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The Misunderstood Phenomenon of The Queen’s Gambit

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon (photo: Netflix)

By Stephen Volan

for the December 2020 issue of The Ryder magazine

[Note: This article differs from the published original, having been slightly edited by the author for clarity.]

One of the most talked-about new television shows in the unruly year of 2020 is the surprise hit series The Queen’s Gambit, released in October to strong reviews and rapturous public embrace. Netflix reported that by the end of November, 62 million accounts watched its new show about the fictional 1960s chess savant Beth Harmon, setting a record on that platform for a limited series in its first four weeks. (Only Tiger King has drawn more viewers to Netflix, echoing the profound weirdness of the times.) The New York Times reported that people simply watching live chess matches on the live-game-streaming platform Twitch has almost doubled in that same period, and sales of chess sets across the country have more than doubled.

The book of the same name took a surprising amount of time to get made into some kind of motion picture, considering its pedigree. Walter Tevis, who died the year after its publication in 1983, also wrote The Hustler and The Color of Money, both made into well-regarded films. The closest it came to realization was a quarter of a century later, when Heath Ledger, a chess enthusiast, was working on adapting the book into a film to star Elliot Page before his transition, with the eventual Netflix show producer and co-writer Allan Scott. Ledger intended not only to appear in but to make his directorial debut with the film before his untimely death in 2008.

The seven-part period drama deftly weaves together addiction, mental illness, and the obscure world of chess with a spot-on period fashion and music sense. Hovering over it all is the bravura performance of Anya Taylor-Joy as the protagonist in what is at once bildungsroman and fantasy, meticulous in its recreation of mid-century modern personal style while imagining a woman rocketing to the top of the chess world, a world which was and continues to be almost exclusively male.

Many aspects of The Queen’s Gambit have inspired full-length commentaries. The quality of the performance of chess — the way characters behave at or around a chessboard — has received a lot of attention, as has the depiction of Beth’s make-up evolution (which deserves Emmy and Golden Globe recognition). A frequent critique, if not criticism, of the show is that it’s full of Chekhov’s Guns that never go off: The matron running the orphanage is not cruel or evil. No male figures who are in prime situations to be depraved turn out to be — the janitor Mr. Shaibel, the high school coach who offers to take her to his chess club, the new stepfather who eyes his newly adopted daughter through his rearview mirror. There are no sinister acts, or even villains. Beth is her own worst enemy; she overcomes her demons to win the final game and the day, and lives happily ever after.

The Guardian has attempted to explain the show’s success by noting that it was an “uncomplicated pleasure” of “grade-A escapism,” additionally well-served by its release right before the referendum election on Donald Trump;the show serves as “a soothing portal into another world which believes in talent as the one invincible currency” — the earnest wish of the majority in 2020 who’d had enough of the “family-business” approach to governance. The LA Review of Books expressed this critique most harshly: that the show is no less a tranquilizer than the ones Beth becomes addicted to, and that indulging in it will lead to similar depths for the rest of us.

These criticisms may have validity, but are at best misguided. There is a greater value to the show than they would grant, or indeed may even have noticed, and there is more significant criticism with which to confront the series. The depiction of chess, for example, is of very high quality, but makes a literally glaring error. Beth’s behavior is not as inexplicable as the average reviewer asserts, but the explanation is anachronistic and, like Beth’s emotions themselves, not entirely self-evident. And the standard criticism that Jolene, the sole Black major character, who when she reappears as an adult is another example of the Hollywood “Magical Negro” archetype-as-caricature obscures a more piquant criticism hiding in plain sight, of a more important opportunity missed.

Its Portrayal of Chess: Great, Yet Flawed

Chess players, like those in any sphere of specialty, scrutinize any fictive rendering of their beloved pastime for accuracy. Chess is, after all, not just a game, but for many, a passion; all too often, the chessboard isn’t set up properly or is used absurdly — for aficionados, the functional equivalent of nails being dragged across a black-and-white, sixty-four-square chalkboard. Much has been made of the fact that The Queen’s Gambit, in locating itself in the high-wire world of professional chess, has choreographed its matches with such informed care and accuracy as to make them the most sublime set of scripted chess contests yet performed: with realism that, if lost on laymen, pros cannot help but esteem. The games were played or designed by grandmasters; the actors largely behave as real chess players would; the chess sets (including the final Soviet-Latvian-style set used in Moscow), the clocks (particularly the charming see-saw clock used in Mexico City), and the tournaments’ atmospheres (whether dingy or luxurious) all sharply observed. Other small facets shine. Chess Review was a real magazine. The high school coach introduces Beth to picking who plays first by grabbing a pawn of each color, mixing them under the table and hiding one in each fist for her to choose from. The chess in the series is meticulously rendered.

Consider one blink-and-you-miss-it moment in Episode 2: in the second-round game of Beth’s first tournament, Beth points out bluntly, “That’s check.” Chess players don’t usually say “check’ because it should be obvious; they only say it when the other player attempts to make a move that doesn’t get their king out of check. Her opponent, Cooke, rated a modest but competent 1520, takes it as the insult that it is, however inadvertent: “I know what it is.” Beth is still learning the social niceties.

Yet the chess behavior is not perfect. After her check, Cooke immediately recognizes that his position is untenable, and weaselly asks for a draw. She looks to Townes, who’s watching, for confidence to decide. Both Harmon and Townes should have known better. Beth has just beaten a roomful of high school boys in a simultaneous exhibition; she should know whether or not to accept a draw without having to look for advice, especially because she was up a queen which she sacrificed to get the mate. Townes, rated 1724 and portrayed as an upstanding player (placed fifth in Las Vegas, head of his college’s chess team), really shouldn’t have made any motion to her at all; kibitzing — commenting on a chess match within earshot of the players — let alone actually advising a player in a tournament game, is unethical and strictly verboten. Later, Beltik (Harry Melling, grown-up from playing Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter movies) wins with a back-rank checkmate, which his 1800-rated opponent Cohen, who is promoted as one of the top players at the tournament, would have seen coming — and should have resigned before allowing Beltik to actually play it. 

To the uninitiated, these may all be subtleties and arcana, but the showrunners could have made better choices with very little effort while still keeping the narrative taut. The very point of the game of chess itself suffers from a halting introduction in the first episode. Mr. Shaibel invites Beth to play, then promptly beats her with Scholar’s Mate, the second-shortest possible game of chess (for those of you scoring at home, 1. e4 e5 2. Bc4 Nc6 3. Qf3 Nd4 4. Qxf7#). Leaving aside the contempt it showed toward a girl who said she’d learned solely by watching and wished to be taught all the rules, he barely explains the word “mate.” How is she supposed to know that it’s short for “checkmate,” or that it’s the object of the game? Her confusion at that moment would be anyone’s.

One of the most distracting and damning shortcomings in the portrayal of any chess competition is that, in too many tournament games, the players play— well, the technical term for it is “way too fucking fast.” Often what’s supposed to be a two-hour-per-player game looks not much slower than the speed chess Beth plays later with Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, grown up from playing Liam Neeson’s airport-running son in Love, Actually). In his game with Beth, Townes’ final move of the rook — which she’s been “humiliating” — he makes in only ten seconds, to a square where, without pause, she knight-forks his rook and king, which causes him to gracefully resign. She may have been flirting with him in her primitive way, but as comely as she may have been at 15, Townes, having just met her and being portrayed as respectful of her presence there, would not have been so quick to capitulate. In her final-episode second game in Moscow, Beth and her opponent are deep in the middlegame, yet moving as fast as if the clock had just been started. While it certainly makes for dynamic television, the speed at which the showrunners have players play is often so distracting in its unconvincingness to someone who’s played tournament chess that, like the old fast food commercial, one wishes Roy Rogers was there to say, “Slow down.” This is one of the very few, but nonetheless very real, flaws of The Queen’s Gambit.

Another annoying tic that can’t be unseen is Beth’s habit of looking, often searchingly, at her opponents. Chess players just don’t do this. For one thing, there is an element of poker in chess. One does not want the other to know when they are unsure of a move, nervous, indignant; staring at an opponent’s face is likewise not going to reveal their intent. The chessboard in turn is inherently riveting — there’s so much happening on it to think about that it compels all who behold it. Even if eye contact is made in victory, in real-world chess one doesn’t often behold a scene like Beth locking eyes with the bested Shaibel. “You’re gloating,” he says, which, in her ignorance, she truthfully denies. She looks for intent at the beginning of her game against Beltik; they stare at each other when she starts winning. When she plays the young Girev in Mexico City, the look of impatient indignation on her face is a tell. Every move some opponents make causes Beth to visibly react: sulking, looks of defeat, regret. She often sulks. Players of her caliber don’t do that if they have had any tournament experience. If they wanted to show her emoting, they might have had the camera coming up from as if it were inside the board, or perhaps from a spycam in the king’s crown. 

In the final game at last, neither Harmon nor Borgov looks at the other, except furtively, once in a while. They are consumed, as they should be, with the position on the board. When Borgov adjourns, he walks away impassively. This is the way competition should have been depicted throughout.

The Refreshing Unreality of Beth’s Meteoric Rise

From the perspective of the broader chess community, the show’s primary character arc — a woman beating the world champion in the 1960s – is as implausible as Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel: anachronistic at best, unrealistic at worst. The closest real-world analog to the achievement of Beth Harmon was so-called “women’s chess champion” Nona Gaprindashvili, name-checked in the final episode as “never having faced men” when she was, in fact, competitive at the highest levels of chess for decades. She simply wasn’t as dramatically successful as Harmon.

In 1978 the Georgian became the world’s first woman to earn the title of Grandmaster, which one can only earn by defeating other grandmasters. Beth’s climactic achievement — a woman defeating the reigning world chess champion in a game for the first time — was depicted as happening in 1969. Well, what’s a little wishful fictive revisionism in the name of inspiration: in real life, this wouldn’t happen for another thirty-three years, when Judit Polgár defeated Garry Kasparov in 2002. Fifteen years earlier, the famously dismissive Kasparov, in high sexist dudgeon, called Polgár a “circus puppet,” adding that women chess players should stick to having children, and similarly sneered in his 1987 autobiography that the very idea of a woman ever becoming world champion “exists only in fiction.” Whether this was a snide reference to Tevis’ novel or not, sexism not being an insurmountable hurdle in The Queen’s Gambit is why it’s almost possible to characterize the series as “fantasy” as opposed to “drama”. 

But, thankfully, it’s also the easiest element in the project for which to suspend disbelief. Tevis himself was probably tweaking another famous chess misogynist, as Beth’s career more closely tracks in history that of Bobby Fischer, who defeated Soviet Boris Spassky to become world champion in 1972. Fischer, who dismissed women as chess players to Harper’s magazine much like Kasparov did later, notoriously spiraled into mental illness whose flavor more than a little echoes that of Beth’s birth mother, Alice. Well, we can’t have a series about one of the most mentally-competitive pursuits in the world without dusting off and explicitly invoking that old genius-and-madness-in-chess trope (such as Nabokov’s The Defense, made into a movie featuring John Turturro) somewhere. It’s finally given voice in Episode 3 by one of Henry Luce’s many handmaidens-in-mythmaking-to-The-American-Century, a Life magazine reporter. Perhaps Beth’s uniquely gifted-and-talented lobes will also fate her to eventual and irrevocable madness along with the brilliance? The fifteen-year-old’s tragically-flawed but idiosyncratically-adoring adoptive mother Alma (played in an effective acting turn by A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood director Marielle Heller) politely but firmly sends the hack and her shooter packing. 

Kasparov, for one, eventually mellowed out, eating crow in 2017 by admitting his opinions about women in chess were wrong. Kasparov would become one of the two prime chess consultants for The Queen’s Gambit (and was even offered the part of the big bad impassive Russian champion Vasily Borgov, played to perfection by Polish actor Marcin Dorocinski). And Kasparov was the closest in age to Beth when he became the youngest person ever to win the world championship, at 22 in 1985. The other consultant, Bruce Pandolfini, is a New York City chess teacher notorious for being portrayed as a stern taskmaster by Ben Kingsley in 1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer. It’s hard to believe there were no female grandmasters available to call on.

Beth’s Hair as Castmate

A side note here about one of the most interesting aspects of the series: Beth Harmon’s hair. It is so important to the show that it is arguably a character unto itself, and the awards organizations ought to consider nominating it for Best Supporting Actor. A contrast to Beth’s reserved and clipped demeanor, her hair is loud and noticeable in a world of black and white; as Anya Taylor-Joy told Rotten Tomatoes, “I had a big part to play in…the way she was going to look. The first thing I said to Scott [Frank, director and screenwriter] was she needs to have red hair…because I wanted her to stick out like a sore thumb wherever she went.” Tevis’ original Beth character had brown hair, but both Frank and hair and makeup designer Daniel Parker independently came to the same conclusion about the character as Taylor-Joy.

Although chess is played with pieces that are black and white, the boards rarely, if ever, are black and white. The players need to be able to see the pieces easily, so boards are almost always off-white or wooden brown, with light-colored squares of cream or buff-yellow, and dark-colored squares rendered in forest green, navy blue, burgundy, or the like. In any case, they are colorful yet muted, so that the objects that matter — the pieces — stand out.

In The Queen’s Gambit, the world’s colors are muted and Beth stands out. She begins unusually — an orphan who survives a car wreck — and then stands out for her remarkable ability. By her teenage years, she stands out for her beauty as well. The red hair perfectly emphasizes her rarity. Once Alma teaches her how to harness and style it, Beth has no idea what a knockout effect she has on others. She can’t understand why she’s being singled out for her femininity, or why she stands out, and no one is there to explain it to her.

But her hair does do some real heavy lifting as an indication of how old the character is in a given scene. The straight-bangs cut she got at the orphanage makes Taylor-Joy’s Beth seem young and naive at fifteen. After the Life magazine story comes out, her bangs are longer, and there’s more style to her hair. Eventually she puts a flip into her red bob distinct enough to rival her fictional television contemporary Laura Petrie (Google her, kids), and Beth’s journey to womanhood is complete.

Alma also schools Beth on couture, and while one can certainly see this as unremarkable, not only is it a key metaphor for her character’s development, it can also be seen as a touch of feminist reclamation – if anyone in real life shared Beth’s penchant for designer labels, it was the young and obnoxious Bobby Fischer. Her wardrobe evolution from dowdy high-necked school dresses is stellar: She arrives in 1966 Las Vegas completely put together, in cropped jacket, form-fitting dress, and a smart do. By Episode 5, as she’s walking outside at the Ohio tournament in eye-catching hairband and that spectacular dark green mini-dress, it’s as if Daphne from Scooby-Doo had graduated from her usual Carnaby-Street purple outfit to something way more hip for the time. That night, Beth steps out to go get coffee with The Monkees’ criminally-underrated hit “Steppin’ Stone” blaring in the background, and the song choice here wasn’t made because The Queen’s Gambit music supervisor Randall Poster particularly digs Mickey Dolenz. In title and in lyrics (“the clothes you’re wearing, girl, are causing public scenes”), there are no truer words for the effect this incarnation of the ingenuous Beth has on those around her, if ironically so, as a skill-sharpening tournament scrub nudges another to look up from their boards as she walks by. Little do they know — indeed, little does she know, or intend — that stepping stones are what most boys are to her, on her path to professional victories and in her quest for self-understanding.

Many shots of Beth are her simply sitting and eating, drinking or reading – but in stylish, well-cut, neutral-colored outfits, all of which contrast her stunning red tresses. It’s all the more absorbing, then, to see her encounter at the local Lexington, Kentucky, department store — a far cry from the boutique clothiers and shoe stores Beth plunks cash down at in whatever exotic international city chess has taken her – a particularly wretched tormentor from her past. Margaret, the Apple Pi club-meeting host who was quick to mock her in high school, now totes a baby stroller with a bag of liquor in the bottom, and sports a fleetingly-fashionable hat that might double as a janitor’s mop. One can’t help but revel in this moment of quiet comeuppance, not just for the belated triumph over a bully, but as rite-of-passage moment where Beth appreciates how farshe’s come from her provincial upbringing. Beth, in her exceptional, uneasy uniqueness, was always destined for something beyond the drink-soothed imagination of Margaret, a reminder of a bullet dodged. (Beth, of course, has her own alcohol habit that will confront her soon enough, but recognizes the cautionary tale when it presents itself.) 

By Moscow, she’s not unaccompanied, because her hair has come with her as her second. That stellar diamond-black-and-white dress at the first game, the green turtleneck she wears dining alone in the Russian cafeteria, and finally, emerging victorious in the white coat, black turtleneck and white beret and gloves, Beth is a queen resplendent when she is surrounded by Shaibels in the Moscow park. It wouldn’t have worked with any other hair color.

A Woman on the Autism Spectrum Before Its Time

How should we categorize the character of Beth Harmon? Is there a model that explains her antics?

Is Beth a Manic Pixie Dream Girl (MPDG)? She checks [sic] all the boxes: she’s a young woman (Girl, check) who turns heads everywhere she goes while being a wunderkind talent (Dream, check), she is gamine like Audrey Hepburn (Pixie, check), and she has a history of mental illness in her family and acts oddly herself (Manic, check).

But a man would never be the protagonist of a show called The Queen’s Gambit unless it had no apostrophe and was set in Long Island City, and even then. Beth, meanwhile, is not the center of this show, nor present in any situation in it, for a man’s sake. If anything, men come to her, while Beth comes to chess.

The one man she most wanted as her love, Townes, was, both Beth and the audience discover when his “roommate” Roger walks in, gay, if bi-curious. (Talk about Chekhovian misfires.) From other men she slept with, she moved on almost immediately, once she had learned what she needed to know. She is exactly an MPDG to Beltik — by Episode 5, because they’re on a first-name basis, Harry — who is staying in her house at her invitation. Her MPDG turn occurs when he goes to the bathroom to berate himself for botching his clumsy romantic overtures; he comes back out to find Beth swinging to Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” sexy and unselfconscious. He is utterly entranced. She is oblivious: she does not recognize the effect she has on him. She just likes the music and is living her life. He later realizes that she likes him, but she loves chess — she loves it more than he does, and more than she loves him.

Is Beth supposed to be the stand-in for a famous chess master? Bobby Fischer is not mentioned in the series because ostensibly Beth’s character arc parallels his, and much has been made of the comparison. Harry in turn compares her to the 19th-century chess genius Paul Morphy, and there are parallels there too; both Fischer and Morphy were narrowly interested in chess, and after peaking young, both went downhill mentally soon after. (“The pride and sorrow of chess,” Harry half-explains, half-laments, to Beth about Morphy.)

What’s missing is the concept that didn’t exist in the United States until well after the events of the series, and what neatly explains so much: Beth Harmon is a clear case of a woman on the autism spectrum.

Most of Beth’s behavior is consistent with what used to be called Asperger’s Syndrome and which has since been folded into the “high-functioning” realm of autism spectrum disorders. Asperger’s work explained that autism was not simply a profound developmental disability affecting only children, but had a wide variety of manifestations from extreme to modest. (It also turns out that he colluded with the Nazi regime in Austria to label affected children as “genetically inferior,” effectively signing the death warrant of hundreds, which may have been why his work did not see the light of day in the English-speaking world until 1981.) It has also taken decades to get people past the Rain Man stereotype of the late 1980s and to see adults on the autism spectrum as capable of conforming to neurotypical society.

Author Val Neil nailed the character of Beth Harmon a week after the series’ release as “accidentally autistic”:

It’s not any one thing, but a multitude of small things. Beth is intelligent, socially awkward, and often seemingly distant. She’s reserved and you get a sense that she’s evaluating her words before speaking. When she does speak off-the-cuff, it’s obvious she’s not saying what is expected of someone her age and gender. It would be easy to chalk up her behavior to the loss of her mother, but even there, she doesn’t react in a typical way. Standing beside the car crash which had just taken her mother’s life — a crash she herself survived — Beth’s non-reaction is striking. It’s clear to any autistic watching that she’s having a shutdown, which is an internalized version of a meltdown. ‘Sure, anyone would be upset in that situation,’ you might say. Yes, but it doesn’t stop there.

People on the autism spectrum display a variety of behavioral traits: narrow but often tremendous skills or abilities; speaking with flat affect; a limited, Spock-like expression of emotion, even when looking directly at someone (which is often difficult for them); an inability to engage in “small talk”; a high intolerance for injustice or disorder; perseverative (exceptionally repetitive or obsessive) interests; a lack of executive function (the ability to initiate actions or interactions). People on the spectrum tend to be technically brilliant and socially awkward. Women are diagnosed far less often than men, in part because girls are frog-marched into the World of the Social long before boys are required (in theory, anyway) to stop playing with sticks and stones, moving fast and breaking things; girls are shown ways to conform at an earlier age, as often as not for sexist reasons. But unlike the societal recalcitrance to integrate boys on the spectrum that usually abets the halting nature of their social development, even amongst Mean Girls the social mores of young womanhood are almost like an emotional Head Start, allowing girls on the spectrum to integrate faster, easier and better into society. 

Fischer infamously displayed many of the spectrum’s tendencies, including an inability to make friends or find things to do other than chess, along with a nasty penchant for perseverating on conspiracies about Jews. And while there’s no record of racist outbursts or the like, it’s probable that the great Morphy was on the spectrum, and thus woefully misunderstood. From Edward Winter’s 1926 biography:

Now we come to the room which Paul Morphy occupied, and which was separated from his mother’s by a narrow hall. Morphy’s room was always kept in perfect order, for he was very particular and neat, yet this room had a peculiar aspect and at once struck the visitor as such, for Morphy had a dozen or more pairs of shoes of all kinds which he insisted in keeping arranged in a semi-circle in the middle of the room, explaining with his sarcastic smile that in this way, he could at once lay his hands on the particular pair he desired to wear. In a huge porte-manteau he kept all his clothes which were at all times neatly pressed and creased.

In the show’s fantasy scenario, everything happens the way it would in an enlightened world for someone with a high-functioning disability. Why didn’t Beth go crazy like Morphy or Fischer? Because there were no villains, and people didn’t leave her alone to fend for herself. Not just because she was pretty, but because she was also a decent person. She got support in ways that Morphy and Fischer didn’t. The Russians similarly are successful because they work together, without rancor or intimations of ideology. 

Beth eventually gets help from everyone, not just Jolene (more on her below) — plenty of characters are there to advance the plot (Annette Packer, e.g.) by providing a note of encouragement at just the right time. The boys eventually band together to help Beth. Beth is never mean, or angry; she’s too unsure to be that. And she’s lived through the trauma of orphanhood and her mother’s death. Even so, Beth’s impulse is to keep to herself, and to focus on the one activity she likes to do more than anything else. Chess makes her feel safe because it demands a minimal amount of socializing, so she isn’t mystified as to how to control or manage it. One might even go so far as to say that chess itself is autistic: It’s not sensitive to one’s emotions. It can be emotionally brutal to one’s injured sense of intellect. But it’s not intentionally cruel, just oblivious.

Autism is hereditary in a more dominant way than schizophrenia, too, and in this sense, Beth was an apple that didn’t fall too far from the tree. Her birth mother is the one who better fits the accusation of “mad genius.” In the early fifties, Alice held a PhD in math from Cornell, and at a time when fewer than 1000 American women a year earned a doctorate (a rate eight times less than that of men). She probably had an affair as a grad student, with her precious bundle of joy arriving in 1948 – not the most enlightened time to be a working mom with a baby out of wedlock, especially if your work was math. She was a rare intellect, but couldn’t solve How to Interact with People like a math problem, or the problem of The Married Man Who Fathered Her Child But Spurned Her, perhaps because of reactions she displayed that today even a layperson would recognize as schizophrenia — in the Leave It To Beaver / Dragnet era of the fifties would just be considered bat-shit crazy, perhaps frighteningly so. None of which would help make solving the conundrum of humans less difficult. 

The orphaned young Beth (Isla Johnston) finishes her schoolwork, and her chess games, early. She doesn’t like dolls and barely knows how to fake a smile. While she’s getting guidance from Mr. Shaibel on the Levenfish and Najdorf variations of the Sicilian Defense, no one’s there to guide her on the appropriate use of the word “cocksucker,” or to explain the phenomenon of teenagers across the schoolyard courting and necking. Chess and the Social can be two impenetrable subjects, but most people find only the former so; for Beth, the Blackmar-Diemer Gambit or the Hedgehog Defense are infinitely easier to understand and execute, and far less terrifying, than, say, flirting, or even saying “Hello” in the right tone and register. If anything, the tranquilizers clear from her head the anxiety of trying to navigate the social world, allowing her brilliant brain to do the math of chess.

Once she finds a subject she likes, it’s all chess, all the time. Her first effort to socialize is to abruptly ask, “Is there a school chess club?” The only thing she expresses a desire for at first at the Ben Snyder department store is a chess set; the only books she wants in the school library are chess books. All she ever does is study chess! She learns Russian, but only because she knows her own Cold War is winnable, and that her path to victory lies in understanding the Mother of Grandmasters through their writings in Cyrillic. She is perfectly content to read nothing but chess books. What are you studying, asks Alma one day. “Pawn structure analysis.” Sounds exciting, says Alma. “It is,” says Beth, without a hint of irony or defensiveness. Borgov is right that she’s like the Russians — “losing is not an option for her. Otherwise, what would her life be?” But it’s not just because she’s “an orphan, a survivor” — it’s because she’s on the spectrum. 

Beth blurts out questions without introduction or pleasantries. The first thing she says to her mother upon arriving home one day is, “I’ve started menstruating.” (Alma, tacitly acknowledging that the girl in front of her was fifteen and not thirteen as the orphanage made her claim, says, “A bit late in the day for you, isn’t it?” Beth is completely at a loss to respond to this very social riposte.) She vainly attempts to get the attention of strangers by softly clearing her throat. In comparison, non-spectrum characters like the chess-playing Annette know how to introduce themselves and greet people with a peppy “Hi!”

Looking for money to underwrite her first competitive experience as well as achieve some simple acceptance in the world, Beth doesn’t understand why people like her stepmom would say things like, “The only girls of your age who work are colored!” She doesn’t understand innuendo (“I trade rooks all the time,” to laughter from the Apple Pis). She doesn’t get their sudden interest in music (“baby, you’re the one I love”). She’ll hang out and play, whether at poolside with the twins or on the town and in bed with Cleo, but it’s never her idea. She reacts to the world and its overtures.

The interview with the intrusive, projecting Life magazine reporter is a revelation. “You must’ve been very lonely,” she says, trying The Rapport-Building-Through-Empathy Gambit, but surprise! Journalist mind tricks don’t work on aspies, and when Beth says she’s fine being alone, there’s no doubt she means it. Beth gets asked about apophenia — the finding of patterns or meanings where there aren’t any — when that’s exactly what the perplexed reporter is trying to do with Beth. Making the mistake so many others have of doubling down on the Freudian in the hopes of breaking the interview bank, “Do you imagine,” she asks inanely, “that you saw the king as a father and the queen as a mother? I mean, one to attack, one to protect?” Beth puts it in proper perspective: “They’re just pieces. And anyway, it was the board I noticed first…it’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel…safe…in it. I can control it, I can dominate it. And it’s predictable. So if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.” It’s a perfect response from someone who today might be a member of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network, but it’s surprising the scribbler, working for a magazine then busy with draping the Mercury astronauts in candy-coated myth, doesn’t stroke out on the spot. 

Again and again, we see behavior consistent with someone whose approach to relationships is compromised not by character flaws, but by a communication disorder. Her suitor Harry is slowly humiliated by it. She invites him over immediately when he calls; she offhandedly compliments the look of his new capped teeth, and he is moved, because he came back looking for her ever since she appeared all grown-up on the cover of a magazine. They play chess by candlelight. When she invites him to move in, he kisses her. She’s startled: “I just wasn’t ready.” But she wants the company. “I’m ready now.” He pauses, confused by the mixed signals, and is given another one: “Now or never.” (Television hasn’t seen anything that so perfectly captures this dimension of the spectrum since Diane Kruger’s autistic detective Sonya Cross and her super-efficient cruise/pick-up/post-rapture dispensation of a guy at a bar in the first season of the underappreciated FX series The Bridge.) 

After sex? Beth pulls out a cigarette…and a chess book. Should Harry stay or go back to his room? “Whatever you want,” she says blithely, then goes back to reading. She puts no more stock in sex than any other experience; Harry thinks he’s in love, and is at a loss that she isn’t. Mate, and check.

He later tries to express his love for her, but she has no tools to process it. Recognizing her inability, he offers instead the one proposal that she has no trouble saying yes to: playing chess, just as Townes suggested after the awkward moment in his Las Vegas hotel room. (Contrast with WOPR, the nuke-controlling computer, asking the same question in 1983’s WarGames.) Ultimately, Harry realizes how different they are and packs his bags, though not being able to truly understand the why clearly haunts him. And in this sense, they’re actually more alike than not: just like Beth, he doesn’t have the tools to understand her truly unique wiring. But absent everything we know now about the spectrum, how could he? As such, it’s of course much easier, in the ability to comprehend addiction, to see her as fated to be broken and speeding on a path to ruin with the tranquilizers; but, then, she doesn’t know how to keep someone around, despite all her latent charms, because she doesn’t get that she has any charms. “You’ve really helped me,” she tells Harry, but unconvincingly; she doesn’t yet have the emotional language to articulate what it is she really wants, and he leaves, both of them believing themselves thoroughly humiliated. (Later, with Benny, the tables will turn and she will be the one moved by sex when her partner isn’t.)

One of the tools she needs to haul herself out of the depths of her social well is confidence in herself, and her ability to interact with others. For that, Benny is just the ticket (and, as violations pile up on his confidently-but-inappropriately parked car, the ticketed). He doesn’t need to come on to her physically because, sapiosexual that she is, she’s smitten with his chess mind, not just for its confidence, but for the mastery that she intuits (even if she can’t articulate) from a true peer. She is absolutely confident about chess, but it takes peers of equal confidence to buoy her in general. Confident Parisian fashion model Cleo validates Beth’s beauty and savvy. Having gained confidence, Beth stands up to Benny’s challenges (“What if I kick you in the crotch?”) and in speed chess vindicates herself on his turf. (“It’s your money,” he bets. “It will be,” she says, and she’s right.) Now that she has gotten even, she is ready to be conquered herself. All he has to say is “Hey” and grab her arm. Thus assertively outflanked, however, suddenly he doesn’t know quite how to close the deal. She saves him the trouble by simply saying to his unasked question, “Yes.” Yet he must come up with the pitch in arrears: “Do you still like my hair?” (Not an unreasonable question to ask She Of The Enchanting Red Mane, but utterly unnecessary.)

And oh, how the tables continue to turn. Post-coitally, Benny only knows how to talk about chess, and she gets as irritated as Harry was disappointed. The roles are suddenly reversed: in an instant, what she thoughtwas the only thing she needed to know — that she’s better than the best in the US at chess, and that not only is sex good, but can be great — she discovers that Benny has no more game left, nothing more to teach her. She says an indignant “Good night, Benny,” and turns away, already having left the romantic relationship behind. Cleo later interrogates Beth: “Have you ever been in love?” Not with Benny, she says. “Of course not. No woman can compete with Benny’s love for himself.” Ouch. Perhaps, though, it’s because Benny is a fellow traveler who has no other tools for interacting but his ego. (And then, Cleo conquers Beth. How else was she going to learn?)

Jolene As Magical Negro: Race vs. Gender in The Queen’s Gambit

Professional chess was and continues to be an overwhelmingly male space. It’s also overwhelmingly white. There are exactly three Black people in The Queen’s Gambit: a fleeting extra at the Kentucky state tournament, the orderly at Methuen who quotes Shakespeare, and her fellow orphan Jolene. The character of Jolene has received wide criticism for being a “Magical Negro,” Spike Lee’s term for the supporting character with no depth or apparent backstory, a token presence whose purpose is solely to aid a white protagonist.

In her defense, Jolene is the only person Beth befriends at Methuen, because she’s abrupt where Beth is tentative to a fault, and has always been willing to break through that defensive, autistic reticence. When they meet again as adults, only Jolene can get past Beth’s drug denial, which makes it safe for Beth to admit her shame and her lack of sobriety. And only Jolene understands when Beth comes back from Mr. Shaibel’s dungeon having found the shrine to her, including the photo of them together, and bursts into tears in Jolene’s arms, the first time viewers see her express genuine emotion. Jolene, saying, “Aw, did you bite off more than you can chew?” is the understatement of the show. It takes this profound a moment for Beth to show the great emotions roiling within her, and only Jolene has known her long enough to understand. Jolene is Beth’s first and oldest friend.

But there’s no getting around the timing of her appearance at the end of the series. Jolene shows up conveniently right before the credits of the penultimate episode; just when Beth needs help to get to Moscow, and gives her the money because “someday, I might need you…if I do, you’ll come, won’t you?” (Jolene threatens to punch her jokingly when Beth says, “I might,” but Beth is so unsure of the world it’s an open question whether she would come to Jolene’s aid. And we’ve seen her unwitting double standards. Beth is nothing if not a fully fleshed-out character.) Jolene nevertheless tries to claim that she’s not Beth’s “guardian angel…I’m not here to save you.”

This is an important and valid critique. There shouldn’t still be Magical Negro characters in films in 2020. If anything, though, the critique misses the point by not going far enough. 

There’s a degree of unreality in the series that caused many viewers to see Chekhov’s principles of theatrical storytelling violated left and right. Where is the violence? The misogyny? Where are the haters? Weren’t such evils worse back then — how can we believe this story without a dose of the sorrows of the world? And yet the show has been a smash hit, its ahistorical and anachronistic events not diminishing the enthusiasm of those in its thrall.

So, fine, The Queen’s Gambit is nothing if not a fantasy, for reasons explored above. Mr. Shaibel informs Beth that “Girls do not play chess” in the first episode; by the last Beth beats the world champion in a game before she is 21 years old. Perhaps most people are looking at the wrong set of sorrows. It’s a coming-of-age story, and the protagonist’s real problem won’t have a name for decades, yet she overcomes it and we see how she does it. She has meaningful relationships with many characters. Not all the characters are flat and only there to move the plot along. It’s by no means a Hallmark Christmas movie.

Annette Packer, however, is not one of these well-developed characters. She is a “magical” girl herself, a token chess-playing female there primarily for exposition about concepts like clocks, scoresheets and touch-move, and also there conveniently to walk into the bathroom just as Beth is experiencing menarche. The LA Review of Books describes Beth herself as “a magical superheroine in a world without sexism.” And yet in this fantasy, Jolene’s arc was the best they could do for the one main Black character? 

One could dismiss the question of Jolene at the “Magical Negro” question. The better question is: It’s 2020. They made plenty of changes to adapt the novel for the screen. Why didn’t they make Jolene the protagonist?

Moses Ingram is great, magnetic, a star in the making. Her Afro would have stood out as surely as Beth’s red hair (which was a series of wigs anyway). Black people are well-acquainted with choosing clothing in colors to contrast their skin. Would it have been any less plausible if the way were cleared for a Katherine-Johnson-like genius, a Black queen instead of a White queen, with token white pawns helping? If the series were filmed one year later, it’s well-imaginable that they might have done this.

Let’s go even further. Why is it that the White pieces go first in chess? Why is it that the King is the most important piece on the board, and the Queen the most powerful? Why not reverse the roles when a woman is playing chess, and call the most important piece the Queen and the most powerful the King, or the Crown Prince? The Monarch and the Royal Consort? (In Chinese and Japanese chess, offshoots of Indo-European chess, Black goes first; the other side is not White, but Red, and most pieces on both sides have unique names.) The game is, after all, just a standardized agreement between two people, to engage in an activity under certain rules. There’s no reason one can’t play under rules that favor Black, or use unusual nomenclature, any more than people can invent house rules in Monopoly, like a pot one wins for landing on Free Parking. There’s no reason this show couldn’t have been just as fantastically satisfying with a Black lead set in the same time period and the same courtesy of a suspension of villainy applied. 

When Jolene says, “You’ve been the best at what you do for so long, you don’t even know what it’s like for the rest of us,” it’s about Beth’s brilliance at chess, but it could be paraphrased: “You’ve been [seeing things as] you do for so long, you don’t even know what it’s like for the rest of us,” and said to the showrunners and the execs at Netflix.

The Actual Gambit

What of the title of the series — what is the metaphorical Gambit that the Queen, Beth, has attempted?

A gambit in chess is based on the understanding that material is the primary indicator of victory. The object is to find a move that will ensure the king’s capture; a player should be looking for “checkmate” on every move after the first. The next best thing to capturing the king is capturing one of the other pieces. If a player can gain an advantage of a single pawn, and through attrition trade off all other pieces of equal value, one side will be left with a king and a pawn, the other with just a king. The pawn can then be promoted to a queen, and checkmate is then a matter of time in any minimally competent player’s hands. Grandmasters have been known to resign games after losing a single pawn for this reason. A “gambit,” then, is a series of opening moves in which one player sacrifices one or more pieces in order to get a more advantageous position for their remaining pieces on the board.

The literal Queen’s Gambit is quite simple (1. d4 d5 2. c4), and uncommon if not particularly favored today. (Capablanca and Alekhine played it in almost every game of their world championship match in 1927.) Beth chooses that opening in her final game, a new tack she hasn’t taken before. But there’s another gambit she plays, outside the board.

In the final episode, she remembers in flashback her birth mother’s increasing desperation. Alice tries to talk to Beth’s birth father, trying to get him to take Beth. He wants nothing to do with either of them, and orders her away. She later tells Beth that he was “a mistake. A rounding error. It’s just a problem I gotta solve.” What problem? “What I do with you.” Beth, autistic, barely comprehended neurotypical people, and spent the entire series trying to solve the mystery of why her mother behaved the way she did. Before her climactic game with Borgov, Beth finally realizes that her mother’s solution was to commit suicide, and to kill her daughter too.

Every time Beth enters the presence of other people it’s a high-wire act for her, causing her anxiety and a clouding of her remarkable mind. Early on, the orphan acquired a powerful tool for managing her fear of the unknown, a bottle that the pharmacist slid to her like an extra rook. In the end, when she realizes what her mother, in her illness and despair, tried to do to her, she flushes the rook full of pills down the toilet, sacrificing (pharmaceutical) material for a better (emotional) position.

And it pays off: she could beat Borgov without a pill, and with help from people who loved her, if she’d only trust them. Beth emerges from the trauma of her childhood fully formed, confident, a champion, unburdened, and flawless — a very satisfying ending that, in this most unsatisfying year, made for one of the most popular shows ever to appear on Netflix.

The Glare

Critics have missed the forest for the trees, which is ironic since that’s what autistic people often get accused of doing when they perseverate over their favorite subjects. (Tim Page, the former classical music columnist for the Washington Post, once said of himself, “Not only did I not see the forest for the trees; I was so intensely distracted that I missed the trees for the species of lichen on their bark.”) People on the autism spectrum are not only wards of the state or to be found in institutions like Methuen. They’re all around us, leading productive lives. The Queen’s Gambit is a moving portrait of what’s possible when they have the right supports.

Beth’s autism gives her a certain appeal: her flat affect and lack of guile causes her to speak directly or abruptly to people. Often this is interpreted to her benefit as evidence of a confident or commanding personality, while she herself is unaware of their mistaken perceptions of her. She is game, in several senses of the word: up to play, the object of desire, doe-eyed and gamine. She is, in short, Artemis: the goddess of the hunt, her talent Olympian, so confident of her skill that she cannot imagine what it is like to not have it. She is also Chauncey Gardiner in Being There: a naif easily gamed — yet, luckily for him, not gamed, because no one knew of his neuro-atypicality.

Autism, too, is all around us, and everyone is capable of having autistic meltdowns. Our country has been going through one collectively for several years, one primarily based on the country’s long, deep, brutal history of racism. Like the chessboard was a safe space for Beth, this series was a safe space for its viewers. To quote the Moscow chess commentator: “In the words of Thomas Huxley, the chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules are what we call the laws of nature, and the player on the other side is hidden from us.” Not suspending the whiteness law enough to give Jolene a less “magical” storyline is the series’ most glaring oversight. But in a world that is so messy, it’s understandable that viewers, with enthusiasm like Beth has for a chessboard, would flock to The Queen’s Gambit, a series that suspends some of the other laws of human social nature, and would enjoy it down to quotidian conundrums like how Beth got all those great outfits into one little suitcase. 

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Stephen Volan has taught an introductory college course on chess for two decades, but could probably not beat D.L. Townes in a tournament. His 2011 talk “Approaching Autism Theatrically,” given at TEDxBloomington, is on YouTube. His last article for The Ryder was “An Epic First Year in Bloomington,” published in December 2019.

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