The new Netflix series, The Queen's Gambit, has received largely positive reviews from critics and viewers. I have enjoyed the acting, the chess, the human drama and the music supporting the storytelling. Throughout the series, the beauty and power of chess shine and its powerful message about one individual's ability to change the world through kindness resonates.
In the first episode, we are introduced to the central character, 9-year old Beth Harmon, who is placed in an orphanage after the death of her mother in a car crash. Beth struggles to adapt to her new life as an orphan and as a student at the Methuen Home in Kentucky. She is highly intelligent but extremely lonely and withdrawn. When she is sent to the basement to clean erasers, she finds the school custodian, Mr. Shaibel, studying a chessboard.
Fascinated, she begins learning the piece movements by watching Shaibel play. As she gets more curious about the game, Shaibel begins to teach her more, including notation. Soon, her genius surpasses the skills of her instructor. Shaibel invites the director of the high school chess club to observe Beth's game skills. Impressed, the school's chess director requests her to play simultaneous chess with the high school's club.
As she defeats challenger after challenger, Beth is poised to enter the world of tournament play. Since she does not have the money to play her first event in her home state of Kentucky, she is forced to borrow the money for the entry fee. Thus begins her journey into the competitive chess world.
Based on the book, The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis, this story about a chess prodigy who learns the game in humble circumstances has connections to the Mechanics' Institute's (MI) chess club. Tevis was born and raised in San Francisco's Sunset district before moving to Kentucky with his family. The novelist also played chess at MI. Longtime MI chess club member Kenn Fong remembers Tevis as an enthusiastic chess club member who played in the North vs. South chess matches (between Northern and Southern California). Fong made a mention of this in an article he contributed to in MI's chess newsletter on December 6, 2019.
Currently, The Queen's Gambit is on the Netflix top 10 most watched series. The chess world has been buzzing about a show that presents chess in such an accessible and meaningful way. Beth's journey takes her all the way to the top of the chess world, breaking down barriers from sexism to addiction, to childhood trauma and finding connections. The story is a marvelous depiction of the psychology and transcendental nature of chess, depicting the joy and love of chess for its own sake in a way that would make any chess aficionado proud.
Abel Talamantez is Mechanics' Institute's Chess Room Director. He can be reached at [email protected] or by phone at 415-393-0110.