This seven-part miniseries on Netflix about a female chess prodigy Beth Harmon in the 1960s taking that male world by storm has been much talked about and has apparently spurred a lot of interest in chess, with increased sales of chess sets and more young women becoming interested in playing a game that is still highly dominated by men.
I watched the series and my reaction is mixed. I thought I would enjoy it a lot more than I did. The story of a young girl overcoming tremendous odds to become a success is the kind of underdog story that appeals to me. In addition, in my adolescence and up to the first couple of years in college I played the game seriously, and was even the captain of my high school chess team. But even though I could appreciate the name-dropping of the great chess players and the openings and the defenses, the series somehow failed to grip me. It started very slow, so much so that I stopped watching the first episode halfway through but came back to it to give it another chance. It picked up the pace later but towards the end I was watching it just to see how it ends.
The problem for me was that central character Beth Harmon somehow did not seem convincing, and since she is in pretty much every scene, that was a problem. I found some of the other characters to be more interesting but some of them come and go without being developed. There was also a lot of what seemed like foreshadowing of events that then failed to pan out, leaving one wondering what the point was..
There are also many confusing elements to the story. She is placed in a Christian girl orphanage after her mathematician mother, who seemed to be psychotic, dies in a car crash with her in the back seat. It is suggested that the mother, although she seemed to care for her child, deliberately crashed the car as a form of suicide while her child was in it. Then there is the occasional appearance of a man who seems to be her father who initially seems to want to be in contact with his daughter and is rebuffed by her mother but then rejects an appeal by the mother to take her in just before the crash. So is she an orphan or not? Also the orphanage dispenses some green and white capsules to all the girls on a daily basis that seem to cause hallucinations and Beth becomes addicted to them and later to alcohol, but needs them to play chess well. Later we find her adoptive mother also taking these capsules and calls them tranquilizers. Indeed, although they are prescription drugs, they seem to be freely available.
Since this is set in the 1960s when players from the Soviet Union dominated, leading up to a tournament in Moscow in which the reigning world champion would be taking part, you knew that some Cold War storylines would emerge. But to the series creators’ credit, they did not indulge in cheap jingoism and showed the Russian people as warmly welcoming Harmon, highly appreciative of her skill, and cheering on her breaking of barriers.
As for the games themselves, those scenes were well done. Although chess is a slow game, the filmmakers managed to give you a good sense of the tension that underlies it and this may be what has led to the surge in interest in the game. In reality, newcomers may find that it moves at a far slower pace than the show. And some things were absurd, like the way that players were shocked by a move that checkmates them. In reality, expert players can usually see defeat coming some time before.
The show reminded me of why I gave up playing the game and haven’t done so for decades and have no interest in rekindling interest now. In high school and even after entering the university I took part in some national tournaments in Sri Lanka, ending up somewhere between the middle and upper end of the pack. But I found that the anti-social elements of playing in dead silence for hours on end did not appeal to me. The only compensation for the lack of fun was to try and become really good at it but that would require spending vast amounts of time studying the game to the exclusion of everything else, like the players in the series do. I felt that it was not worth it.
I now play bridge. Like chess, it is a cerebral game in which you keep learning new strategies and skills and improving with practice and reading. I find it a lot more fun because playing each hand only takes about ten minutes and players can chat between hands and, in friendly games, even while playing a hand, something you cannot do with chess, because you will distract your opponent. Funnily enough, in one episode in the series, Harmon is interviewed by a woman from Life magazine who clearly does not get the appeal of chess and suggests that maybe she should take up bridge, at which Harmon and her adoptive mother roll their eyes.
Here’s the trailer