Seduction by Chess
by Jeff Bowles
Chess is not typically known for excitement or suspense. The game of kings has certainly been portrayed any number of ways by Hollywood throughout the years, but Netflix’s new limited series The Queen’s Gambit makes it look passionate, dangerous, and well, sexy.
Maybe it’s the stylish 60s themes, fashions, and music. Or perhaps the magic of this series is in the writing, which is sharp, compelling, and just a little bit wild. So too is the basic look of the show. Each and every chess match (and there are quite a few scattered across seven hour-long episodes) has a different feel, a different level of intensity. And make no mistake, The Queen’s Gambit is all about intensity. To finish a single match is to look into the hungry and carnal eyes of your opponent and ask for another round. And here I thought chess was boring.
No two ways about it, Beth Harmon (played by the wonderful Anya Taylor-Joy) is a child prodigy. After a terrible car accident kills her mother, she’s sent to an orphanage and there befriends a lowly janitor who lives in a veritable dungeon of a basement. The janitor, by the way, happens to be a chess wizard himself. After some brief instruction and the early rumblings of blind obsession, Beth beats him, his chess club (all at once in a series of simultaneous matches) and then begins to play on the larger American circuit. She becomes an overnight sensation, her face on magazine covers, her name known to anyone interested in the game. But the fire in her belly is unquenchable. She’s a marvel and a ticking time-bomb. We know she will explode. The only question is when.
We are talking about the 1960s here, and at that time chess and master chess players were honored and respected worldwide. Beth’s basement-dwelling mentor warns her genius often comes at a price. Her personal demons take the forms of addiction, mental illness, and compulsion. Every single night is an opportunity for her to practice and read and imagine (or perhaps hallucinate) whole matches upside down on the ceiling above her bed. She pops a few of her favorite pills, which are never specifically named, maybe has a drink or two, and then she lies down and watches as the shadowy game unfolds above her.
The Queen’s Gambit is based on a novel by Walter Tevis, who passed away in 1984. It’s a shame he didn’t live to see the adaptation, because Netflix has done his book justice. There’s real emotion and drama here. Beth Harmon is a fascinating character, and though she’s entirely fictional, she and her world are so fully realized you might mistake her for an actual public figure. The show drips with passion and lust. It’s incredibly sexy at times. Imagine making chess sexy.
How rare is it to find someone who burns for something, anything, as much as Beth burns for chess? Mastering the game, explosive, sometimes cold, almost always calculated, but there’s a beating heart inside her, a need for appreciation, recognition, for someone to love and understand her. Even those closest to her see her as an enigma. So incredibly young, stunningly beautiful, dressed in the most Chic fashions of the time. A genius, absolutely. But always at a distance, just beyond everyone’s reach, right where she likes it.
Drug addiction adds an interesting element to The Queen’s Gambit. Self-destruction, it seems, can be as seductive as a tender kiss. Even if the acting weren’t top notch across the board (and it is), the fascination, drama, and blind ambition emanating from Tevis’ narrative is stunning. If you were as determined to become the greatest chess master of all time, you might develop a drug problem, too. Then again, maybe you wouldn’t. Beth Harmon comes from tragedy, and it follows her wherever she goes. Adopted by a married couple whose relationship was on the rocks to begin with, she learns from a very early age the only way to get by in this world is to commit to personal freedom and absolute autonomy. She drinks, she pops pills, but the ultimate question of what it all costs comes down to this: if genius and madness go hand-in-hand, when does the ride stop? Where must the line be drawn?
We’re never really sure Beth Harmon receives the answers to these questions. The Queen’s Gambit is an unexpectedly charming, gripping, and seductive limited series all fans of excellent storytelling need to stream immediately.
Jeff’s Movie Reviews gives it a Nine out of Ten.
I think that’s checkmate, everyone.
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
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