dark hours. The show may be all of seven episodes, but the sum was more than the parts. Netflix has revealed that Gambit has pulled off a record: the most-watched scripted mini-series to date. I must admit that the opening sequence didn’t really enthral me. As they say, ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover.’

Rating: 5/5

Watts v Harmon
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