What is so so magical about the new Netflix TV-show ‘The Queen’s Gambit’?

(feature article)

In the recent limited series ‘The Queen’s Gambit’, the exclusive thing that’s real is the chess. Child prodigy Beth Harmon is fictional. But, every chess game played is extremely accurate.

Not that anyone short of a qualified chess player would be able to tell, but every game in the seven-episode series – and there are many games – was carefully designed by chess coach Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparaov, probably the best-known chess player in the world.

The talented actors had to learn the moves; the camera always follows them. Most people don’t know the combination of 1. d4 d5 2. c4 – the chess debut known as ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ – but every time it’s played onscreen, it’s done correctly. “Essentially, I learned all of the sequences like dances and because I’m a dancer,” says Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Beth, “that was helpful in terms of remembering how everything worked out.”

For non-players of chess, there’s something far more wonderful. The world’s grandest players – or, the ones in movies and television shows, at least – possess something preternatural. Watching them, and plot plays five moves ahead of their competitors, feels like watching Neo seeing nothing but lines of code as he navigates The Matrix. Everyone, it seems, enjoys following a genius at work.

Up to now, there’s something else particularly alluring about chess: It promises a level playing field. Yes, the significant players all seem to have some natural, unimaginable level of skills, but all they needed was a board, two kings, two queens, four rooks, four bishops, four knights, 16 pawns, and the rules. ‘In The Queen’s Gambit’, Beth Harmon learns how to play from a janitor in her orphanage; the real chess player who inspired Queen of Katwe, Phiona Mutesi, to discover the game from a missionary.

There are some barriers to entry – let’s face it, not everyone has time to explore strategy all day, and some people may never be introduced to the game at all – but it has not more requirements than brainpower. There’s a hopefulness in that. Watching gifted chess players is a reminder that brilliance exists in everyone, even if you don’t understand their game.

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