The Genius of Chess and The Life Moves We Make
-- by Larry Greenfield
The very popular 7-part mini-series on Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit, (2020) is the latest in a reputable line of enjoyable chess movies and documentaries. With its own layered strategy and clever moves, it has quickly become the grandmaster of them all.
Until now, the reigning champion chess film has been Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) whose title is a nod to the most fascinating American player of all-time, who not only revolutionized and popularized chess in the USA, but became the world’s best player and a controversial global personality.
Fischer was a child prodigy whose youthful accomplishments were legendary, as were his lifelong antics and long disappearances from the public. An elite genius in his sport, he eventually became estranged both from the chess world and from his home country as well.
Fischer was opinionated and possibly on the edge of the mental spectrum, and that’s unsurprising. For those who become the greatest musicians, artists, writers, and chess players often have unnatural talent and uniquely ambitious drive that is sometimes fueled by either demons or psychoses.
Psychiatric studies confirm the understanding since antiquity that creativity can be associated with major mental disorders. The ancient Greeks considered geniuses as “having been touched by the gods.” Aristotle stated “there is no genius without having a touch of madness.”
It was therefore quite moving for audiences to enjoy Searching for Bobby Fischer, as our charming young chess hero (Joshua Waitzkin) was actually a very sweet boy who wanted not to disappoint his father or coaches, nor to see his opponents feeling's hurt when they lost to him (he offered a draw to his first major rival in the Under 10 Year Old championship game, confirming his mother’s blessing that his greatest gift is his goodness).
In real life Waitzkin grew up to maintain a well-grounded life of diverse pursuits. His website states:
"One thing I have learned as a competitor is that there is a clear distinction between what it takes to be decent, what it takes to be good, what it takes to be great and what it takes to be among the best..."
Enter now the fictional TV character of the 1983 novel, The Queen’s Gambit, "Beth Harmon," an orphaned child in Kentucky, (played with smooth transition by Annabeth Kelly, Isla Johnston, and then, in a fascinating portrayal, by Anya Taylor-Joy).
The sets, music, and vibe is vintage 1960’s. The directing captures the cool innocence and burgeoning excitement of an emerging modern culture. The magic of the 1960’s is that after World War II, America was bursting with energy, even cultural and social revolution, but it was not yet post-modern, alienating, cynical, or over - run by technology.
Change wasn’t primarily scientific. It was attitudinal. The 60’s was the cool and colorful era of sex, drugs, and rock ’n roll. And our hero here is a young female in a chess world dominated by males, giving the drama its special panache as she somewhat reluctantly represents the women’s rights movement, preferring to be admired as a great player, not a female player.
The story begins with a very young Beth, newly orphaned, arriving to a Kentucky state institution and befriending an older, savvier black girl, who explains that many of the children will not likely be adopted and rescued. The orphanage isn’t torture, but it’s not always pleasant, and the kids are given tranquilizers to keep them calm (later disapproved by the state).
Beth Harmon sneakily takes her medicine at night, sometimes in bunches, and begins to escape her traumas in what becomes a long - term addiction to drugs and alcohol. But she also befriends a lonely janitor, who reluctantly but then sincerely teaches her how to play chess in the school basement.
Beth is a natural, and she practices moves in her head at night as the mind-altering tranquilizers allow her to concentrate and visualize chess games on the ceiling above her bed.
She quickly becomes dominant in her early games against the area schoolchildren she is invited to play in chess clubs and tournaments.
She is then released from the orphanage when she is adopted by a dysfunctional couple — a long-depressed alcoholic wife and a disengaged husband who, having secured for his wife her new “daughter,” promptly abandons them both.
The replacement mother is an interesting character. She offers love and support, although she also benefits from her new travel partner and Beth’s earnings from chess tournaments. Beth is now suddenly twice orphaned, as her “second” mother also passes away, and her psychological drama deepens. Is she traumatized, angry, or emboldened?
As Beth rises in the world of chess, her sheltered innocence gives way to the normal cultural influences that entice teens and to the choices we all must make as young adults.
To its great credit, the well developed drama of Beth’s childhood is matched by the storytelling of Beth’s growing relationships with her competitors and friends in the chess world as she matures. This is a case where the TV series benefitted by the original book’s great depth of writing.
The heart and soul of the story remains Beth’s pursuit of the great white Russian, the legendary Soviet world champion Vasily Borgov. To enjoy the last 3 episodes is to revel in Cold War era sports. Think Fischer vs. Spassky meets The Olympic Miracle on Ice meets Rocky IV vs. Drago! This is classic sports entertainment.
Finally, at the philosophical level, it’s clear that chess movies share common athletic explorations.
Can one learn and train to be the best at chess — or does it take a special gift, a genius, that cannot be taught?
Can competitors remain decent human beings as they rise from child prodigy to international champion, and even help each other along the way? Chess is an unusual sport — built into its rules and strategies are not only winning and losing, but the frequent draw as well. Players are on their own, and they have a lot of critical decisions to make, lessons to learn, and opportunities for growth and regression.
Though Bobby Fischer grew dissatisfied with the game, suggesting that modern players were simply memorizing opening - moves strategy, with the help of computers, the long - running debates over chess theory and the influx of new players seems to have revived the charm of the game for the masses.
The series has received praise from critics and professional chess players alike, including several top - ranked female chess champions who have applauded the show’s chess accuracy and its apparent encouragement of young female players.
Sales of chess sets are also booming and the online gaming site Chess.com has reportedly welcomed millions of new users since the release of the Netflix series.
Got 7 free hours during the Covid pandemic? To enjoy the thrilling tale of a young lady competing at the highest levels of her sport, your best move is to tune into The Queen’s Gambit.
Guest contributor Larry Greenfield is a Fellow of The Claremont Institute who has morphed from innocent boyhood SoCal sports fan to cynical Las Vegas sports observer. Greenfield can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Other articles by Larry Greenfield: