At long last, the game of chess is ready for its close up. Scott Frank’s show The Queen’s Gambit, based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name, is the Netflix breakout success of the year, rivaling the popularity of the documentary Tiger King and threatening to supplant the international reach of the multiseason Spanish hit Money Heist. Chess movies have come and gone (Searching for Bobby Fischer and Pawn Sacrifice, also about Fischer), but until now the limited subject matter and the difficulties inherent in rendering a largely cerebral pastime on screen have prevented the game from enjoying a full-on international blockbuster.
There’s no particular reason you should have heard of Tevis, apart from the fact that many years ago he submitted a thesis for the Iowa Writers’ Workshop entitled The Hustler, about pool shark Fast Eddie Felson and his alcoholic writer girlfriend, Sarah. The Hustler appeared as a short story in Playboy and was then made into the classic Robert Rossen film of the same name, starring Paul Newman and Piper Laurie. The Queen’s Gambit, the novel, appeared more than two decades later, arriving in a burst of productivity just before Tevis died.
Following Beth Harmon, an orphaned female chess prodigy haunted by substance abuse and a dead birth mother, through the 1960s, The Queen’s Gambit is an adult fairy tale. It belongs to a pantheon of books about games, but truth be told, it is not nearly so beautiful or resonant as its immediate neighbors, Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game and Yasunari Kawabata’s The Master of Go. Nevertheless—perhaps as a function of Tevis’s ability to produce page-turners that become excellent films—The Queen’s Gambit has been on the radar of directors for decades. In a virtual interview hosted by the 92nd Street Y, Scott Frank revealed that Walter Hill, Bernardo Bertolucci, and Michael Apted flirted with the story, and actor Heath Ledger had taken steps to adapt the book as his directorial debut before he died.
It’s hard to imagine any of these talented figures approaching the story with greater care and attention to detail than Frank, who, despite the fact that the story is based on a novel, deserves the lion’s share of credit for the version of The Queen’s Gambit that has come to the screen. As the series has charmed and surprised audiences, it has perhaps inadvertently shone a light on a game, a culture, and a community that, in the decade or so leading up to the show’s release, have undergone a radical transformation, quite as if this fictional history begot the world we now live in.
The chess community in The Queen’s Gambit is far more benign than the hostile, madness-inducing, chess-as-battlefield-of-the-Cold War image that has cemented itself in the American psyche. No figure is more responsible for this image than Bobby Fischer. Fischer’s most famous quote—that he enjoys the moment when he destroys another man’s ego—pretty much says it all.
Not accidentally, I think, Fischer has been excised from the world of The Queen’s Gambit. The prodigious rise of Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is a teenager in the 1960s, would have overlapped perfectly with Fischer’s rise toward the world championship. But he’s completely absent from the story—obliquely referenced only once when one of Harmon’s love interests, Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), is referred to by the wrong name. Instead, the show is imagining the history that might have unfurled had Fischer not been a paranoid, misogynistic, antisemitic cultist (it’s really too much to go into in detail) but rather an impassioned, inquisitive, and charismatic young woman fixed on beating back her demons and excelling at the game.
In flashback, Harmon miraculously survives her mother’s desperate murder-suicide plot, and in the first episode, she is adopted at about 12 years old. The stories of both her birth family and her adopted family are instructive in just how determinedly men can attempt to prevent women from expressing ambition and achieving independence. Her birth mother is a Ph.D. in mathematics, and her adopted mother is a talented pianist—math and music are an intellectual stone’s throw from chess—yet each suffered a husband who ridiculed and abandoned her. To break into the chess world, Harmon must penetrate a layer of midcentury misogyny—claims that women don’t play chess or don’t stand a chance against male players—but once she does so, the game offers her a benign father figure and provides her with her first experiences of true kindness and respect. Another female player, whom she has just defeated, comes to her rescue when she has her first period. In subsequent tournaments, the male chess players she dispatches react with awe rather than anger.
The show owes not a little to the Pygmalion–My Fair Lady story, in that chess itself is Harmon’s tutor: Through her stoic chess teacher and the blocky aesthetic of the game, she learns manners and develops both her critical faculties and an appreciation of abstract beauty. And eventually, chess shows her that men—in the form of gentlemanly Russian grand masters—can be steely and competitive, yet also capable of looking past ideology and gender to value raw genius. In short, she finds that the arena of chess is a true meritocracy.
Swapping Fischer for Harmon makes The Queen’s Gambit an alternative history story like Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, or Quentin Tarantino’s films in which Hitler is murdered in a theater, a plantation house implodes, and Sharon Tate survives. But The Queen’s Gambit is different, because in the years since Tevis’s novel, and particularly in the last decade or so, the game has been wholly transformed, as if it had done some soul-searching or had a change of heart.
In 2002, an American player named Jennifer Shahade, who bears a more than passing similarity to Beth Harmon, became the youngest American-born women’s U.S. chess champion in history. Subsequently, she was awarded the title Woman Grandmaster by the international chess organization, FIDE (the acronym is French). Like Harmon, Shahade was once glamorously featured on the cover of America’s preeminent chess magazine. She too has a flamboyant head of red hair—albeit less scrutinized than Harmon’s much-discussed crowning glory—and like the character in the show, she has made a point of publicly embracing fashion and travel. She plays the game with Harmon’s same attacking style, which is a significant plot point in the story. To be clear, Shahade can’t be the inspiration for the character, as she was only three when Tevis’s novel first appeared. She even recalls not finishing the book—despite the similarities to her own story—when she first found it amid the teenage throes of her early chess obsession.
Shahade has become an important face of the game, challenging its long-entrenched tendencies to favor white men and conservative politics. The cover of her first book, Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport, featured the author posing in a pink wig, a pink spaghetti-strap top, a pink scarf, and furry pink gloves, and her second book, examining the games of prominent female players, was entitled Play Like a Girl. In addition, Shahade has staged a number of chess-themed art installation pieces and events, performed or conducted in the spirit of artist Marcel Duchamp, for whom chess was a lifelong preoccupation and who is the subject of Shahade’s third, co-authored book.
Alongside Shahade’s own efforts, several other changes in the world of chess have broadened the game’s appeal. The current World Champion, Magnus Carlsen, a 29-year-old Norwegian with a dry wit and a willingness to offer kind words for his opponents, has served as a much more attractive figurehead for the game than many of his predecessors. (Anyone convinced that chess is a toy should watch the first five minutes of Netflix’s Carlsen documentary, Magnus.) The St. Louis chess club achieved international status as a venue for major tournaments and launched philanthropic efforts to stress the game’s supposed intellectual benefits. A Chess in the Schools program contributed to the recognition of the game as an art, as well as a sport, making it fundable from sources that were previously unavailable to it. The U.S. Chess Federation became a 501c3 nonprofit, representing a change in mission from promoting chess to improving people’s lives through the game. The streaming platform Twitch and Chess.com, featuring a robust lineup of male and female commentators on tournaments covered live from all over the world, have revolutionized how the game is consumed by fans. In Fischer’s day—and even 20 years ago—it was rare to see grand masters actually play chess. Today, it’s possible to observe the world’s leading players virtually around the clock.
Even the pandemic may have contributed to the popularity of both chess and The Queen’s Gambit. If too much time at home has left audiences primed for a bildungsroman in which dedication and perseverance is duly rewarded, then chess offers the opportunity for both intellectual challenge and a welcoming community, at a time when those things are difficult to find.
It also offers hope for a more progressive future. The chess world today is more diverse than it has ever been. Chess programs are thriving across Africa. Russian players are still a powerhouse, but Chinese players have been looming large for years now. Armenia has a wholly outsize chess influence. A number of prodigies are emerging from India and Iran. Even in the United States, the list of the top 10 chess players is a more diverse group than you would be likely to find in even the most liberal selection of Cabinet secretaries. In short, the chess world is in many ways exactly the world liberals would like to see.
Which is not to say the game is perfect. In recent years, there has been an influx of women into chess—women who have replicated Harmon’s rejection of cultural norms to push their way in a male-dominated pursuit. This effort has been promoted by Shahade, and by former World Champion Garry Kasparov, who has himself become an advocate for women entering the game (and served as a consultant to Scott Frank). Even so, there is still work to be done to bring about true gender equality in chess. Providing a new role model and earning the game a much-deserved moment in the limelight, The Queen’s Gambit will most certainly help.