In 1957, child prodigy Bobby Fischer captivated the world as one of the youngest grandmasters of chess. In the strategic game of varied pieces upon a board of squares, talent and determination transform average kids into stars.
However, that intelligence that accompanies chess masters is often met with madness. Many often attributed Fischer as a troubled genius. His IQ gave him a somewhat rough personality and a later life of solitude until his death at 64.
In “The Queen’s Gambit”, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) also meets this trade-off: extreme gift at the game in exchange for her sanity.
Both the real-life Fischer and fictitious Harmon stemmed from tragedy-ridden childhoods.
Fischer’s mother was homeless at the time of his birth and raised him along with his sister as a single mother. Many speculate Fischer is a child from an affair with Hungarian mathematician Paul Nemenyi.
Harmon’s mother, on the other hand, descended into madness as Harmon was just a young girl. The series implies that her mother intended to kill her in a murder-suicide via car crash. However, Harmon services and the quiet, reclusive child is sent to a local orphanage.
At the orphanage, doe-eyed young Harmon (Isla Johnston) observes the institution’s janitor playing chess in the basement. She demands he teaches her. Simultaneously, the orphanage distributes green-and-white tranquilizers to its young residents, and Harmon grows an addiction to sharpen her chess skills.
It’s unclear precisely why the series chooses to depict the world’s biggest chess champion as a woman in contrast to a historically male-dominated field. However, the show’s clever writing soon makes it clear that Harmon’s womanhood is not a disadvantage.
Rather, the savvy character uses her identity as a weapon as men constantly underestimate her and she distracts young opponents with her obvious beauty. In a fictitious interview for Times Magazine, the reporter questions Harmon about how it feels to play amongst “all those men.”
“I don’t mind it,” Harmon says.
Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of the plagued intellectual easily captivates the viewer as the highlight of the show. Her wide eyes dart with curiosity and determination as wins a litany of chess games.
Throughout the series, she draws the attention of many men not just for her dashing appearance but for her burning fervor. The show treats each chess match like a class Hollywood sports drama: with all the stakes and the anxiety that plague the players.
The pacing of the show doesn’t quite reach the same quality as Taylor-Joy’s performance.
The first episode, with young Harmon’s backstory, feels slowly paced with the atmosphere of classic novels like “A Little Princess” or “The Secret Garden.” The latter episodes reach more explicit plot points that lend the series its mature audience rating, but these parts get muddled with confusing time jumps.
However, brushing over its flaws, the overall tone of the series, along with the wonderful acting and specific time period references — one of my personal favorites was the now-defunct National Air — the series excites and leaves a lasting impact.
While there are no real-life female historical chess grandmasters that match those like Fischer, “The Queen’s Gambit” asks an important question about sexism in the chess industry and how it hindered former female chess players.