TV

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Can Work For You Even If You’re A Big Dumb Chess Idiot

It is okay if you do not watch The Queen’s Gambit. That’s the first and most important thing here. There are plenty of other shows you can watch or rewatch, and hobbies you can develop, and things around your house that probably need doing. Maybe you even started it and decided it’s not for you. That’s fine, too. None of this is meant to shame you or anyone for not watching the popular show that Everyone Seems To Be Talking About. The point of this is to try to knock down one specific objection I’ve seen from people who have not jumped in yet: “I will not like it because I do not like/understand chess and/or think it is boring.” I understand this objection. I feel it deep in my bones. It was why it took me a full week to finally get started. But it also makes me, as a self-confessed Big Dumb Chess Idiot, qualified to report that it is a load of hooey.

Let’s start with the most general explanation: It is possible to like a show without having a deep knowledge of or appreciation for the things its characters do. I know very little about the cooking and distribution of high-end methamphetamine — as far as any of you know — but I was hopelessly hooked on Breaking Bad. I was and still am heartbroken about the cancellation of GLOW even though I do not particularly care about professional wrestling. One of my favorite shows of 2020 so far was Betty, an HBO series about a diverse group of close-knit female skateboard teens in New York, which I found deeply charming and fascinating even though I am a straight white dude who lives in the suburbs and is twice their age and whose skateboard experience can be summed up by “played Tony Hawk on a PlayStation for most of one summer.” The things the characters on a show do are rarely more important than why they do them and what dominoes topple over as a result.

Zoom out even further to look at the show’s main character, Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. Beth is — very general plot spoilers incoming — an orphaned child who achieves great success in her chosen field thanks to a specific kind of genius that she almost squanders thanks to repeated self-destructive behavior. You’ve seen that character before. You’ve seen almost that exact character before, in another show you liked: She’s basically Don Draper from Mad Men, but with chess, right down to the part where she gets wasted in fashionable 1960s attire. And I bet you didn’t know all that much about the world of pre-Woodstock advertising before you jumped into that show, either.

Netflix

But fine, let’s talk about the chess. Again, I am a huge chess idiot. I know almost nothing about it. I am, in the most general sense, aware of the pieces and the way they move. I know there are pieces called rooks and bishops and knights, although in a moment of panic I will call them “the castle” and “the pointy guy” and “the horsey.” There are many moments in the show where Beth will move a piece like one square to the left and people around her will gasp, and I assure you I have no idea what she did or why the people around her reacted that way. None of that stopped me from being absolutely enthralled by most of these scenes. (“Oh shit, she got his horsey,” I would say to myself, with a quiet wonder in my voice.) There are, I think, three main reasons this happens:

  • The scenes are shot very well, with the tension rising throughout and long closeups on Taylor-Joy as she stares lasers through the series of overconfident chess dopes seated across from her
  • Watching anyone do anything at the peak of their field can be endlessly fascinating, which I say as someone who developed very strong opinions about fencing while watching the Olympics on a rainy afternoon in 2012
  • People who play chess at the highest level are freaking intense

To illustrate this last point, let’s look at this very good piece in The Ringer by David Hill, which dives into the career of Walter Tevis, the writer who wrote the book of the same name that the show is based on:

All was not lost, however. In addition to publishing the feature on his experience, he soaked up the scene in Las Vegas and found inspiration for a new book. Much of what he witnessed there he would later use in The Queen’s Gambit. “There’s been more competitive excitement, more aggressiveness crackling around that dumb little high school gymnasium or third-rate hotel ballroom, in which chess tournaments are being played, than I have seen in any other kind of activity, and I spend a lot of time in poolrooms around pool players playing for big money,” Tevis told Book Beat in 1983. “I used to shoot nine ball for fairly large sums of money, and I’ve been around a lot of games, a lot of betting. I made my living gambling for quite a few years. Never seen the intensity and the vicious aggressiveness that chess players occasionally exhibit.”

Tevis knows a few things about gambling and competition, too. Prior to The Queen’s Gambit becoming a phenomenon on Netflix, he was probably best-known for writing two other books that eventually made their ways to screens around the world: The Hustler and The Color of Money. Both of those were about self-destructive loners hellbent on squandering their substantial natural gifts, too. Pool and chess are even similar in a lot of ways. They’re both games that require sharp focus and a strategic mind and are usually mastered by weirdos who don’t get along with the general population. The main difference is that pool is cooler and more romanticized by popular culture, whereas chess is treated as a hobby for brilliant but socially awkward dorks who smoke pipes and wear sweaters that have elbow patches.

All of which is to say… well, what, exactly? I think I can boil it down to a couple of things. The first is that you should try — like, make a good faith effort as often as you can, which feels like a reasonable ask — to not let the subject matter of a television show prevent you from giving it a try. There are gems out there everywhere, about everything, and, if they’re doing it right, the things the characters are doing are just the Trojan Horse to try to tell you a cool story about people. That’s really all you can ask for out of a few hours of television. Cool stories, done well, about interesting people. The Queen’s Gambit is very much that, and much more than it is A Show About Chess.

The other thing is that it is relentlessly satisfying to watch Anya Taylor-Joy cook those chess dopes over and over, especially the kid pictured in the center of this article, a character named Benny Watts and who dresses like Indiana Jones for no discernible reason and who is apparently based — very loosely — on real-life chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. I don’t know why I hated him so much, for reasons I never fully grasped, even as his character changed for the better throughout the series. I suspect it’s the jacket. Whatever it was, Anya Taylor-Joy could have beaten that guy at anything and it would have been riveting television. Darts, competitive cup-stacking, pulling a 747 down a runway with their teeth like competitors in a strongman contest, whatever.

Chess worked out just fine, though.

×