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The Queen’s Gambit •••••

Greg Scott
The Queen’s Gambit

The Queen’s Gambit

The Queen’s Gambit

(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, Netflix has apparently released a miniseries about the Royal Family.

Haha, Scott… No, it’s a story about a female chess genius in the 1960s, let’s recap:

Greg, The Queen’s Gambit is one of those miniseries that shouldn’t work but somehow does. What could be less exciting than watching two people sit at a table silently playing a board game that most of us don’t really understand?

The key to any story’s success lies in its creative faithfulness to the mythic hero’s journey. I emphasize “creative” because we know that the pattern of the journey can be predictable unless we are thrown some curves and surprises along the way. The Queen’s Gambit manages to do just that. It delights us with some unexpected twists and turns in the life of Beth Harmon, a child chess prodigy who shocks the world by rising to the top of a man’s game, and in a man’s world.

We are introduced to a young Beth Harmon who is recently orphaned. It is the early 1960s and her mother has an automobile accident leaving Beth by the side of the road. She’s brought to an orphanage where she is treated, let’s say, less than warmly. She befriends an older girl who understands the ways of the orphanage. And stumbles upon an old janitor who is playing chess against himself.

Having never seen chess she’s curious about the game and requests that the man teach her which he denies. She keeps returning and ultimately the man recognizes her genius and takes her on as his student. And thus begins a classic mentor mentee hero’s journey that starts in a small Kentucky town and eventually ends up in Russia. Our young ingénue grows into a fashionable and beautiful young woman who masters the chess world.

Beth Harmon’s amazing life teaches us that progress along the hero’s journey is rarely linear. In her first-ever chess tournament, Beth wins the Kentucky State Championships and other lucrative events. She appears unstoppable until she encounters the brilliant Benny Watts, the defending US Champion. Benny defeats her at the US Open, which humbles our young hero. Even worse are her first two matches with the Soviet world champion Vasily Borgov, both of which end in humiliating defeat for Beth.

Our hero may be intuitively gifted at chess but she needs additional training. Two of her male adversaries offer to help train her, beginning with Harry Beltik, a former Kentucky state champ, followed by Benny Watts himself. These guys help Beth realize that to defeat Borgov, she has to study chess strategy, famous past games, and advanced Soviet-style chess. Beth does defeat Benny at the next US Open, but will she be ready for Borgov at the 1968 Moscow Invitational?

Meanwhile, The Queen’s Gambit delves into Beth Harmon’s personal life. As if being orphaned as a young girl wasn’t enough suffering, Beth’s adopted father abandons the family and her adopted mother drinks herself to death. Beth is left alone and financially challenged. Worse yet, Beth struggles with her own addiction to alcohol and tranquilizers. Her deep wounds leave her unable to enjoy intimate relationships, and the one man she clicks with the most, Townes, turns out to be gay. Beth’s personal life is in turmoil and it’s interfering with her chess life.

So we have a classic set-up for a hero on her journey. Our hero Beth has explosive talent but is her own worst enemy. She attracts men but sabotages her relationships with them. She has more innate chess talent than anyone but doesn’t recognize that her intuitive playing style isn’t enough to become the world champion. She knows she’s a great player but she believes (falsely) that her ability to envision the winning moves on the ceiling is dependent on her being medicated. The Queen’s Gambit gives us a remarkable hero with remarkable obstacles to overcome.

As our story begins, we meet young Beth (Isla Johnston) as a nine-year-old child at the scene of a car crash which kills her mother. She’s taken to an orphanage (they assume the father is previously dead) where she’s given a nice cot and meets the folks who will be taking care of her as well as some other orphans – one in particular is Jolene (Moses Ingram).

This is a classic hero’s journey. Jolene is Beth’s first ally. Jolene explains that the pills she’s given will make her “feel good” and not to overuse them. Jolene also notices the effects of withdrawal when Beth stops taking the pills, and explains that as older children, they’re likely “lifers” at the orphanage. Jolene is the “expositioner.”

This is an interesting device since we’re actually being introduced to Beth’s Ordinary World by showing her walking into a new situation after having lost her mother (notice how often heroes are orphans – especially in Disney tales). We see this displacement often in storytelling – it creates a fish out of water effect. Mind you, this is not the Special World of the story – but just the baseline world our story is taking place in. By having Beth enter a new situation in the opening of the story, she needs Jolene to explain everything to her – and to the viewers as well. Soon, Beth will cross over into the actual Special World of competitive chess.

We also see a bit of foreshadowing in the form of the drugs the orphanage staff feed the children. All the children are given green pills (the same green pills we see in the opening scene of episode one).

Next, we’re treated to a flashback as Beth remembers her mother burning books and pictures after her father tries to convince mother Mary to come home with him. We see Beth clutch her mother’s bound dissertation on mathematics. Then, we see tear-streaked Mary looking in the car’s rear view mirror saying “I’m sorry” to this younger Beth.

This is classic backstory exposition. It implies mother Mary is a math genius and that she may have some emotional or mental health issues – possibly setting up the mystery of how the accident occurred. Both of these are foreshadowings of Beth’s drug abuse and genius-level chess abilities.

Beth is given the task of cleaning the teacher’s erasers and goes to the basement to do so. There, she sees the janitor Mr. Shaibel playing chess alone. Beth has never seen chess and demands to be told what it is – Shaibel refuses and sends her away.

This is the “Call to Adventure” – the chess board is reaching out to Beth and capturing her interest. It’s also a “call” to the mentor. And in a twist to the classic monomyth, it is the mentor who refuses the call to adventure. He sends the hero away. And she must return to make the mentor take up the challenge to train her.

That night, we see Beth wrestling with her thoughts and she takes some of the green pills she’s been palming. While in bed she imagines the chess board on the ceiling. The next day she returns to Shaibel’s basement and explains that she understood what she saw (this piece moves like this, that one like that. “You learned all that from watching me?”) and now the mentor is interested. Shaibel gruffly allows her to sit at the board and he begins playing her – but he always plays the white pieces. Eventually, he gives her his personal copy of “Modern Chess Openings” and allows her to alternate playing both black and white pieces.

Beth has become indoctrinated into competitive chess and Shaibel has recognized her genius. He accepts her as an apt pupil and comes to realize she is worthy of his mentorship. As mentors do, he is passing on his wisdom and gives her a personal gift that will allow her to traverse the Special World. (Compare this to Obi Wan Kenobi’s gift of the lightsaber to Luke Skywalker and taking Luke on as a student of the Jedi way.)

We’re also seeing something terribly important, subtle, and necessary in this story – the education of the audience in chess terminology. In order for the viewer to understand how gifted Beth is, we must be told enough about the game so that we can appreciate it when Beth does well – or perhaps later when she fails.

Note that one of the openings Shaibel teaches Beth is the titular Queen’s Gambit. I have no doubt we’ll see this mentioned again and it will likely be critical to the story’s climax (see Chekov’s Gun).

In the final scene, Beth is watching a movie with her fellow orphans and sneaks away to steal a screwdriver from Shaibel’s toolbox. She unscrews the lock to the infirmary and takes a giant jar of the green tranquilizer pills. She gulps down a handful of them. As she turns to escape with the jar in her arms, her teachers and friends all find her standing on the chair caught red-handed. She succumbs to the overdose of pills muttering “Mom?” as she passes out and falls to the floor, dropping the jar which shatters and floods the room with the pills.

This scene does double-duty. It exposes Beth’s missing inner qualities – drug addiction and the loss of her mother – and provides a cliffhanger so we’ll tune in next week.

Beth’s missing inner qualities of Beth’s are the true essence of this story. Beth will have an outer journey as she becomes a chess master. But she will also have an inner journey as she overcomes her drug addiction and comes to grips with her tragic loss. Hero’s journeys are always two-pronged: the outer tangible goal and the missing inner quality. The hero may or may not achieve the outer goal, it really doesn’t matter. But for the audience to achieve catharsis, the inner missing quality must be resolved.

Greg, for me this “two-pronged” conceptualization of the hero’s journey is not quite the right metaphor. I prefer to look at the outer hero’s journey and the inner hero’s journey to be akin to two train cars. Usually, the inner journey must be completed before success on the outer journey can be achieved. That’s what happens in The Queen’s Gambit — Beth has to get her shit together before she can become the world chess champion.

Sometimes, however, success on the outer journey precedes success on the inner journey. That is, people sometimes do something heroic and this heroic action is the impetus for inner change. An article by Kendall Bronk and Brian Riches in the Handbook of Heroism and Heroic Leadership describes how at times the outer journey train car pulls the inner journey car, and at times it is the reverse. I think this is really fascinating, as it says something profound about how our own personal growth can be driven by either inner dispositional change or outer behavioral change. We should write a book about this.

But I digress. Beth Harmon’s innate chess brilliance isn’t enough for her to succeed. She has to first become her best, most heroic self in ways that have nothing to do with chess. For her, that means overcoming so many of the attributes of her life that make her one of the most striking underdogs in storytelling history. As Beth enters the chess world, she is twice-orphaned, poor, emotionally damaged, addicted to drugs, a female operating in a male-dominated world, and an American playing a game dominated by the Soviets. All these things working against Beth make her success all the more satisfying.

The Queen’s Gambit wisely takes seven episodes to show us all of Beth’s stumbling blocks and how much suffering she must experience before she can become the kind of person who can defeat Borgov for the world championship. It’s a remarkable journey, and for that reason I award the full 5 Reels out of 5 to this miniseries. And because Beth shows such superb resilience and growth as a person, I award her the full 5 out of 5 Hero points as well.

I think you’ve uncovered a great secret to good storytelling – that the inner journey dictates the success (or failure) of the outer journey. And, in fact, we see time after time that Beth can succeed in the world of chess, but the cost could be her immortal soul – or at least her sanity. Thanks to additional good mentoring from her friends in the chess community – all men – she understands, and humbles herself to reach out to them for help and support during her final chess match.

However, I have played competitive chess in my checkered [sic] past, and I take issue with a lot of what happens to Harmon. Firstly, and most importantly, professional chess is incredibly competitive. There is no motivation for any chess master to help another. It would be like Tiger Woods training someone to beat him at golf. While he might be friendly with other golfers, he certainly would not want to help them beat him. Chess is no different. Yet time and again we see her peers – her opponents – give her unsolicited advice. I just don’t see that happening.

Next, the show makes a BIG HUGE deal about “The Queen’s Gambit” – but then never uses it in the payoff. Another problem I have is that they never demonstrate the cruel and unusual psychological battles between chess players before, during, and after the match. Bobby Fischer was well-known for his antics. Also, adjournments (which are now never used) are completely unnecessary with timed games. Each player has a set amount of time to play and there is no need for adjournments. But, we had to have the scene where Harmon reaches out to her boys for support. So… you know, adjournment was a plot point. And… I cannot imagine grizzled Russion chess masters welcoming Harmon into the fold upon her success. On the contrary – these men were raised by the State to win. They would have hated young, beautiful, gifted, American Harmon.

And there’s the Christmas scene where Harmon and a friend are bragging about their wins in the hotel hallway. If there’s anything I can’t stand it’s – chess nuts boasting over an open foyer.

Overall, I was enchanted and engaged. Despite my own chess background, I found the chess world Harmon competed in was realistic. Harmon herself walks a very bold hero’s journey. I give “The Queen’s Gambit” 5 out of 5 Reels, and Beth Harmon 5 out of 5 Heroes.

Greg Scott
The Queen’s Gambit

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