“The Queen’s Gambit” Is a Sports Drama
The Netflix show both embodies and subverts a genre more typically associated with games like football and hockey
At the heart of all sports dramas is a tacitly accepted proposition: in the game lies the key to self-improvement. The lessons you learn on the field are lessons you should take with you into your everyday life. This is why the sports drama is so often riddled with self-help sounding inspirational speeches. Life, in this well-worn genre, is always improved by the rigor, training and discipline that comes with, say, playing football or hockey or perfecting your dives or your laps. While watching everyone’s favorite new obsession, Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, it struck me that this story of a complicated chess prodigy growing up in mid-century Kentucky who has her eyes on conquering the Soviet masters of the game skillfully leans into those very tropes. The show all but demands we think of life as a game of chess. Yet even as the Scott Frank-directed drama uses chess to structure its tale of a complicated young antiheroine, the period piece revels in picking apart the very board game metaphors it uses throughout.
For all its period and Peak TV trappings (Beth is an heir apparent to the likes of Don Draper, a young orphan addicted to tranquilizers who bristles at any hints of intimacy), The Queens Gambit feels most modeled after a genre best known for uncomplicated triumphs and self-improvement through buckling down. There’s a clear “life is like this game, this game is like life” undercurrent that could have come straight from, say, The Mighty Ducks. An adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel by the same name, The Queen’s Gambit makes it clear from its very first episode that it will use chess not just as its theme but as its structure. Not only is its first episode aptly titled “Openings” (with each subsequent one tracking a chess game: “Exchanges,” “Doubled Pawns,” “Middle Game,” “Fork,” “Adjournment” and “End Game”) but it very quickly makes clear that the story of one Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Harmon (Anya Taylor Joy) will play like a warped insight into how chess can help the young girl better understand her life.
On any given episode, The Queen’s Gambit runs through every kind of sports drama trope imaginable. In “Exchanges” Beth is a plucky upstart up against a local chess titan. Having left her orphanage and found a stable(-ish) home in suburbia with an aloof yet caring adoptive mother, Beth sees in chess a way to make space for herself. The episode’s narrative builds up to a final match where the young teenager, after all but decimating her tournament opponents with her intuitive knack for the game, faces her then-greatest challenger (all while coping with her first period, the first of many admittedly cringe-worthy narrative choices that thankfully don’t wholly derail the drama’s overarching seriousness).
Visually, the drama finds new ways of making chess (yes, chess!) as exciting a spectator sport as anything else. Her match with Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) in that first tournament of hers is shot almost like a fencing duel, each move a calculated strike; a later speed chess matchup feels as dynamic as a squash game; while her later games in Moscow, against the best from the Soviet Union, lean heavily on the pageantry of it as a spectator sport, like a soccer match being watched in hushed silence.
But for all its usage of the sports narrative as its structural anchor, The Queen’s Gambit feels like a conscious inversion of it. Sports narratives in popular culture thrive on inspiration and aspiration. Films like Whip It and Rocky, as well as television shows like Friday Night Lights and Cheer, hinge on the positive impact sports can have on athletes and audiences alike. The tenacity needed to win a boxing match, the teamwork it takes to win a football or a hockey game, even the physical stamina required to excel at cheerleading are grafted onto stories about overcoming odds, with the personal lessons their characters learn lining up all too neatly with what their respective sports teach them. Indeed, early on in the show, during a press interview at her home, a teenage Beth waxes poetic about what first drew her to chess: “It was the board I noticed first,” she replies. “It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And it’s predictable. So if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.” What, at first, reads like the show’s premise spelled out ends up becoming the show’s actual anti-thesis.
From the moment nine-year-old Beth finds chess, we’re led to believe this laconic young girl will find in that board the safe haven that eludes her in real life. She may not make new friends at her high school or find ways of wrestling with the trauma of seeing her mother intentionally crash their car leaving her an orphan, but she finds and relishes the control she has when she plays chess. Her eyes light up every time she’s faced with a new challenger; she seems wholly uninterested in the world outside of the board, much to the chagrin of her adoptive mother who, during a tournament trip to Mexico, urges her to go see Bellas Artes or visit Chapultepec. But to Beth, the board is the world, her world. There’s no heartbreak in it even when there’s loss. That laser-focused approach to her chosen vocation ends up teaching her plenty of lessons: as in life, she believes, the rules of chess are immovable and intransigent, and every loss is only hers to blame.
We’re told time and time again that Beth is what they call an “intuitive player,” whose moves don’t have the bureaucratic quality of some of the Soviet masters or the studied elegance of some of her peers. And so, for much of her life, Beth does live her life like it’s a chess game. With no family, especially after her adoptive mother dies quite suddenly, and with few close friends she can confide in, she convinces herself that she has to go it alone. More tellingly, she operates under an almost transactional approach to social encounters; the bold moves that earn her praise on the board end up becoming personality traits where she ends up countering moves in real life. When she’s offered help to pay for an upcoming trip to the U.S.S.R. from a Christian group who hope she can feed pre-written lines about her fight against the atheist communist East, she not only refuses but decides to give however much money they’d already offered her. As impulsive as cunning as she is on the board, she eventually starts seeing how such behavior is less effective as a life mantra.
The beauty of The Queen’s Gambit lies in how intentionally it slowly, over its last few episodes, forces Beth to unlearn everything she thinks she knows about life and chess alike. Unlike traditional sports dramas that exalt the sports they depict, enshrining the ways they teach positive life lessons (football teaches your kid about teamwork! boxing teaches you about self-reliance!), The Queen’s Gambit feels almost like a rebuke of the idea that chess has any worthwhile advice to dole out. By the time Beth is decked out in an all white ensemble, with a stylish hat to match, looking like a literal White Queen walking the streets of Moscow, she’s had to unlearn the very lessons that chess had taught her. A self-avowed loner who never did figure out how to lean on others, thinking she was just as required to handle life on her own as she was a chess match, Beth ends up needing the help not only of her childhood best friend Jolene (Moses Ingram) to get out of a drug and alcohol fueled binge, but of her fellow American players (all men who’d equally idolized and envied her) during a pivotal game in Moscow. Life is not, as it turns out, anything like a chess game, no matter how comforting (though, really, quite insidious) such a proposition may sound. It can just be, as Beth eventually comes to realize, simply beautiful on and for its own sake.