The Queen's Gambit Cared More About Games Than the People Who Played Them

How many of you have watched The Queen's Gambit limited series on Netflix?  How many of you fell in love with the beauty of the cinematography and the choreography of chess?  How many of you dusted off your old chess set or went out and bought your first one as a result of your binge-viewing?  How many of you were enchanted by the story of orphan Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) and how her stoicism and hardship was rewarded by an international platform where she was paid to play mind-games?

Raise 'em high, friends.  I know you're out there.


I'd heard from many friends and saw folks on social media gushing about the series and so when I ran out of free episodes of Survivor right at the end of my semester (don't tell me things don't line right up in this life), I decided to check it out.  I'd heard mostly good things but one sort of sardonic and vaguely scathing review from Louis Virtel on the podcast Keep It where he was essentially rolling his eyes and saying, "She plays chess and wins.  Who cares?  Why do I care?"  I suppose in some ways, I watched the series hoping to find an answer for Louis.

What I got out of the experience was something else all together.

Yes, the basic plot points I've outlined are congruent: orphan learns chess, excels at chess, becomes international chess star, the end.  What I didn't expect was her mother's mental illness leading to her intentionally ending her life in a car accident with her young daughter in the back seat.  What I didn't expect were the frequent flashbacks of Beth and her mother as the young girl watches her brilliant mother spiral out.  There's a quick blip that uncovers that her mother had a PhD -- a true rarity for a women in the 1950's when the story takes place.  Her mother is unwell and unstable and drags her daughter through the trauma of her outbursts and erratic visits to scream at Beth's father.  There is honestly a lot to unpack in this backstory, though it's largely ignored except as a surface explanation for why Beth is in an orphanage (no explanation for why her father, who is shown offering to take Beth to "safety" with him when her mother is on a psychological bender) and perhaps hint at why Beth's foray into drugs and alcohol perhaps has a genetic link.

As Beth ages through the series, there isn't necessarily a strong indication that she suffers from whatever mental illness her mother had (bipolar disorder?  maybe borderline personality disorder?) but she does develop a very concerning relationship with drugs and alcohol, thanks to getting an early start with tranquilizers dosed out by the orphanage.  One of her friends coaches her on saving the "green ones for bed time" and so our heroine becomes an addict young.  That's only fostered more when she's adopted by a woman (who is quickly divorced by her husband -- timing truly is everything) who leans towards the alcoholic side of the spectrum, too.  Beth's adoptive mom, much like her birth mom, has a dependency on booze and pills, and she's fairly devil-may-care about her ward dipping into the honey pot at her leisure.

Over time, Beth's addictive tendencies run rampant where she goes on benders for days and weeks at a time, refusing to speak to anyone from the outside world -- especially after her adoptive mother passes away from hepatitis, maybe -- and then going straight-sober for some time before falling back into the bottom of a bottle of Vodka (or ten) soon after.

Beth, mid-bender, barfs into one of her chess trophies

So much of this is ignored or overlooked or seen as set decoration, it seems.  All anyone wants to talk about after watching The Queen's Gambit is chess.

Those people must not have been squared off against genius-level alcoholics in their lives, I suppose.  

The lucky ones, that's what I call the lot of you.

Because when I watched The Queen's Gambit, what I saw was a person in pain, struggling to fit in even though it was impossible for her to fit in.  Her brain worked differently than the people around her.  She was too smart -- too intelligent -- to fit in socially.  The only thing that calmed and centered her were tranquilizers and, later, alcohol, too.  She perfected the art of this incredibly intellectual long-con game as a woman in a real boys' club.  

Beth is a genius.  Beth is an alcoholic.  Beth has a history of alcoholism and mental illness in her family.

And Netflix dunked her in a fancy bathtub and sent her off to play some clear-eyed chess with a bunch of old Russian men as a way to tie a bow on their predictable series.

So, look, I don't want to be a Debbie Downer about this program that brought joy to so many -- perhaps even some of you.  But it really grinds my gears to see mental illness and alcoholism played off like a skinned knee that gets to be all better because the bandaid was applied just right.  An alcoholic doesn't just become sober because a childhood friend gets her to play racquetball and turn down one nip one time, indicating it's all good.  That all she had to do was beat her big chess rival and that wraps up her story.

All better!  Alcoholism went bye-bye!

I mean, that's, at the very best, lazy storytelling.  

Maybe that's what bothers me the most about the show.

Let me share a bit from a USA Today review:

“Every time we finished that [final] sequence [playing chess in the park], I would just burst into tears, because I was so happy for her,”  Taylor-Joy told Refinery29. “She has found this sense of contentment. Where she wasn’t in pain or fighting something so intensely.”

That’s trim and tidy and wholly unrealistic. My guess is that the people who’ve struggled with addiction or seen loved ones ruined by it will find the whole thing rather flippant. Addicts so rarely get those moments — and when they do they’re earned through diligent work, not because the reassuring words of an old pal helped them draw on previously untapped reserves of willpower. Addicts don’t simply lack friends to rely on, or have some inability to understand how to let themselves be propped up by those who love them. It’s never that clean.

Addicts — and those who stand by them — would also never believe the fight could end or the contentment could last. It never does.

Beyond that, the physical toll of addiction is completely absent. Hungover Beth, we know, struggles to get it together. But there’s not even passing attention to what it would mean for her body to go through full withdrawal from those pills.

In the end, it feels like a lost opportunity. Beth is to that point a convincing addict; the pain in the eyes of her trainer-turned-lover Harry Beltik when he leaves and tells her to be careful feels all too real. He later confides in her that his own father was an alcoholic, though not the raging, messy kind. Rather he sank into himself each night. That’s powerful nuance — a raw look at how the disease can settle in like rot.

This captures how I felt watching The Queen's Gambit.  Later this article calls these plot oversights a true disservice in addition to it being a missed opportunity and I agree with that, too.  The show could have been about more than a young woman playing chess against a bunch of very impressed men.  So why wasn't it?

The series is based on a book that I have not read.  So I don't know for certain if it dives more deeply into these aspects or not -- but I would imagine so.  Though, maybe, it's more of a glorified how-to-play-chess manual since that's really the bulk of the action.  The Netflix series does very little to educate viewers on how the game is played, relying instead on watching Beth have an almost instinctual knack for this very heady strategy game that eventually leads to lots of dialogue intended to tell us how brilliant she is.  Who can play chess verbally, without a board?  Who can remember where all of the pieces are?  The scenes where she's riding in a car with one of her chess rivals, volleying moves back and forth until one of them bests the other is beyond wild to me.  Is this show even relatable?  Do we just like it because the actress is pretty and the soundtrack is nice and the scenery is plush?

I mean, there are worse reasons to like a show, I guess.

Personally, I have very little experience playing traditional chess.  We were more of a checkers family, I suppose.  But there was one Christmas where my brother Josh and I tried to learn to play.  Maybe our grandmother was teaching us?  Maybe our mother bought us a board on a whim?  I really can't recall, except I know that Josh and I studied it a bit over some winter break from school when we were maybe in middle school.  It didn't stick for me and I don't think Josh continued to play.  In general, I don't love games with lots of complicated rules -- they really frustrate me.  My brain -- which is a very good brain -- resists learning this kind of stuff.  I have to play a card game twenty times before I sort of get it.  So chess isn't really my thing.

Notice I said traditional chess somewhere in that paragraph.  So what do I mean by that?  I mean that I am very good at playing a different kind of mental chess: I can see the whole board when it comes to people and their motives and am awesome at predicting the move that's coming ten moves from now.  I think that's because I am a writer and construct plots.  I create lives and motives out of thin air and so I have a deep sense of humanity, for all its pluses and minuses.  Once I have even a basic understanding of a person, I can "guess" with great precision what will happen if I tip this first domino.  And I am very rarely wrong.

#Humblebrag?

In many ways, this is the same as chess: the rules are complicated and every move made has a cascade of consequences -- but if you know your opponent well enough, you can predict their next fifteen moves, which informs your own.  If I'm being generous, I'd say that means I'm a people person.  But it could also mean that I simply know how to "win" arguments or get my way.  It means, too, that I know when to walk away from the table and concede defeat.  I can see way past Step 1 to know how this ends.

It's how I lasted ten years with an individual who is both a true genius and an alcoholic -- it's how he and I learned to play with each other.  He'd make a move, then I'd counter, and so on for a full decade of extreme highs and lows.  Never was it boring or without a riveting narrative.  Our mental chess matches would have put anything The Queen's Gambit had to offer to shame.

This gift is a blessing and a curse.

I think watching The Queen's Gambit was a sad and sometimes painful thing for me because I saw a lot of the person I know in Beth.  The same flat smile.  The same calm and steady voice.  The same lack of enthusiasm.  The same quiet demeanor.  The same quizzical tilt of the head when there was a puzzle to be solved.  The same hard time fitting in.  The same hunger for booze and drugs.  The same lack of self-care that sometimes mimicked a sort of self-loathing, assuming the individual could feel anything at all.

Sitting here now, I try to imagine swapping his life into the movie and trying to determine would might be his "quick fix happy ending" -- like Beth got finally besting her chess rival -- and my honest to god first thought was me finally leaving.  That maybe he has held a long exhale of relief for the last six years, so gratified that the one person he'd let see him so completely was gone.  That I'd laid down my King and walked away from the board.  Before I left, I thanked him for his years of play -- I resigned according to the etiquette.  

Because I never looked back, I don't know what face he made when I conceded -- I don't know what sound gurgled at the back of his throat.  I don't know if he insisted on leaving his escorts so he could play old men in chess in the public park, a free man at last.

I don't know if I'll ever be able to watch a show about an alcoholic -- or a genius -- or a genius alcoholic without bumping against these old scars.  I don't know that I'll ever take in these stories without this very specific tug at my heart.  But I do know that telling a story about a person like Beth Harmon and treating the darker aspects of her life as window dressing is a massive disservice to those actually suffering from alcoholism or mental illness or social anxiety.  That liking a show like The Queen's Gambit because it's pretty and makes you sort of interested in learning chess is ignoring a lot of uncomfortable realities.  The show is an exquisitely executed piece of art that is lacking conviction and soul -- which, to me, makes it a waste.  

I guess I don't know precisely why I felt frustrated and cheated and even a little pissed off by the plot of The Queen's Gambit, but it didn't make me as dreamy-eyed and frothy as it seemed to make everyone else. I doubt that those of you who enjoyed it think that alcoholism or mental illness can be cured by winning a big chess match -- I know you're not dummies.  But I guess it's just hard for me to watch a sweet, perfect bow be tied around the contents of Beth's story as if things were all-better now and forever.  If anything, she is probably headed for an even darker period of time having achieved this huge goal with nothing really in the on-deck circle.  It's like the satisfaction of eating a really sugary treat and feeling the hyper-buzz for a bit before crashing, hard.

That wasn't in the script for The Queen's Gambit, I get that.  But those of us who have held alcoholics in our arms and in our hearts know that the worst is yet to come for the Beth's of the real world.  Maybe that is what makes the show so completely unsatisfying.

Chess is all about how you move the pieces around the board and what strategies you employ.  I know that more from chess-as-a-metaphor than chess-as-a-game.  There's a reason I would often come to the tearful conclusion that there was "no winning in it for me" with the person in my life.  That I had played the game through to the end using every strategy I could and it never resulted in me getting what I wanted, let alone what I needed, from him or from our relationship.  That our "game" had become abusive and toxic. Leaving was my only dignified option.  But I still miss him every day.  It's hard to reconcile holding love in my heart for someone who caused so much destruction, but this is the path we walk when we care about an alcoholic. While it is true that every relationship is its own type of chess match, some are just gentler and kinder and more for fun while others are brutal and competitive and out-for-blood.  

I guess all this proves is that life is messier than a TV show.  It's more complicated and more corrupt.  It's less about "happily ever after" and more about the merging and overlap of ends and beginnings.  It would be nice if all we had to do was achieve one goal to make the rest of our lives smooth and easy and problem-free.  That beating an opponent would reverse all other ailments, no matter how unrelated.  I guess I can't watch a show like The Queen's Gambit and suspend reality in the same way I can about, say, a squad of scheming ballet academy students (which may or may not be the topic of my current Netflix binge show).  We all have our things.  And for me?  Knowing that the only way I could survive was to leave him flailing in the water alone will always weigh on my conscience, no matter how "right" the decision was -- no matter how much he wanted me to leave him there to flail.  

I couldn't win.  So getting out alive was my next best option.

I'm glad Beth beat that Russian guy at chess though.  That really solved the Cold War.




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This is a variation of a post originally written for the I Spy in 2020 blog.

Virtual Tip Jar: Venmo @sarahwolfstar


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