The Queen's Gambit (miniseries)
The Queen's Gambit is a 2020 American coming-of-age period drama miniseries based on Walter Tevis's 1983 novel of the same name. The title refers to "Queen's Gambit", a chess opening. It was written and directed by Scott Frank, who created it with Allan Scott. Beginning in the mid-1950s and proceeding into the 1960s, the story follows the life of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphaned chess prodigy on her rise to the top of the chess world while struggling with drug and alcohol dependency.
|The Queen's Gambit|
|Based on||The Queen's Gambit|
by Walter Tevis
|Written by||Scott Frank|
|Directed by||Scott Frank|
|Music by||Carlos Rafael Rivera|
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of episodes||7 (list of episodes)|
|Running time||46–67 minutes|
|Original release||October 23, 2020|
Netflix released The Queen's Gambit on October 23, 2020. After four weeks it had become Netflix's most-watched scripted miniseries. It was acclaimed by critics, who lauded Taylor-Joy's performance as well as the cinematography and production values. It has also received a positive response from the chess community, and data suggests that it has increased public interest in the game.
The series won two Golden Globe Awards: Best Limited Series or Television Film and Best Actress – Miniseries or Television Film for Taylor-Joy. She also won the Critics' Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Movie/Miniseries and the Screen Actors Guild Award for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Miniseries or Television Movie.
The Queen's Gambit follows the life of an orphan chess prodigy, Elizabeth Harmon, during her quest to become the world's greatest chess player while struggling with emotional problems, drugs and alcohol dependency. The title of the series refers to a chess opening of the same name. The story begins in the mid-1950s and proceeds into the 1960s.
The story begins in Lexington, Kentucky, where a nine-year-old Beth, having lost her mother in a car crash, is taken to an orphanage where she is taught chess by the building's custodian, Mr. Shaibel. As was common during the 1950s, the orphanage dispenses daily tranquilizer pills to the girls, which turns into an addiction for Beth. She quickly becomes a strong chess player due to her visualization skills, which are enhanced by the tranquilizers. A few years later, Beth is adopted by Alma Wheatley and her husband from Lexington. As she adjusts to her new home, Beth enters a chess tournament and wins despite having no prior experience in competitive chess. She develops friendships with several people, including former Kentucky State Champion Harry Beltik, United States National Champion Benny Watts, and journalist and fellow player D.L. Townes. As Beth rises to the top of the chess world and reaps the financial benefits of her success, her drug and alcohol dependency becomes worse.
Cast and charactersEdit
- Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, an orphan who matures into a competitive young adult fueled by a desire to become the greatest chess player in the world while masking a growing addiction to the drugs and alcohol that allow her to function.
- Isla Johnston as young Beth
- Annabeth Kelly as five-year-old Beth
- Bill Camp as Mr. Shaibel, the custodian at the Methuen Home for Girls and an experienced chess player who teaches Beth how to play the game.
- Moses Ingram as Jolene, a rebellious teenager at the Methuen Home who becomes Beth's closest childhood friend.
- Christiane Seidel as Helen Deardorff, director of Methuen Home for Girls.
- Rebecca Root as Miss Lonsdale, the chaplain and choir director at Methuen.
- Chloe Pirrie as Alice Harmon, Beth's deceased mother (seen only in flashbacks) who earned a Ph.D. in mathematics at Cornell University before experiencing a downward spiral in her mental health.
- Akemnji Ndifornyen as Mr. Fergusson, the orderly at Methuen, who among other roles administers state-mandated pills to the girls.
- Marielle Heller as Alma Wheatley, who with her husband Allston adopts Beth as a young teenager and later acts as a manager for Beth's chess career. Alma's biological child died sometime before Beth's adoption, and she develops a worsening alcoholism that begins to influence Beth.
- Harry Melling as Harry Beltik, a state champion player Beth defeats in her first tournament and later befriends.
- Patrick Kennedy as Allston Wheatley, Alma's husband and Beth's estranged adoptive father.
- Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Townes, a fellow chess player for whom Beth develops an unrequited love.
- Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Benny Watts, a brash young man who is the reigning United States chess champion and one of Beth's most challenging competitors, later a mentor and friend.
- Marcin Dorociński as Vasily Borgov, the current Soviet-Russian world champion chess player and Beth's strongest competitor.
- Sergio Di Zio as Beth's father.
- Dolores Carbonari as Margaret, Beth's high school classmate.
- Eloise Webb as Annette Packer, a friendly teenager who becomes Beth's first tournament opponent.
- Matthew Dennis Lewis and Russell Dennis Lewis as Matt and Mike, twin brothers who serve as registration officials at Beth's first tournament and go on to become her friends.
- Max Krause as Arthur Levertov, a grandmaster and friend of Benny's who assists Beth with her training.
- Ryan Wichert as Hilton Wexler, a strong player and chess problem enthusiast, friend of Benny.
- Jonjo O'Neill as Mr. Ganz, the local high school chess club teacher.
- Louis Ashbourne Serkis as Georgi Girev, a 13-year-old Soviet chess prodigy.
- Janina Elkin as Borgov's wife, who is also his interpreter.
- Millie Brady as Cleo, a French model who had a brief affair with Benny. She quickly befriends Beth.
- Bruce Pandolfini as Ed Spencer, a tournament director.
- John Schwab as Mr. Booth, Beth's minder from the State Department.
- Marcus Loges as Luchenko, a veteran former world chess champion and Beth's penultimate opponent in Moscow.
|No.||Title||Directed by||Teleplay by||Original release date|
|1||"Openings"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|Elizabeth Harmon is orphaned at age 9 when her mother dies in a car crash on New Circle Road. She is taken to an orphanage, where the children are given tranquilizing pills to make them more compliant. While cleaning erasers in the basement, Beth discovers the custodian, Mr. Shaibel, studying chess on his own. After repeated requests he reluctantly agrees to teach her the game; she has already worked out how the pieces move by observing him. She becomes obsessed and improves quickly, thanks to her spatial intelligence and abuse of the mind-altering tranquilizers, which allow her to focus and visualize chess games on the ceiling above her bed. When she is able to beat him regularly, Shaibel introduces her to the local high school chess club teacher, Mr. Ganz, whom she also beats. Ganz invites her to play a simultaneous exhibition against his entire club. After the state passes a law outlawing the use of tranquilizers on children, Beth begins to suffer from withdrawal. Provided a tranquilizer pill by her friend Jolene, Beth beats Ganz’s entire class easily, later commenting to Shaibel on their poor chess skills and how invigorating it was to win. Still suffering from withdrawal, she is caught stealing a jar of the medication and passes out after overdosing by swallowing several mouthfuls of pills.|
|2||"Exchanges"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|After her overdose, Beth is forbidden to play chess. Years pass, and Beth is adopted as a teenager by Lexington couple Alma and Allston Wheatley. Alma drinks heavily and Allston is emotionally distant, frequently leaving for "business trips," making clear to Beth that the marriage is not a happy one. At her new high school, Beth is bullied by the popular girls from the "Apple Pi Club" for her drab clothes. Beth discovers her adoptive mother is taking the same tranquilizer pills that she was given at the orphanage and secretly steals a prescription for herself, allowing her to visualize chess on the ceiling again. She also steals a chess magazine and learns about the upcoming Kentucky State Championship. She writes to Mr. Shaibel, who sends her the money for the entrance fee. As she cruises through her games, she develops a crush on one of her opponents, a young man named Townes. After the second day of the tournament, Beth comes home to find that Allston has deserted her and Alma. Beth fears that she will be sent back to the orphanage, but Alma tells her they will lie so she can stay. During her final game of the tournament against Harry Beltik, the highest-ranked player, Beth becomes flustered by his late arrival and runs to the restroom, where she takes a tranquilizer pill to help win the game. Upon learning of the prize money on offer in a tournament in Cincinnati, Alma hatches a plan for the two women to support themselves via Beth’s chess prowess.|
|3||"Doubled Pawns"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|Beth wins the tournament in Cincinnati, giving Alma 15% of the prize money. Beth continues to skip school while traveling to tournaments and quickly gains national recognition for her achievements. She also begins dressing more stylishly as her winnings increase. At school, Beth is invited to a meeting of the "Apple Pi Club" by the girls who had initially shunned her. She soon realizes she has nothing in common with them and, stealing a bottle of gin, escapes back home. In 1966, Beth heads to Las Vegas for the U.S. Open where she is reunited with Townes, now a journalist covering the event for the Lexington newspaper. They return to his hotel room where Townes takes pictures of her. The two play chess and share a brief, intimate moment, but are interrupted by Townes's roommate, whom Beth suspects is also his boyfriend. Beth abruptly leaves before Townes can explain the situation. Beth runs into the current U.S. national champion, Benny Watts, who points out an error in her game against Beltik. Beth is taken aback and replays her earlier game, losing her confidence. She experiences her first professional loss against Watts the next day and they finish the tournament as co-champions.|
|4||"Middle Game"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|Beth takes night classes in Russian at a local college. She attends a party where she smokes marijuana and sleeps with one of the students. Left alone in his empty apartment for the weekend, she indulges herself with more alcohol and drugs. After graduating high school, Beth travels to an international tournament in Mexico City with Alma. Beth competes against several international players, including 13-year-old Soviet prodigy Georgi Girev, whom she defeats in a tough game that lasts two days. While in a crowded elevator, Beth overhears a conversation between Soviet world champion Vasily Borgov and two associates discussing her playing style and potential weaknesses. Borgov comments that she is an orphan and a survivor like them. Beth then plays Borgov and loses to him in an intense game after he surprises her with an offbeat opening. Back in the hotel room, Beth discovers Alma has died of suspected hepatitis, likely worsened by her excessive drinking. Beth manages to contact Allston in Denver, who wants nothing to do with the burial arrangements. However, he agrees to let Beth keep the house. Beth buys more tranquilizers from a pharmacy before flying home to arrange Alma's burial, ordering her trademark Gibson as tribute.|
|5||"Fork"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|Beth returns home to Kentucky and reconnects with Harry Beltik, who is attending college and has romantic feelings for her. At Beth's suggestion, he moves into Alma's house to accompany the now lonely Beth. The two spend time training and sleep together a few times until Beltik realizes Beth's obsession with chess will always supersede any relationship they may have. The two part ways, as Beltik admits that his passion for the game has waned. Beth meets her former high school tormentor Margaret in town; married soon after graduating, she now has a baby daughter and is fast becoming an alcoholic. Beth travels to the 1967 U.S. Championship in Ohio, where she reunites with Benny Watts. The evening before they are scheduled to face each other in the final game, Benny challenges Beth to several rounds of speed chess for five dollars each. An experienced speed chess hustler, he beats her consistently and cleans her out of all her cash. The next day, however, Beth defeats Benny to become the U.S. champion. The two discuss Beth's future in international competition. Benny, recognizing that Beth needs both a role model and a trainer, invites Beth to train for the Paris Invitational with him in New York City.|
|6||"Adjournment"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|Beth travels to New York with Benny, where he trains her for the Paris Invitational. He invites two strong players, Hilton Wexler and Arthur Levertov to assist, along with a mutual friend, a French model named Cleo, who quickly befriends Beth. Beth repeatedly beats Benny, Wexler, and Levertov at simultaneous speed chess, winning back more than Benny took from her in Ohio. Beth and Benny sleep together, but Benny ruins the mood by talking chess strategy for Paris afterwards. At the Paris Invitational, Beth advances to the finals against Borgov. Cleo, who is also in Paris, invites Beth out for drinks. Beth hesitantly joins Cleo at the bar, resulting in a late-night bender. Hungover, Beth oversleeps for the final and is unable to focus, losing once more to Borgov. Devastated, Beth declines Benny's offer to continue staying with him in New York to prepare for the Moscow Invitational and instead returns to Kentucky. Alone, she plunges into a days-long drug and alcohol binge, ignoring phone calls and the outside world. At the Kentucky State Championship, Beltik confronts Beth, telling her she needs treatment for her alcoholism. The next day, Beth finds her old friend Jolene at her front door.|
|7||"End Game"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|Jolene and Beth attend Mr. Shaibel's funeral. Afterwards, Beth revisits the orphanage and breaks down when she discovers Shaibel had followed her career up until his death. Beth rejects funding from the Christian Crusade to travel to the Moscow Invitational, and asks Benny to help fund her, who refuses. Jolene loans her the money, and Beth arrives at the Moscow Invitational. Beth wins several games, gaining many fans from the Russian public. In the final game against Borgov, Beth plays the Queen's Gambit; the game is adjourned after forty moves. Beth reconnects with Townes, who is covering the tournament for the Lexington Herald-Leader. Beth receives a phone call from Benny, who has assembled Harry, Matt, Mike, Wexler, and Levertov to analyze her game with Borgov. When play resumes that evening, Beth is able to visualize the game without the use of tranquilizer pills and beats Borgov after previously refusing a draw offer. Beth is celebrated widely by the locals gathered outside the venue. On the drive back to the airport, Beth exits the car and heads for a park where elderly local men play chess. They recognize her and greet her warmly, inviting her to play.|
On March 19, 2019, Netflix gave the production a series order consisting of six episodes. The series was written and directed by Scott Frank, who also created the series with Allan Scott. The two also served as executive producers alongside William Horberg. Scott had been involved in attempts to get the book on screen since 1992, when he purchased the screenplay rights from Walter Tevis's widow.
The series was released on October 23, 2020, with seven episodes instead of the original six-episode order.
Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and chess coach Bruce Pandolfini acted as consultants. Pandolfini had consulted with Tevis prior to the novel's publication some 38 years earlier, coming up with the title "The Queen's Gambit".
Pandolfini, together with consultants John Paul Atkinson and Iepe Rubingh, devised several hundred chess positions to be used for various situations in the script. Kasparov developed critical moments in the story, such as when a real 1998 game between grandmasters Arshak Petrosian and Vladimir Akopian was improved to showcase Beth's skill, or a 1993 game between Vasyl Ivanchuk and Patrick Wolff became the prototype for the decisive game in the last episode.
Alongside the series order announcement, it was announced that Anya Taylor-Joy was set to star as the lead. In January 2020, it was reported Moses Ingram had joined the cast of the series. Upon the miniseries premiere date announcement, it was announced that Bill Camp, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Harry Melling and Marielle Heller were cast in starring roles. Because the majority of the filming was carried out in Berlin, the minor roles were filled mostly by British and German actors.
Production design and filmingEdit
Production designer Uli Hanisch developed the series' sets to evoke the aesthetic of the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the series was filmed in Berlin because of how interiors found there could stand in for a large number of the show's locations, including Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Mexico City, Moscow, and Paris.
Locations used in and near Berlin included the Kino International (for a restaurant, actually the Panorama Bar), the Berlin Zoo, the Humana store, Schloss Schulzendorf (for the Methuen Home orphanage), the Rathaus Spandau (for a hotel lobby), Palais am Messe-Funkturm (for the Hotel Mariposa in Las Vegas), the Protestant University of Applied Sciences in Zehlendorf (for the US Championship games location), Haus Cumberland, the Bode Museum (for scenes that take place in Paris), Karl-Marx-Allee (exterior of a hotel said to be in Moscow); the final scene of Beth walking in Moscow was filmed at Rosengarten Square, also in the Karl-Marx-Allee. The Baerensaal (aka Bear hall) was used for scenes set at the Moscow Tournament. The Friedrichstadt-Palast stood in for the Aztec Palace Hotel. The exterior of Henry Clay High School in Lexington was actually filmed at the Max Taut Schule.
Some scenes were filmed in Canada; principal photography began in August 2019 in Cambridge, Ontario. For example, The Harmon family home is a house on Brant Road in the city. Other houses where some filming was done are on Salisbury Ave in Cambridge and on Blenheim Road; the latter is a mansion built in the 19th century. The exterior of St. Andrew's College, Aurora (Ontario) was used for the Ohio Championship facility but the interior was actually a Berlin facility. The exterior of the fictional Ben Snyder Department store in Kentucky was filmed at the Winners department store (Front Street and Berczy Park) in Toronto, Ontario, the rural bridge is the Meadowvale Road Bridge in Toronto and the Fairfield High School in the show is actually Western Technical-Commercial School in Toronto. The fictional Bradley's pharmacy was actually an outdoor set built at Walnut and King streets in Hamilton, Ontario.
The musical score was composed by Carlos Rafael Rivera. Frank initially wanted the score to be piano-based only, but in the end decided with Rivera for a full orchestral score for more "instrumental depth and color". Rivera found scoring for chess a challenging task, having been warned by Frank that "music would be doing a lot of heavy lifting". He decided to reflect Beth's growth – both as a person and a chess player – by adding more and more instrumentation over time.
On October 28, 2020, the series became the most watched series of the day on Netflix. On November 23, 2020, Netflix announced that the series had been watched by 62 million households since its release, becoming "Netflix's biggest scripted limited series to date." Of this, Scott Frank stated "I am both delighted and dazed by the response" while several outlets characterized it as an "unlikely success". The series topped the Nielsen's U.S. streaming rankings for the weeks of October 26 to November 1, November 2 to 8, and November 9 to 15, 2020, making it the first series to do so for three weeks straight.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, The Queen's Gambit received an approval rating of 97% based on 100 reviews, with an average rating of 7.94/10. The website's critics consensus reads, "Its moves aren't always perfect, but between Anya Taylor-Joy's magnetic performance, incredibly realized period details, and emotionally intelligent writing, The Queen's Gambit is an absolute win." Metacritic gave the series a weighted average score of 79 out of 100 based on 28 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
In a column where she argues "So many lives would be different if we'd had The Queen's Gambit 50 years ago," culture critic Mary McNamara said, "I loved The Queen's Gambit so much, I watched the final episode three times." Darren Franich of Entertainment Weekly gave the series a B and described the lead actress, "Taylor-Joy excels in the quiet moments, her eyelids narrowing as she decimates an opponent, her whole body physicalizing angry desperation when the game turns against her." Variety's Caroline Framke wrote "The Queen's Gambit manages to personalize the game and its players thanks to clever storytelling and, in Anya Taylor-Joy, a lead actor so magnetic that when she stares down the camera lens, her flinty glare threatens to cut right through it." Reviewing for Rolling Stone, Alan Sepinwall gave it 3 out of 5 stars and said, "An aesthetically beautiful project with several superb performances, all in service to a story that starts to feel padded long before the end comes."
Critics also frequently discussed the series' prominent theme of substance abuse. Phoebe Wong notes that "Interestingly though, unlike other works which study the self-destructive aspects of perfectionist obsession, mental health and substance abuse issues extend beyond the protagonist to other characters" in her review for The Tufts Daily. Her summary reads "Impressive in its own right, The Queen's Gambit adopts a fresh perspective by delving into chess' intersections with substance abuse and gender discrimination". Matt Miller of Esquire stated "The result is a pretty scary depiction of the stress of competitive chess in the 1960s." On the other hand, Harper's Bazaar's Lilly Dancyger considered the "misrepresentation" of drug abuse to "nearly ruin the show" for her, using the following Stephen King quote to explain: "The idea that the creative endeavor and mind-altering substances are entwined is one of the great pop-intellectual myths of our time."
The Washington Post's Monica Hesse considers the miniseries "revisionist history" but also "a wonderful future" in that the heroine's "uncluttered path to success" is "uninterrupted by sexism", and has men "refreshingly" looking out for the main female character, noting that the show "has no women in peril, and no skeezy men". Carina Chocano of The New York Times Magazine also believes that the show again and again foils the audience's expectations: the janitor doesn't molest her, her adoptive father leaves her alone, and her adoptive mother Alma doesn't hold her back, a departure Chocano attributes to the "fantasy"-like quality of The Queen's Gambit. Responding to these reviews, Fred Mazelis of the World Socialist Web Site wrote that "the claims that the series is appreciated because it is fantasy are disingenuous, to say the least. The show has struck a chord precisely because it is not seen as utopian fiction." Bethonie Butler, also of The Washington Post, while praising the show overall, criticized the characterization of Jolene, the show's only major Black character, saying "(her) backstory and character development are so limited that she seems to exist merely to make Beth's life easier".
Chess community responseEdit
The series received praise from the chess community for its realistic portrayal of the game and players. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Woman Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade said that the series "completely nailed the chess accuracy". In an article about the miniseries in The Times, British chess champion David Howell felt that the chess scenes were "well choreographed and realistic", while British Women's chess champion Jovanka Houska said, "I think it's a fantastic TV series ... [i]t conveys the emotion of chess really well." Houska stated that she related to Beth being one of the few women in a tournament, and noted that sexism was worse at the "hobby" level, especially for young girls. International Master Dorsa Derakhshani described the show as "very, very accurate" and that she was surprised at "how actually strong the games are".
Judit Polgár, who was the first woman to play for a world championship title, said that the show depicted the male players as "too nice", while Woman FIDE Master Andrea Botez also felt the show "toned down" the sexism in the chess world. Former British Women's champion Sarah Longson said Beth should have realistically lost more. Reigning chess world champion Magnus Carlsen gave it 5 out of 6 stars but found it "a little too unrealistic" for how quickly Beth developed her skills. In the final episode of the show, the women's world champion Nona Gaprindashvili is mentioned as having "never faced men", despite the real-life Gaprindashvili frequently playing against male opponents, including top-level grandmasters. In response, Gaprindashvili said "it's dishonouring to have misinformation spread about someone's achievements" and described it as "a shame, of course". She noted that the show does portray the pressures of professional chess, stating, "You have to be psychologically and physically strong, and have a drive for excellence."
Interest in chessEdit
In November 2020, The Washington Post reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had already increased the public's interest in chess, but the popularity of The Queen's Gambit made it explode. The New York Times compared the interest in chess to the "similar chess mania" after Bobby Fischer beat Boris Spassky to become world champion in 1972. According to The Guardian, grandmaster Maurice Ashley has been inundated by messages from people – mainly women – enthused by the series: "the frenzy around it is crazy". Sales of chess sets rose greatly following the release of the series, with U.S. company Goliath Games stating their chess set sales increased over a thousand percent due to the series, while marketing firm NPD Group found chess book sales had increased over 600 percent. Chess.com reports several million new users since the release of the series, with a higher rate of registrations by female players compared to before the series. Chess instructors have stated that the demand for chess lessons has significantly increased as well.
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- Tied with Star Trek: Picard.