It wouldn't be hyperbole to say that this miniseries is a sensation. Within two weeks of its release, it was the #1 show on Netflix and, by the end of November 2020, it was that streaming service's best-known production - even surpassing Tiger King in viewership numbers.

Tiger King was, until Queen premiered, at the top of Netflix's viewership rankings.

Those are just ratings, you might argue. What does the public have to say about it? Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 96% approval rating while Metacritic gave it an average positive rating of 7/10, based on 28 viewer responses.

But, again, those are only statistics. How can anyone know if those reviews are authentic - meaning: posted by real viewers, not a bot?

The real proof of Queen's success is what's happening in the real world. YouTube chess channels' viewership has exploded. Channel 'owners' marvel at their newfound subscription boosts and some have even started earning a decent income from playing chess online.

What is this show that everyone's talking about and why is it such a raging success? Superprof explains.

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What Is The Queen's Gambit?

Walter Tevis' novel, The Queen's Gambit, was published in 1983. It would be his penultimate published work, either novel or short story, of which he published quite a few.

You may be familiar with some of Tevis' other work even if you've never read him. The Colour of Money, The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth are all products of his literary genius. They also have several common themes; we'll discuss them a bit later.

Beth never had anyone to lean on.
Beth's mental health woes stemmed from the fact that she never had anyone to lean on. Photo by Randy Fath on Unsplash

At its heart, The Queen's Gambit is a coming of age story. Beth Harmon, the story's main character, is orphaned at a young age and, with little guidance or compassion, defines life as best she can while (mostly) staying in compliance with the children's home rules.

Chess is Beth's escape and the theme upon which her story is layered. The two elements are intricately woven to create a story of someone nobody wants finding a way to become wanted the world over.

Contrary to all commentary and publicity - even the show's promotional poster features a stern-looking Beth presiding over an oddly-populated chessboard, The Queen's Gambit is not about chess. It is a story of a young life, devastated by elements out of her control, and how the road back to a purposeful existence is marked by pitfalls and, sometimes, treachery.

But, more often, saving graces.

The Queen's Gambit in a Nutshell

Young Beth, in the custody of her ever-increasingly unstable mother, feels uncertain. She has far more questions than her mother is willing to answer and, in a dramatic twist, is left physically unharmed when her mother crashes her car. That accident ended any chance Beth may have had at understanding her parentage and her mother's cryptic statements.

Now, with Mum gone and no other family to claim her, she withdraws into herself to cope with life at the Home for Girls. Beth initially resists Jolene's friendship but follows her advice, which makes life at the orphanage a bit more manageable.

Beth's world goes from black-and-white to colour when she's sent to pound erasers in the basement. There, she meets the taciturn Mr Shaibel, who is playing some sort of game. Instantly fascinated, Beth strong-arms him to teach her the game - as much as an eight-year-old can be said to strong-arm.

Mr Shaibel's passion for chess is never explained, nor can we know how he was able to recognise her talent as a chess player. After teaching her the rudiments of the game - and, in one standout scene, its norms and customs, he calls upon the local high school's chess club director to test her chess prowess.

Beth soon becomes hungry for wins; they become her validation as a person. The downside of playing only to win soon manifests; her fury at losing becomes a key component of her opponents' strategy. They use it against her time after time, provoking in her a destructive psychological response.

Unable to cope with losing which, in her mind, is equal to being worthless, Beth turns to the escape routes she'd known since childhood: drugs and alcohol. Her self-sabotage continues until Benny Watts, at one time her most fearsome competitor, helps her see her own worth.

The queen of chess was never left standing alone
Unlike in her life, in chess, Beth was never left standing alone. Photo by Alexis Fauvet on Unsplash

In the end, she becomes The Queen of chess. After winning against the best chess player Russia had, she is shown, finally self-confident, walking down the street in Moscow wearing a hat and coat that strongly evokes chess's White queen piece.

In a sense, you might say that The Queen's Gambit offers visuals that seamlessly blend chess and art.

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Joy
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The Queen's Gambit: Novel v. Show

Save perhaps for The Shawshank Redemption, virtually every written work adapted to the screen is fundamentally altered; The Queen's Gambit is no different.

  • In the story, Beth's mother does not commit suicide; she dies in a massive accident while Beth is at home, alone
  • In the novel, Beth's father dies an early, alcohol-induced death; in the series, he rejects her and she has no idea who he is
  • In the show, Beth's chess visualisation skills are made clear but in the book, she 'sees' chess just by closing her eyes
  • In the book, her crush, D.L. Townes, only features twice. There's no hint of his sexual orientation in the book
  • Cleo, the attractive woman Beth meets at Benny's flat and who, in Moscow, encourages a drinking binge, does not feature in the book.
    • The novel includes an incidental character, Jenny, who disappears from the story after the initial meeting in Benny's flat
  • The book places the scene of Beth playing in Moscow's chess park during the tournament while the show saves the park chess encounters for the confident Beth, fresh off her tournament win, to cap off the story

Some of these departures from the written work are necessary to detail the story correctly for the visual medium. After all, if Beth just closed her eyes to visualise chess moves - something she often does while lying in bed, how could the viewing audience know she's not simply going to sleep?

Also, the closed-eyes method wouldn't allow the audience to experience Beth's hyper-focused look; something that the actress' hypnotic gaze makes easy to pull off.

Other splits from the story make less sense. Why did Beth have to be in the car when it crashed and why did her mother deliberately crash it? Perhaps to make Beth's abandonment more stark, or maybe to give the pivotal scene more punch.

Still, it's hard to see how a knock on the door when you're eight years old and home alone could be less ominous than knowing for certain your mother intends to do away with herself and take you along for the ride.

And besides, it's hard to believe that a child in the backseat of a car would emerge from a deadly crash unscathed, especially if you know that, as late as the mid-1980s, rear seatbelt installation in American cars was optional.

Here's something even more unbelievable: the prevalence of chess in famous paintings...

Themes Addressed

The driving theme of this story, in the series and the book, is abandonment. Beth is repeatedly left behind: by her parents, the adoptive father who never wanted her and by her adopted mother's death.

How she copes with those early, repeated betrayals is the story's second-most prominent theme: escapism through drugs and alcohol.

Both of these themes reflect Mr Tevis' life experiences. He was a sickly boy, developing a rheumatoid heart condition at an early age that caused a long stay in a sanatorium. While there, he was fed a daily dose of tranquilisers - the same ones doled out in the story.

By the time he was well enough to be released from that facility, his family had moved far away, forcing him into a long train journey, undertaken alone, to re-join them.

The tale's overarching theme is success over adversity - again, an echo of that author's life. Although he dealt with raging alcoholism and drug usage all of his life, he nevertheless enjoyed a long marriage, raised two children and saw professional success.

He stated in an interview that his intended message was female empowerment.

In the early '80s, women were making great strides in many arenas - professional, political and athletic, but there was still such a long way to go for girls to believe they could achieve anything.

As an educator - Mr Tevis taught high school and university-level English and writing, he knew well the struggle of young females trying to make their mark on the world. The Queen's Gambit was meant to show that you don't have to comply with gender roles; you could do and be anything you wanted to be.

Also, despite the many parallels between the fictitious Beth and real-life chess prodigy Bobby Fischer, Mr Tevis insists that his character is not based on any specific person.

Beth Harmon left chess kings at her feet as she quested to be the queen of chess
Like this queen flanked by her knights, Beth Harmon slew every chess king she encountered. Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash

The Queen's Gambit: Footnotes

Turning this story into a series took a long and tortuous path; after three failed attempts - two caused by untimely deaths, the project at last got underway.

Finally on-screen, the chess community's response to the miniseries is overwhelmingly positive. That could be because two chess grandmasters, Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparov were involved in the production. They made sure that every chess-related detail was accurate, from the gambits played to the competitive atmosphere.

Female grandmasters are less effusive in their praise, stating that the overt sexism in chess is not reflected in the series and that, realistically, Beth should have lost more.

Perhaps the most galling disparity came in the series' last episode, when Nona Gaprindashvili, a Women's Chess Champion and chess grandmaster, is said to never have faced men in chess. Not only is that not true, but it is an insult to her - and every other female chess player's accomplishments.

Still, the series is a good watch and the story is powerful. Whether it was because we were all stuck at home with nothing better to do than to stream Netflix or the story's time had come, Gambit generated a chess frenzy unlike anything seen since Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky to become the World Chess Champion, in 1972.

Now, discover Chess: the Musical, another story loosely built around the Fischer/Spassky legend...

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