Beth Harmon loves chess.
She loves it from first sight, loving everything about it even before she knows what it is. Barely has she persuaded Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the surly caretaker to teach her how to play it, than she is visualising alternative game scenarios on the ceiling of the bedroom at night. She doesn’t so much take to chess like a duck to water as like a fish to water. She is soon living and breathing chess. It has become part of her DNA and she lives for the opportunity to sneak down to the cellar for an illicit chess game with Mr. Shaibel, who effectively becomes her mentor. Soon Mr. Shaibel is actively teaching her basic chess openings such as the Queen’s Gambit and the Sicilian Defence: basically the techniques which mark professional chess players out from the multitude who never really think beyond their next move.
This is good news for Beth, as life isn’t going so well for her otherwise. The story begins in Kentucky in the 1950s and nine-year-old Beth (who is played as a young child by Isla Johnston) has been placed in an orphanage following the death of her mother in a car accident. The orphanage is not an overtly cruel environment but life there does seem very boring and all the children are starved of love and affection. Beth’s only real friend is Jolene (Moses Ingram) a free-spirited older girl.
Alarmingly, all the girls in the orphanage are routinely issued with tranquilisers, as was apparently standard practice at the time. These enhance Beth’s ability to visualise chess scenarios when she is not actually playing chess. On the downside, she soon becomes hopelessly addicted to the pills. As she grows into an adult (played brilliantly by Anya Taylor-Joy), we see her develop further addiction problems, notably to alcohol. Her adult sexual appetites do not seem unusual, however, and her personality as an adult does not stray too far from the conventional norms either, aside from her all-consuming obsession with chess.
In time, Beth is able to escape the orphanage, being adopted by the Wheatleys, a middle-aged and middle-class, mid-20th century, middle-American suburban couple. Although ostensibly a more stable environment, it soon emerges the Wheatleys’ marriage is in its death throes. Alma Wheatley (another excellent performance from Marjelle Heller) seems fragile, overeducated and frustrated. Her husband, Alston (Patrick Kennedy) is a selfish, unlikeable character who always acts as if he’s being distracted from something more important.
Happily, Beth’s burgeoning chess career ultimately provides an escape for both her and for her adopted mother. The stage is set for us to witness the birth of Beth Harmon’s career as a 1960s female chess legend.
Based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis (who also wrote the books which became the films, The Hustler, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell To Earth), this is an endlessly watchable and compelling story of a fictional chess superstar, boosted enormously by a career-defining performance from Anya Taylor-Joy. Fidelity to the source material is not essential to a adaptation’s success. However, anyone turning to the original book after watching the series, will find the show follows the novel very closely with the exception of one major development early in the book, which was cut out of the series.
Following its October 2020 release, The Queen’s Gambit quickly became Netflix’s most watched scripted series to date. It is easy to see why.