A wholly riveting narrative as Beth Harmon, orphaned at nine years old, takes on the male-dominated global chess establishment.
Taught by the janitor (Bill Camp) in the basement of the rambling old orphange for girls in the late 1950s, a mix of prescribed tranquilisers and inherited mathematical genius sees a young and, until then, taciturn and unremarkable Beth (Isla Johnston) develop her skills from a young age.
On one level, The Queen’s Gambit (adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis – The Hustler, The Colour of Money) is a straightforward challenge to the preconceived notion that girls don’t play chess and therefore, by default, a comment on the position of women in 1960s America. Adopted at 13, eventually supported by new mom, Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), herself a potential concert pianist who received no encouragement, Beth (now played by Anya Taylor-Joy) quickly rises in the American ranks. From regional Kentucky to US Open champion, international success beckons – and the ultimate challenge: the Soviet grandmasters.
But it’s the route that Beth takes to her Moscow showdown that is the warm appeal of this miniseries. There’s inevitably a few hiccups along the way. As a game, chess is strategic and cerebral: there is a price to pay for obsession and success. But, like her playing style, Beth is of the now; fast, focussed and determined. Like the opening moves of the queen’s gambit, it’s about being on the attack with the opponent needing to defend from the off.
Issues of loneliness, alcoholism and abuse come to the fore – but an independent Beth (generally) quickly moves on – whether it is through death of people close or disappointed in love (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd). And, eventually, over time the loner is able to find friendship in a group bound by marginalisation, support and a commitment to each other’s loneliness. As we experience in those final hours in Moscow, ultimately victory is never achieved alone.