The Queen’s Gambit
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An orphan chess prodigy works her way up through the ranks of the professional chess world in the ’50s and ’60s, battling emotional instability, addiction, and societal conventions along the way.
Starring Anya Taylor Joy and Marielle Heller. Written and directed by Scott Frank (Minority Report, Logan).
This story (based on the novel by Walter Tevis) grabs you from the first moment and never lets go. Taylor Joy shines in the lead role of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, never giving you cause to doubt her fierce intelligence or determination. As Watercooler contributor Liz Coopersmith writes, “It’s Taylor-Joy’s Beth who really makes the show work. She’s reserved, always watching for the next best move, but capable of surprising spouts of happiness and affection. It would have been very easy to play Beth as either a bitch or a victim, but she sidesteps both.”
You don’t have to understand chess to appreciate the parallels between Beth’s outlook on life and her game strategy. The show’s title refers to a chess move, a strong opening that requires a sacrifice but gives a player the advantage in the end. Beth makes plenty of sacrifices on her way to the top of the chess world, and you’re with her through every step and stumble of the climb. It’s not aways comfortable or easy, but it’s never boring.
That’s true of the aesthetics as well as the story. Frank, pulling double duty as director and writer here (with the help of actual chess masters as consultants), makes the most of the mid-century setting, filling the screen with striking visuals, including fabulous sets and chic looks that take Beth from mousy orphan to full-on fashion icon.
While the moments when you get to watch Beth wipe the board with smug, lesser players who think they’re superior just because she’s a woman are really satisfying, the best part of the show is seeing those same men come to respect her, befriend her, and cheer her on along with the rest of us. Game, as they say, respects game. And if the show makes you want to take up chess when it’s all over, well, you’re not alone in that either.
Between the terrific performances, the fantastic period details, and the way it approaches chess as a thrilling, tension-filled competitive sport, this series makes braininess cool.
Someone you can talk about it with after, because you’ll want to. Drug abuse and addiction are major themes in this, so be aware of any issues that might come up before you watch.
Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov acted as a consultant on the film and incorporated real chess matches from high-level tournaments into the script.