TV Review: The Queen’s Gambit (No spoilers)

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


  1. says

    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 reacted very differently. Harmon was a compelling character to me, and the parts of her past that were unclear manifested as interesting mysteries which I looked forward to solving (or at least gaining information about). I find her character “unrealistic” in the sense that she devotes herself obsessively to this game, but if you start with the assumption that this is the backstory of a champion player, you know that despite not being realistic in the sense of reflecting the life of anyone I’m likely to know, it’s “realistic” (in fact inevitable) for a future champion. Other things seemed likewise rare & out of my experience, certainly not “normal”, but as I watched I felt they worked very well for the character.

    It’s also interesting to me that viewers are now playing more chess, because the show really wasn’t about chess. It was about people.

    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.

    About this, there are far too many mothers that kill their children when they feel that they love them and yet also feel that life circumstances are going to cause them more suffering than joy. This is often accompanied by suicide of the mother. (When it’s not, it seems to be more frequently a twisted interpretation of religion, e.g. wanting to kill the kids before they have a chance to sin & earn a place in hell.) From the very beginning I saw the mother’s actions as an attempted murder-suicide. She felt that she couldn’t continue living & thought her daughter would have an inevitably terrible life with lots of suffering (not least the pain of knowing her mom killed herself). She further felt that her daughter would have literally no one to care for her. So she decided to take her daughter with her into death. The vagaries of the car crash just didn’t let it happen that way.

    To me this seems unrealistic in the same sense that being a chess champion is unrealistic -- no one I know is a chess champion or ever will be, but that doesn’t mean being a chess champion is impossible or never happens. It’s a real human phenomenon: humans really do play chess tournaments & someone has to come out on top, likewise mothers really do kill themselves and their children & some of them are going to accidentally survive.

    I wasn’t clear on the father’s actions, but it seemed clear enough that Beth was born after an extramarital affair & he had never acknowledged the affair and/or Beth to his wife. Wanting to see Beth in the scene in the rain, well, I don’t remember the exact dialog, but I can imagine many reasons why he might want to see Beth away from his home & family & wouldn’t want to acknowledge her on his doorstep in the presence of his wife. I don’t “understand” the father, but neither does Beth. She doesn’t know the whole story, so for us to understand Beth’s character we’re actually in a better position if we also don’t know the whole story. We can understand the situation of uncertainty in which she finds herself better by being uncertain ourselves. So that was a creative choice that worked for me.

    Anyway, none of this is to say that you’re wrong to experience the show the way you did. I just write it out to explain why & how I experienced it differently.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Crip Dyke,

    Thanks for that perspective. It gives me a more rounded view of the character and the series.

  3. says

    I have a question for you, actually, Mano. What was your favorite game in the show?

    For me it was the first game of the Ohio tournament she enters after winning the Kentucky state championship. It’s about 5.5 minutes in during the 3rd episode. I just loved how it was handled. I can see myself working my fanny off to get a rating & then showing up, getting paired with Harmon & reacting exactly the way her opponent did.

  4. Marshall says

    Indeed, although they are prescription drugs, they seem to be freely available.

    It was apparently commonplace that tranquilizers were given to children to make them less of a nuisance, and at once point in the show, one of the children says “they’re not allowed to give these anymore,” implying that the practice was made illegal.

    This Newsweek article goes into a little more detail; in the show the drug is named Xanzolam (which is not real) and is supposedly modeled off of Librium, a benzo that came in a half-green pill. Interestly, the article says that laws regarding Librium didn’t come into play until 1975, whereas in the show they show up in the 1960’s, presumably to emphasize he own addiction; if everyone else was addicted as well, it wouldn’t have had as much of an impact.

  5. says

    I won’t be watching the show, but I loved playing chess since childhood. I still love to play when I have the chance, but I am no good at it because as you say, in order to become good at chess one has to spend an absolutely insane amount of time memorizing beginnings and ending strategies, really to the exclusion of anything else. Current world champion Magnus Carlsen even has said that besides chess, he can do nearly nothing else. That is often the case with masters, which is why I always will be a Jack of all trades.

  6. Mano Singham says

    Crip dyke @#3,

    At this point, the games have become a blur. I can’t say that I was blown away by any particular game while watching it.

  7. jenorafeuer says

    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.

    That’s not entirely surprising. Remember that the Soviet Union had female cosmonauts decades before the U.S. had female astronauts. I can see the Russians cheering on her ‘breaking of barriers’ just because they figured having a woman present would bother the Americans a lot more than it would bother them.

  8. Mano Singham says

    jenorafeuer @#10,

    What was surprising was not the reactions of the Russians, for all the reasons you give. What was surprising was that American filmmakers did not fall into the tired Cold War cliches of dour Russians who would be antagonistic to her simply because she was American.

  9. nifty says

    Just to agree with your final paragraph- I also really enjoy playing bridge, but it is really challenging to find playing opportunities now. One sign of the range of challenges present in that game is how bad the computer apps that try to simulate the game usually are, I also like the appeal of partial communication present in the open bidding process, and find that the scoring system seems to have a nice balance in terms of rewarding risk vs. safety in the bidding process. I find I often enjoy the daily newspaper columns on this game in terms of showing how skilled some players can become in figuring out what cards are present in which hands.

  10. Mano Singham says


    Have you tried Bridge Base Online? It is an online bridge site that is excellent and (mostly) free. You can play with three robots for free or get three people you know to sign on simultaneously and play with them for free. The only charge is if you need one or two robots to play with and then it is very cheap to buy their services, just $1 for an entire week. You can compare your score with how other pairs have done.

    Bridge clubs are hosting tournaments on that site and I play three times a week. I find it great fun. There is a charge (my club charges $5 per tournament) but most of it goes to support the clubs and that is a good thing because they are no longer able to hold in-person tournaments and thus have no revenue.

    Sometimes go on BBO by myself when I have some free time and play with three robots. There are many, many features on that site, a lot of which I have yet to explore.

  11. nifty says

    Mano- thanks, I will look into that. This sounds like exactly what I am looking for. The two robot option may be exactly what we need. I also like the possibility of the on-line tournament.

  12. Mano Singham says


    I forgot to say that there are plenty of other options on the site. One that I have rarely used is to join an existing table. You will be playing with unknown random people from all over the world. The other players will come and go, and you too can leave at any time.

    If you like, you and your partner can set up your own table and random people will join it to play against you.,

  13. chigau (違う) says

    I loved the series but I understood from the start that it was a fantasy.
    Still, it repeatedly passed the Bechdel Test.

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