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  • Tanya Katre

The Queen's Gambit

- Tanya Katre

Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ co-created and directed by Scott Frank is one of the best Netflix adaptations of 2020. It follows the simple yet happening life of an orphaned chess prodigy, brilliant mastermind and academic genius, Elizabeth Harmon, as she sets out to become one of the greatest chess players in the world. The epic chess drama became an overnight hit after receiving 62 million views within just the first month of its release. With over ten awards including two Golden Globes for ‘The Best Mini Series 2021’ and ‘Best Performance by an Actress in a Mini Series’, it’s safe to say that the show is a massive success amongst the millennials and the Gen Z alike and has left audiences begging for more.

About the story (spoilers ahead!):

Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) was orphaned at the age of eight and consequently taken into the ‘Methuen Home’, an orphanage in the state of Kentucky. The orphanages of the 1960s including Methuen Home gave tranquilizers to the orphans, which Beth soon became accustomed to. After developing a debilitating addiction and already dealing with an overwhelming amount of change-- she turns to chess for comfort. During her stay, she comes across kind yet stoic Mr. Shaibel, the janitor, who ends up teaching her the basics of chess in the basement of the orphanage. The tranquilizers that she secretly hoarded and had all at once during the nights helped her visualise chess games, that she played with Mr. Shaibel, on the ceiling of her dormitory. The imagery used in the book and the graphics used in the adaptation both depict the effects of the tranquilizer and her imagination perfectly.

A few months into the weekend lessons, she meets Mr. Ganz, the coach of the chess club from Duncan High School, who invites her to play against his students. As a shock to most of the onlookers, she wins every single match-- single handedly defeating 12 high school chess players simultaneously. Over the next several years, she goes from winning local tournaments to regional as well as national level championships with her deadly accuracy and measured control. Along the way, she gets adopted into a middle class family, gets acquainted with some of the nation’s finest chess players including Harry Beltik and Benny Watts and plays against Vasily Borgov, defending chess champion of the world. The end of the series focuses mainly on her attempts at defeating the world famous russian players including Borgov all of whom are seemingly impossible to defeat.

One major highlight of the entire story’s plot is its impeccable representation of sexism and racism taking place in the 1960s.

To quote a few such instances:

"The room was full of people talking and a few playing’ most of them were young men or boys. Beth saw one woman and no coloured people."
"Why do they put all girls together? They're not supposed to but…."
"She had felt something unpleasant and familiar: the sense that chess was a thing between men, and she was an outsider."

For a show that's primarily based on a series of chess tournaments, the director did a phenomenal job with just the right balance of the chessboard and the characters. Instead of focusing on the actual game, the director focuses on the expressions and body language of the players and the bystanders. While they do mention several moves, chess openings and pawns, it is put forth in such a way that a viewer with absolutely no knowledge about the game or its rules can easily follow through. It includes a flawless soundtrack too, how it seems to fit in perfectly with each ongoing scene, maintaining the tension, pressure and uncertainty during the chess match. In a way, the show satisfies both chess and non-chess players who watch the show.

The entire story, however, is much more than attacks and defenses on the 64 squares of a chess board. It’s about perseverance, addiction, loss and much more. The costumes, make-up and furniture depict the bygone era all too well, so does the wonderful performance put forth by Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomas Broadie-Sangster and Marcin-Dorocinski. ‘Into a male-dominated world of the nation’s top chess players; strolls an unsmiling, queer fourteen-year-old girl’. With a commendable plot, exceptional cinematography and noteworthy portrayal of the characters; the Queen's Gambit is truly a must-watch for all.

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