On Friday, October 23rd, Netflix released The Queen's Gambit, a new 7-part series which portrays chess prodigy Beth Harmon's rise in the chess world of Cold War America. Less than a week after its release, the hit series has become the most watched series on the streaming service, and received widespread praise from chess fans and movie critics all over the world.
The Queen's Gambit follows the story of Beth Harmon, who ends up in an orphanage in the late 1950s after losing her mother. She picks up the rules of the game, and soon discovers that she has a huge talent for chess but also develops an addiction to tranquilizers provided by the state as a sedative for the children. While the rising star fights for glory on the board, she also has to fight off the board with her own addictions and personal demons.
Beth Harmon is portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy (Peaky Blinders, Glass, Split, Emma) and appears to have captivated Netflix's roughly 200 million subscribers. The Queen's Gambit is currently the most watched TV show globally and ranks 1st in 27 countries, including the USA, UK and Russia - something few would have expected for a show in which chess is so central.
While chess fans tend to cringe whenever our game is ackwardly portrayed on the big screen, the chess moves in The Queen's Gambit are authentic, much thanks to work by Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini, who consulted for the show.
“I will be forever grateful to Bruce. He is like my chess godfather. He is incredible, and so supportive”, lead actress Taylor-Joy told Chess Life Editor John Hartmann, who interviewed her, Pandolfini and the other stars of the show.
The reviews could hardly have been better. On Rotten Tomatoes, one of the most trusted sites for measuring the quality of movies and TV series, The Queen's Gambit has a score of 100 %. That means every single reviewer has rated it favourably. On the world's biggest movie database, IMDb, it currently has an average rating of 8.9 out of 10.
No wonder one of the stars of the show is thrilled.
One of the more recent reviews comes from Forbes. Queen's Gambit Is Better Than Most Other Netflix Series for One Simple Reason, the piece is called, with Paul Tassi writing, “I did not imagine I would be so enthralled by a show about a young woman playing chess in the 1960s.” He continues:
Queen’s Gambit is indeed great on its own merits. It’s a smart, well-told story and Taylor-Joy is fantastic as Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy who learns to play from the janitor in her orphanage and takes those skills all the way to Moscow to play the world’s best Grandmaster by the time she’s 20. This, sadly, is not a true story, but it’s a great one all the same.
Tassi points out that it's a miniseries and that many productions are cancelled after a few seasons. That won't be the case with The Queen's Gambit, he writes:
I see no indication that Queen’s Gambit is so hugely popular Netflix is going to demand another season, as it shouldn’t. But what we do have are a tight, fantastic seven episodes that are absolutely worth watching no matter if you think chess or the ‘60s may not suit you. Trust me, it’s worth it, and comforting to know that we don’t have to wait around a year (or forever) for resolution by the end.
In Wired Magazine's Why The Queen’s Gambit Is the No. 1 Netflix Show Right Now, the author says that “watching gifted players is a reminder that brilliance exist in everyone, even if you don't understand their game.”
Perhaps that’s why The Queen’s Gambit, which is currently Netflix’s number one show in the US, is so addicting: It’s a dance. Suffice to say very few people watching understand chess at the level someone like Kasparaov [sic] does, but movies from Searching for Bobby Fischer to Queen of Katwe to Fresh have proven audiences want to know what it’s like to play as a grandmaster.
In a Yahoo! life piece titled I Binge-Watched Netflix’s New #1 Show in Just 2 Days—Here’s Why It’s Must-See TV, the author writes:
This surprisingly gripping show will keep you hitting "Watch Next Episode" late into the night thanks to two main strengths: the great acting and the girl-versus-world trope. First, the acting of Beth Harmon, from her girlhood played by Isla Johnston to her 20-year-old self played by Anya Taylor-Joy, absolutely captures you as if you're ensnared in one of the chess openings that she so skillfully dispatches her opponents with.
In a thorough review on rogerebert.com, the series is given 3.5/4 stars with an enthusiastic Allison Shoemaker writing:
Anchored by a magnetic lead performance and bolstered by world-class acting, marvelous visual language, a teleplay that’s never less than gripping, and an admirable willingness to embrace contradiction and ambiguity, it’s one of the year’s best series. While not without flaws, it is, in short, a triumph.
And the legendary author tweeted out praise to his 6 million followers:
One director suggested it could have been in contention for an Oscar.
While the hit series has received widespread praise, there have also been some oddities pointed out. They include draw offers in lost positions, overly gracious losers, audiences clapping when a game completes and the repeated knocking down of kings as a way to show resignation.
Perhaps a more serious one comes from Olimpiu G. Urcan, the chess historian and Twitter personality, who points out the lack of references to women chess players.
Urcan has praised the show in several tweets, but writes in a blog post:
As far as I could see, in whatever Harmon touches there is not a single game reference to a brilliant game won by an elite woman player, from trailblazers like Vera Menchik of the 1930s to Nona Gaprindashvili of the 1960s or from Judit Polgar to Ju Wenjun. In fact, the only reference to a real-life woman player I saw was to Gaprindashvili: in the last episode, we are told “she [Gaprindashvili] never faced men,” which, of course, is untrue. Fiction or no fiction, there’s a danger to attaching demonstrable untruths to real names. Gaprindashvili of the 1960s made a ground-breaking effort to take part in men’s tournaments.
The criticism is shared by former US Women's Chess Champion, commentator and Women's Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade:
Russian chess star Ian Nepomniachtchi liked the series, but had some concerns about the ending.
A fellow Russian Grandmaster gave it 8 out of 10.
English Grandmaster Simon Williams saw something of himself in the series!
He discussed the show during Fiona Steil-Antoni's most recent Last Chess Week Tonight:
Did you watch The Queen's Gambit? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.
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