Openings matter a great deal in chess, and “The Queen’s Gambit,” a new Netflix mini-series about a wunderkind of the game, uses its first few minutes for the purposes of misdirection. A young woman wakes up in a disordered Paris hotel room and washes down some pills with minibar booze while racing to dress for a Very Important Game of Chess. The period is the late 1960s and the vibe is Holly Golightly groovy wild child.
Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, the a seven-part series is co-created and directed by Scott Frank, the man behind Godless — one of 2017’s best shows. The opening episode, has an enchanting, storybook feel. Beth stumbles on the game when she’s sent on an errand to the basement lair of the orphanage’s forbidding custodian, Mr. Shaibel (a canny, finely etched performance by Bill Camp). The game immediately makes sense to her — when nothing else in her life does — and at night she runs through the moves he teaches her on an imaginary board she sees among the shadows of the prisonlike dormitory where she sleeps.
The series tells the story of Beth Harmon, from the age of eight to 22, as she evolves from an abandoned misfit into one of the greatest champions the world of chess has ever seen.
We see her arrive at an austere orphanage in the 1950s, a remnant and reminder of her mother’s suicide attempt. She braves the regimental rigidity of her new home by seeking solace in the basement, where a lonely janitor named Mr Shaibel spends his spare time by playing chess with himself. He reluctantly takes the curious Beth under his wing, and teaches her the basics of the game. Within days, she’s drubbing him in less than a dozen moves. He leans back in awe, barely able to comprehend Beth’s genius. The innocent girl asks if she’s any good. “To tell you the truth of it, child, you’re astounding,” he says.
The Queen’s Gambit isn’t as much a show about chess as it is a show about kindness. Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp) would be the first person in Beth’s life to offer her a shoulder to lean on, as she struggles with the onset of mental illness and a debilitating dependency on drugs.
Over the next few years, as Beth goes from winning local tournaments to being hailed as America’s foremost challenger against the Soviets — a proxy war that unfolded in real life as well, when Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky faced off at the height of the Cold War — many others align themselves with her. Some are in it for the attention that Beth brings, but over the course of her young life, she forges a series of genuine relationships — from Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), the woman who adopts her as a teenager and encourages her passion for chess, to the many men who are drawn to her alluring nature.
We learn about Sicilian defences and doubled pawns; about adjournments and endgames. But at no point is the show inaccessible. This is a remarkable achievement. It moves elegantly and enthrallingly, without ever alienating its audience.
It manoeuvres around the traps that have consumed innumerable movies in the past — movies that spend way too long at the table, and waste a disproportionate amount of time trying to teach the viewer pointless details about the game. Although I am willing to wager that it will meet the standards of any chess expert who wishes to scrutinise its accuracy.
Some of the show’s best face-offs are literally that — two characters, sitting across each other, engaged in a mental duel. In a few of the most high-stakes matches, the chessboard isn’t even seen. That’s an astonishingly bold directorial decision to have made. If Beth corners her opponent, as she often tends to, we don’t see it represented by the falling of a rook, but we see it in star Anya Taylor-Joy’s eyes. And what enchanting eyes they are — capable of communicating more eloquently than a thespian with 12 Tonys.
The Queen’s Gambit soars with the sort of confidence on screen that Beth displays on the board. It relies on its audience to connect the dots themselves; nudging them in the right directions, but resisting the urge to feed crucial information through clunky dialogue and plot contrivances. This makes the payoffs all the more satisfying, because you feel a sense of accomplishment for having arrived at the correct conclusions.
And as Beth Harmon takes her seat across her challengers — entitled and arrogant men of all ages — she glances up from the board, and with the briefest of looks, pierces their souls with her eyes. She sees fear. And what they see rattles them: a young girl, more skilled than they could ever imagine to be. In those moments, before either player is on the clock, Beth knows that she has won. And not just at chess.
The series is currently showing on Netflix.