The Sunday Magazine: The Queen’s Gambit

I was blessed with a small bookstore in the town I had mt first job in. I would stop by every Monday after work and buy something new. The owner of the store would make many great recommendations to me over the years. One of his earliest was a novel called “The Queen’s Gambit” by Walter Tevis. I blew through it thoroughly enjoying it and leant it out to many friends over the years. I was surprised a few weeks ago to open Netflix and to see “The Queen’s Gambit” as a new choice. It turns out the book had been adapted into a seven-episode miniseries. Just like the book I binged it over twenty-four hours.

The story in both is essentially the same with minor differences. It begins when Beth Harmon is orphaned when her mother dies in a car accident. She is sent to an orphanage. The story starts in the 1950’s. In those days they would tranquilize the children to make them more docile. Beth slowly becomes addicted to the pills at about the same time she discovers chess. Cleaning erasers in the basement she finds the school janitor playing himself. She asks him to teach her the game. She discovers when she takes the tranquilizers it allows her to visualize the chess board and pieces on the ceiling of her dormitory. She can play hundreds of moves in her head this way. The story follows her ascent to the highest levels of international chess. It also chronicles her issues with drugs and alcohol which threaten to derail her talent.

That might sound like a familiar story, but it goes in different directions. Writer/director Scott Frank expertly shifts the action from the personal to the thrill of competition. At every turn actress Anya Taylor-Joy who plays Beth inhabits her character. Ms. Taylor-Joy speaks volumes with her expressions. I have not considered the placement of an actor’s hands until watching Ms. Taylor-Joy use them to illustrate her emotions.

I also think you might worry this is a downer kind of story. In both book and series version I found it an exhilarating story of eventual acceptance of who Beth discovers she is. If you are looking for a fantastically well-made distraction this should be in your queue.

Mark Behnke