The Queen's Gambit (miniseries)

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The Queen's Gambit
The Queen's Gambit.jpg
GenrePeriod drama
Created by
Based onThe Queen's Gambit
by Walter Tevis
Written byScott Frank
Directed byScott Frank
Starring
Music byCarlos Rafael Rivera
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodes7 (list of episodes)
Production
Executive producers
Producers
  • Marcus Loges
  • Mick Aniceto
CinematographySteven Meizler
EditorMichelle Tesoro
Running time46–67 minutes
Production companies
  • Flitcraft Ltd
  • Wonderful Films
Release
Original networkNetflix
Original releaseOctober 23, 2020 (2020-10-23)
External links
Official website

The Queen's Gambit is a 2020 American coming-of-age period drama miniseries based on Walter Tevis's 1983 novel of the same name. It was written and directed by Scott Frank, who created it with Allan Scott. Beginning in the mid-1950s and proceeding into the 1960s, the story follows the life of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphaned chess prodigy on her rise to the top of the chess world while struggling with drug and alcohol dependency.

Netflix released The Queen's Gambit on October 23, 2020. After four weeks it had become Netflix's most-watched scripted miniseries.[1] It received critical acclaim, with praise going towards Taylor-Joy's performance as well as for the cinematography and production values. It has also received a positive response from the chess community and is claimed to have increased public interest in the game.[2][3]

Overview[edit]

The Queen's Gambit follows the life of an orphan chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, during her quest to become the world's greatest chess player while struggling with emotional problems and drug and alcohol dependency. The title of the series refers to a chess opening of the same name. The story begins in the mid-1950s and proceeds into the 1960s.[4]

The story begins in Lexington, Kentucky, where a nine-year-old Beth, having lost her mother in a car crash, is taken to an orphanage where she is taught chess by the building's custodian, Mr. Shaibel. As was common during the 1950s, the orphanage dispenses daily tranquilizer pills to the girls,[5][6] which turns into an addiction for Beth. She quickly becomes a strong chess player due to her visualization skills, which are enhanced by the tranquilizers. A few years later, Beth is adopted by Alma Wheatley and her husband from Lexington. As she adjusts to her new home, Beth enters a chess tournament and wins despite having no prior experience in competitive chess. She develops friendships with several people, including former Kentucky state champion Harry Beltik, national champion Benny Watts, and journalist and fellow player D.L. Townes. As Beth rises to the top of the chess world and reaps the financial benefits of her success, her drug and alcohol dependency becomes worse.

Cast and characters[edit]

Main[edit]

  • Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, an orphan who matures into a competitive young adult fueled by a desire to become the greatest chess player in the world while masking a growing addiction to the drugs and alcohol that allow her to function.
    • Isla Johnston as young Beth Harmon
    • Annabeth Kelly as five-year-old Beth Harmon
  • Bill Camp as William Shaibel, the custodian at the Methuen Home for Girls and an experienced chess player who teaches Beth how to play the game.
  • Moses Ingram as Jolene, a rebellious African American teenager at the Methuen Home who becomes Beth's closest childhood friend.
  • Christiane Seidel as Helen Deardorff, director of Methuen Home for Girls.
  • Rebecca Root as Miss Lonsdale,[7] the chaplain and choir director at Methuen.
  • Chloe Pirrie as Alice Harmon, Beth's deceased mother (seen only in flashbacks) who earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at Cornell University before experiencing a downward spiral in her mental health.
  • Akemnji Ndifornyen as Mr. Fergusson, the orderly at Methuen, who among other roles administers state-mandated pills to the girls.
  • Marielle Heller as Alma Wheatley, who with her husband Allston adopts Beth as a young teenager and later acts as a manager for Beth's chess career. Alma's biological child died sometime before Beth's adoption, and she develops a worsening alcoholism that begins to influence Beth.
  • Harry Melling as Harry Beltik, a state champion player Beth defeats in her first tournament and later befriends.
  • Patrick Kennedy as Allston Wheatley, Alma's husband and Beth's estranged adoptive father.
  • Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Townes, a fellow chess player for whom Beth develops an unrequited love.
  • Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Benny Watts, a brash young man who is the reigning United States chess champion and one of Beth's most challenging competitors, later a mentor and friend.
  • Marcin Dorociński as Vasily Borgov, the current Soviet-Russian world champion chess player and Beth's strongest competitor.

Recurring[edit]

  • Sergio Di Zio as Beth's father.
  • Dolores Carbonari as Margaret, Beth's high school classmate.
  • Eloise Webb as Annette Packer, a friendly teenager who becomes Beth's first tournament opponent.
  • Matthew Dennis Lewis and Russell Dennis Lewis as Matt and Mike, twin brothers who serve as registration officials at Beth's first tournament and go on to become her friends.
  • Max Krause as Arthur Levertov, a grandmaster and friend of Benny's who assists Beth with her training.
  • Ryan Wichert as Hilton Wexler, a strong player and chess problem enthusiast, friend of Benny.

Guest starring[edit]

  • Jonjo O'Neill as Mr. Ganz, the local high school chess club teacher.
  • Louis Ashbourne Serkis as Georgi Girev, a 13-year-old Soviet chess prodigy.
  • Janina Elkin [de] as Borgov's wife, who is also his interpreter.
  • John Schwab as Mr. Booth, Beth's minder from the State Department.
  • Millie Brady as Cleo, a French model who had a brief affair with Benny. She quickly befriends Beth.
  • Bruce Pandolfini as Ed Spencer, a tournament director.
  • Marcus Loges as Luchenko, a veteran former world chess champion and Beth's penultimate opponent in Moscow.

Episodes[edit]

No.TitleDirected byTeleplay byOriginal release date
1"Openings"Scott FrankScott FrankOctober 23, 2020 (2020-10-23)
Elizabeth "Beth" Harmon is orphaned at age 8 in 1958 when her mother dies in a car crash on New Circle Road. In a later flashback, it is revealed that her mother deliberately ran head on into a truck. She is taken to an orphanage, where the children are given tranquilizing pills to make them compliant. While cleaning erasers in the basement, Beth discovers the custodian, Mr. Shaibel, studying chess on his own. After repeated requests he reluctantly agrees to teach her the game; she has already worked out how the pieces move by observing him. She becomes obsessed and improves quickly, thanks to her spatial intelligence and abuse of mind-altering tranquilizers that allow her to focus and visualize chess games on the ceiling above her bed. When she is able to beat him regularly, Shaibel introduces her to the local high school chess club teacher, Mr. Ganz, whom she also beats. Ganz invites her to play a simultaneous exhibition against his entire club. She beats all of them easily, later commenting to Shaibel on their poor chess skills and how invigorating it is to win. After the state passes a law outlawing the use of tranquilizers on children, Beth begins to suffer from withdrawal. She is caught stealing a jar of the medication and passes out after overdosing by swallowing several mouthfuls of pills.
2"Exchanges"Scott FrankScott FrankOctober 23, 2020 (2020-10-23)
After her overdose, Beth is forbidden to play chess. Time passes and Beth is adopted as a teenager by suburban couple Alma and Allston Wheatley. Allston is emotionally distant and frequently leaves for "business trips"; it soon becomes clear that their marriage is not a happy one. At her new high school, Beth is bullied by the popular girls from the "Apple Pi Club" for her drab clothes. Beth discovers her adoptive mother is taking the same tranquilizer pills that she was given at the orphanage and secretly steals some for herself, allowing her to play mental chess again. She also steals a chess magazine and learns about the upcoming Kentucky State Championship. She writes to Mr. Shaibel, who sends her the money for the entrance fee. As she cruises through her games, she develops a crush on one of her opponents, a young man named Townes. After the second day of the tournament, during which her periods start, Beth comes home to find that Allston has deserted them. Beth fears that she will be sent back to the orphanage, but Alma tells her they will lie so she can stay. During her final game of the tournament against Harry Beltik, the highest-ranked player, Beth becomes flustered and runs to the restroom, where she takes a tranquilizer pill, then wins the game. Upon learning of the prize money on offer in a tournament in Cincinnati, Alma hatches a plan for the two women to support themselves.
3"Doubled Pawns"Scott FrankScott FrankOctober 23, 2020 (2020-10-23)
Beth wins the tournament in Cincinnati, giving Alma 15% of the prize money. Beth continues to skip school while traveling to tournaments, and she quickly gains national recognition for her achievements. She also begins dressing more stylishly as her winnings increase. At school, Beth is invited to a meeting of the "Apple Pi Club" by the girls who had initially shunned her. She soon realizes she has nothing in common with them and, stealing a bottle of gin, escapes back home. In 1966, Beth heads to Las Vegas for the US Open where she is reunited with Townes, now a journalist who is covering the event. They return to his hotel room where Townes takes pictures of her. The two play chess and share a brief, intimate moment before being interrupted by Townes's roommate, whom Beth suspects is also his boyfriend. Beth abruptly leaves before Townes can explain the situation. Beth runs into the current U.S. national champion, Benny Watts, who points out an error in her game against Beltik. Beth is taken aback and suddenly loses confidence. She experiences her first professional loss against Watts the next day; they finish the tournament as co-champions.
4"Middle Game"Scott FrankScott FrankOctober 23, 2020 (2020-10-23)
Beth takes night classes in Russian at a local college. She attends a party where she smokes marijuana and loses her virginity to one of the students. Left alone in his empty apartment for the weekend, Beth indulges herself with more alcohol and drugs. After graduating high school, Beth travels to an international tournament in Mexico City with Alma. Alma spends most of her time with Manuel, a longtime pen pal, and begins a sexual relationship with him. Beth competes against several international players including thirteen-year old Soviet prodigy Georgi Girev, whom she defeats in a tough game that lasts two days. While in a crowded elevator, Beth's Russian classes enable her to understand an overheard conversation between Soviet world champion Vasily Borgov and two associates, as they discussed her playing style and potential weaknesses. Borgov merely comments that she is an orphan and a survivor like them, and notices Beth after they're done speaking. Manuel soon abandons Alma, saying he needs to make a business trip to Oaxaca. The following day, Beth plays Borgov and loses to him in an intense game after he surprises her with an off-beat opening. Back in the hotel room, Beth discovers Alma has died of suspected hepatitis, likely worsened by her excessive drinking. Beth manages to get Allston on the telephone in Denver, but aside from telling her where Alma's family plot is, he wants nothing to do with her. However, he agrees to let Beth keep the house. She flies home with Alma's coffin to arrange her burial.
5"Fork"Scott FrankScott FrankOctober 23, 2020 (2020-10-23)
Beth returns home to Kentucky and reconnects with Harry Beltik, who is attending college and has romantic feelings for her. At Beth's suggestion, he moves into Alma's house to accompany the now lonely Beth. The two spend time training and sleep together a few times until Beltik realizes Beth's obsession with chess will always supersede any relationship they may have. The two part ways, as Beltik admits that his passion for the game has waned. Beth meets her former high school tormentor Margaret in town; she married soon after leaving school, has a baby daughter, and is fast becoming an alcoholic. Beth travels to the 1967 US Championship in Ohio, where she reunites with Benny Watts. The evening before they are scheduled to face each other in the final game, Benny challenges Beth to several rounds of speed chess for five dollars each in a public café. An experienced speed chess hustler, he beats her consistently and cleans her out of all her cash. The next day, however, Beth defeats Benny to become the US champion. The two discuss Beth's future in international competition. Benny, recognizing that Beth needs both a role model and a trainer, invites Beth to train for the Paris Invitational with him in New York City.
6"Adjournment"Scott FrankScott FrankOctober 23, 2020 (2020-10-23)
On their journey to New York, Beth and Benny entertain themselves by playing chess without a board and practicing Russian. In New York, Benny and Beth begin an intense and disciplined training regime to prepare her for the big tournament in Paris. He brings in two strong players, Hilton Wexler and Arthur Levertov to assist, along with a mutual friend, a French model named Cleo who previously had a brief affair with Benny. Beth repeatedly beats Benny, Wexler, and Levertov at speed chess, playing all three simultaneously, and wins back much more than Benny took from her in Ohio. Beth bonds with Cleo. Eventually, Beth and Benny give in to the sexual tension between them and sleep together, but Benny ruins the mood by talking about chess afterwards. Beth goes to the Paris Invitational and works her way up to the final game with Borgov. Cleo contacts Beth to tell her that she's also in Paris and to invite Beth out for drinks. Beth is hesitant, but ends up joining Cleo at the bar, resulting in a relapse. Beth oversleeps, and is woken by the hotel management. She quickly washes up and dresses, and rushes downstairs to the tournament, leaving Cleo still asleep in her bed. Hungover and unable to focus, she loses once more to Borgov. Devastated, Beth declines Benny's offer to continue staying with him in New York and instead goes back home to Kentucky. Allston goes back on his word and bullies Beth into paying an excessive price for his equity in the house. Beth plunges into a days-long drug and alcohol binge, culminating with her passing out after hitting her head on a table. Beltik confronts her in public and tells her that she needs treatment for her alcoholism. Beth angrily tells him to leave her alone and storms off. The next day, she is shocked to find her old friend Jolene at the door.
7"End Game"Scott FrankScott FrankOctober 23, 2020 (2020-10-23)
Jolene informs Beth that Mr. Shaibel has died. They both attend the funeral, and Beth revisits the orphanage. She is moved to tears when she finds newspaper clippings on Mr. Shaibel's basement wall revealing that he had followed her career up until his death, as well as a photograph of the pair together during her time at the orphanage. Beth gives up her funding from the Christian Crusade after she refuses to publicly endorse their conservative Christian, anti-communist beliefs. Benny is furious when she calls to tell him what she's done, and refuses to help her. Jolene volunteers to loan her the money, and Beth is able to travel to Moscow to play in the Moscow Invitational, accompanied by Booth, a minder from the State Department who gives her strict instructions not to fraternize with the Soviets. "Liza" becomes popular with the Soviet public and is mobbed for autographs every time she exits the playing venue. She defeats several tough opponents, including ex-World Champion Luchenko. In the final game with Borgov, Beth plays the Queen's Gambit; the game is adjourned, which is permitted after forty moves. That evening, Beth reconnects with Townes, who is covering the tournament for the Lexington Herald-Leader. The next day, Beth receives a phone call from Benny, who has assembled a team including Harry, Matt, Mike, Wexler and Levertov to analyze the adjourned position of her game with Borgov. Beth expresses gratitude and takes detailed notes of their analysis. When play resumes that evening, Beth beats Borgov after refusing a draw offer. On the way to the airport, Booth tells her the President wants to receive her at the White House for a photo opportunity. Beth exits the car and heads for a park where elderly local men play chess. They recognize her and greet her warmly, and invite her to play.

Production[edit]

Development[edit]

On March 19, 2019, Netflix gave the production a series order consisting of six episodes.[4] The series was written and directed by Scott Frank, who also created the series with Allan Scott.[8] The two also served as executive producers alongside William Horberg.[9] Scott had been involved in attempts to get the book on screen since 1992, when he purchased the screenplay rights from Walter Tevis's widow.[10]

The series was released on October 23, 2020, with seven episodes instead of the original six-episode order.[8]

Writing[edit]

Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and chess coach Bruce Pandolfini acted as consultants.[11][12] Pandolfini had consulted with Tevis prior to the novel's publication some 38 years earlier,[13] coming up with the title "The Queen's Gambit".[10]

Pandolfini, together with consultants John Paul Atkinson and Iepe Rubingh, devised several hundred chess positions to be used for various situations in the script. Kasparov developed critical moments in the story, such as when a real 1998 game between grandmasters Arshak Petrosian and Vladimir Akopian was improved to showcase Beth's skill.[10]

Casting[edit]

Alongside the series order announcement, it was announced that Anya Taylor-Joy was set to star as the lead.[14] In January 2020, it was reported Moses Ingram had joined the cast of the series.[15] Upon the miniseries premiere date announcement, it was announced that Bill Camp, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Harry Melling and Marielle Heller were cast in starring roles.[16][17] Because the majority of the filming was carried out in Berlin, the minor roles were filled mostly by British and German actors.

Production design and filming[edit]

Production designer Uli Hanisch developed the series' sets to evoke the aesthetic of the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the series was filmed in Berlin because of how interiors found there could stand in for a large number of the show's locations, including Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Mexico City, Moscow, and Paris.[10][18][19][20] Locations used in Berlin included the Kino International, the Berlin Zoo, Humana and the Friedrichstadt-Palast.[21] Some scenes were filmed in Canada; principal photography began in August 2019 in Cambridge, Ontario.[22]

Music[edit]

The musical score was composed by Carlos Rafael Rivera.[23] Frank initially wanted the score to be piano-based only, but in the end decided with Rivera for a full orchestral score for more "instrumental depth and color". Rivera found scoring for chess a challenging task, having been warned by Frank that "music would be doing a lot of heavy lifting". He decided to reflect Beth's growth – both as a person and a chess player – by adding more and more instrumentation over time.[24]

Reception[edit]

Audience viewership[edit]

On October 28, 2020, the series became the most watched series of the day on Netflix.[25][26] On November 23, 2020, Netflix announced that that the series had been watched by 62 million households since its release,[27] becoming "Netflix's biggest scripted limited series to date."[1] Of this, Scott Frank stated "I am both delighted and dazed by the response"[28] while several outlets characterized it as an "unlikely success".[29][30] The series topped the Nielsen's U.S. streaming rankings for the weeks of October 26 to November 1, November 2 to 8, and November 9 to 15, 2020, making it the first series to do so for three weeks straight.[31][32][33]

The Queen's Gambit eventually ranked third in Reelgood's yearly ranking of Netflix shows during 2020, with Cocomelon taking the first spot.[34]

Critical response[edit]

Anya Taylor-Joy's performance garnered widespread critical acclaim.

On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, The Queen's Gambit received an approval rating of 97% based on 93 reviews, with an average rating of 7.84/10. The website's critics consensus reads, "Its moves aren't always perfect, but between Anya Taylor-Joy's magnetic performance, incredibly realized period details, and emotionally intelligent writing, The Queen's Gambit is an absolute win."[35] Metacritic gave the series a weighted average score of 79 out of 100 based on 28 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[36]

In a column where she argues "So many lives would be different if we'd had The Queen's Gambit 50 years ago," culture critic Mary McNamara said, "I loved The Queen's Gambit so much, I watched the final episode three times."[37] Darren Franich of Entertainment Weekly gave the series a B and described the lead actress, "Taylor-Joy excels in the quiet moments, her eyelids narrowing as she decimates an opponent, her whole body physicalizing angry desperation when the game turns against her."[38] Variety's Caroline Framke wrote "The Queen's Gambit manages to personalize the game and its players thanks to clever storytelling and, in Anya Taylor-Joy, a lead actor so magnetic that when she stares down the camera lens, her flinty glare threatens to cut right through it."[39] Reviewing for Rolling Stone, Alan Sepinwall gave it 3 out of 5 stars and said, "An aesthetically beautiful project with several superb performances, all in service to a story that starts to feel padded long before the end comes."[40]

Critics also frequently discussed the series' prominent theme of substance abuse. Phoebe Wong notes that "Interestingly though, unlike other works which study the self-destructive aspects of perfectionist obsession, mental health and substance abuse issues extend beyond the protagonist to other characters" in her review for The Tufts Daily. Her summary reads "Impressive in its own right, The Queen's Gambit adopts a fresh perspective by delving into chess' intersections with substance abuse and gender discrimination".[41] Matt Miller of Esquire stated "The result is a pretty scary depiction of the stress of competitive chess in the 1960s."[5] On the other hand, Harper's Bazaar's Lilly Dancyger considered the "misrepresentation" of drug abuse to "nearly ruin the show" for her, explaining that the "self-delusion of addiction" should not be presented as fact.[42]

The Washington Post's Monica Hesse considers the miniseries "revisionist history" but also "a wonderful future" in that the heroine's "uncluttered path to success" is "uninterrupted by sexism", and has men "refreshingly" looking out for the main female character, noting that the show "has no women in peril, and no skeezy men".[43] Carina Chocano of The New York Times Magazine also believes that the show again and again foils the audience's expectations: the janitor doesn't molest her, her adoptive father leaves her alone, and her adoptive mother Alma doesn't hold her back, a departure Chocano attributes to the "fantasy"-like quality of The Queen's Gambit.[44] Responding to these reviews, Fred Mazelis of the World Socialist Web Site wrote that "the claims that the series is appreciated because it is fantasy are disingenuous, to say the least. The show has struck a chord precisely because it is not seen as utopian fiction."[45] Bethonie Butler, also of The Washington Post, while praising the show overall, criticized the characterization of Jolene, the show's only major Black character, saying "(her) backstory and character development are so limited that she seems to exist merely to make Beth's life easier".[46]

Many aspects of the series' production values have been praised and discussed, including its location choices, interior design, and wardrobe.[30][28][47][48]

Accolades[edit]

Award Date of ceremony Recipient(s) Category Result Ref.
IGN Awards December 21, 2020 The Queen's Gambit Best TV Series of the Year Nominated [49]
Best Drama TV Series of the Year Won
Best New TV Series of the Year Nominated
Anya Taylor-Joy Best Dramatic Performance in a TV Series Nominated

Chess community response[edit]

The series received praise from the chess community for its portrayal of the game and players.[50] In an interview with Vanity Fair, Woman Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade said that the series "completely nailed the chess accuracy".[51] In an article about the miniseries in The Times, British chess champion David Howell felt that the chess scenes were "well choreographed and realistic", while British Women's chess champion Jovanka Houska said, "I think it's a fantastic TV series ... [i]t conveys the emotion of chess really well."[52] Reigning chess world champion Magnus Carlsen gave it 5 out of 6 stars.[53]

Several female chess players, including Houska, British Ladies Chess Champion Sarah Longson, International Master Dorsa Derakhshani, and Swedish Grandmaster Pia Cramling have suggested the show's legacy might well be a surge in interest from young female players.[54][55][56]

In the final episode, the then women's world champion Nona Gaprindashvili is mentioned, with the comment that she "has never faced men". The real-life Gaprindashvili frequently played against male opponents, including top-level grandmasters. In a BBC interview, Gaprindashvili characterized this departure from reality as "a shame, of course."[57] She told the Calvert Journal that "it's dishonouring to have misinformation spread about someone's achievements". In regards to the aspects of the series, she also stated "You have to be psychologically and physically strong, and have a drive for excellence."[58]

Interest in chess[edit]

In November 2020, The Washington Post reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had already increased the public's interest in chess, but the popularity of The Queen's Gambit made it explode.[59] According to The Guardian, grandmaster Maurice Ashley has been inundated by messages from people – mainly women – enthused by the series: "the frenzy around it is crazy."[60] Sales of chess sets for US Goliath Games are up several hundred to over a thousand percent due to the series.[61] Chess.com reports several million new users since the release of the series.[62]

Legacy[edit]

Together with The Crown, costumes from The Queen's Gambit were put on display by the Brooklyn Museum as part of its virtual exhibition "The Queen and the Crown".[63][64]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

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