The team behind The Queen’s Gambit, now a runaway hit on Netflix, knew their heroine, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), would be a sensation in any sphere – an abused orphan turned pill-popping genius, beautiful, brilliant, mercurial. But Beth is a chess prodigy, and not only are chess fans notoriously fervid and finicky, the game itself offers 300 billion options – 300 billion ways to get it wrong.
“We knew if chess fans hated it, that would kill it in the crib,” William Horberg, the series’ producer, said Wednesday in a Zoom interview. “But if they blessed the show as authentic – the game they love – then we could relax.”
So the very first meeting that Horberg and his writer/director, Scott Frank (Godless), took was with Bruce Pandolfini, the legendary chess coach. Horberg had worked with Pandolfini on another chess film he’d produced, 1993′s Searching for Bobby Fischer (Ben Kingsley played Pandolfini). He knew Pandolfini “was great at designing games and getting actors with limited experience to look like chess players on camera,” he says. But at that lunch, Horberg learned something he hadn’t known: Pandolfini had also advised Walter Tevis for Tevis’s 1983 novel, The Queen’s Gambit – the series’ source material. In fact, Pandolfini had come up with the title.
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Pandolfini brought on board Garry Kasparov, the world-renowned chess champion, who knew a lot of details about Harmon’s (fictional) heyday, 1958 through 1968. “He had so many insights that went beyond chess – being a child prodigy, having a gift that makes you an outsider among your peers,” Horberg says. “Also, because he played in the Soviet Union, he knew about things like KGB agents at tournaments.”
Early in the production, Frank held a two-day chess summit in Germany, where most of the shoot took place. “It was all hands on deck – costume, production design, camera, the chess experts, the editor,” Horberg says. “The art department created mock-ups of everything, and we went through the games, thousands of little choices: which pieces, boards, clocks, tables. Where the camera should be, what are the moves we need to show, the moments where the power dynamic pivots.
“We came out of it like a military operation, we had maps and handouts for maybe 200 games,” Horberg continues. “Anya had to memorize all the moves. We didn’t use a hand double. It was as if we gave her a violin and said, ‘Go play with that orchestra.’”
Before the seven-episode series arrived on Oct. 23, the chess world was alert to it, says Alan Power, owner of the Chess Schach, where he sells vintage chess sets that he’s artistically refurbished. (Chess-pun lover alert: Schach, pronounced shack, is the German term for chess.) But they’d been disappointed before. From James Bond to Pretty Woman to Ted Lasso, film and television have used chess as shorthand for brainy sophistication. But too often, projects don’t even bother to orient the board properly (a white square in the lower right corner).
The Queen’s Gambit gets it right. “The chess world exploded,” Power says. “Harmon felt so real, people were Googling to see if she existed. Everyone is still going mad about it. I haven’t heard one bad thing,”
Chuck Grau, a New Hampshire lawyer who administers three Facebook groups for chess collectors (including Shakhamatnyye Kollektsionery, devoted to Soviet chessmen), played in rated tournaments during Harmon’s era. “Watching her walk into that Cincinnati hotel, I felt overwhelming déjà vu,” he told me by phone. “The lobby, the ballroom, the atmosphere – it was exactly the way it was when I played in Milwaukee in the 60s. And the plastic Club sets Beth uses, which were knock-offs of a French set, Lardy – competitive chess was flooded with those plastic pieces back then. I was blown away.”
Online chess communities, which were already thriving in the COVID-19 pandemic, surged even more. Chess.com, the most popular site (when I checked at 1:45 p.m. on Tuesday, 7,206,725 games had already been played that day), is adding 100,000 new members daily, up from 20,000 last year. “Netflix told us chess board sales are up 300 per cent,” Horberg says. Women’s chess champions Judit Polgar, Jennifer Shahade and Jovanka Houska have praised the series’ accuracy. Lists like “Beth’s Best Moves” are popping up. Instructor Jeremy Kanes created an online course, “Play Like Beth Harmon.”
Many of Harmon’s games are famously brilliant ones from history, and chess forums lit up with screen-grabs and computer simulations to determine which was which. The game where she defeats Harry to win the Kentucky State championship? That’s from Riga, Latvia, in 1955. When she beats Benny at speed chess? Paul Morphy, Paris Opera, 1858. Her game against Borgov, where she finally plays the queen’s gambit? Biel, Switzerland, 1993. (That title move, in which White offers a wing pawn in exchange for better control of the centre, is one of chess’s oldest openings, dating back to 1490. It’s a good metaphor for Harmon, because it’s as aggressive as she is; White puts constant pressure on Black to respond to threats rather than create them.)
For a game that moves 32 little statues over a square board, chess is unexpectedly cinematic. The Queen’s Gambit employs special effects – Librium-induced hallucinations hanging upside-down from Harmon’s ceiling – to illustrate how many moves she can see ahead. Searching for Bobby Fischer and 2014′s Pawn Sacrifice – the true story of Bobby Fischer’s (Tobey Maguire) matches against Boris Spassky (Liev Schreiber) – also use CGI and soundtrack swooshes to create the magic of prodigies who can see things that are there but not there.
But chess doesn’t need CGI to be screen-friendly, because it’s a metaphor for so many life lessons: Play the person, not the board; reset and start again. Chess is an equalizer – it breaks down any barrier of age, race or class. In the 2016 film Queen of Katwe (another true story), kids play with bottle caps on pieces of cardboard, and its heroine moves from a Ugandan slum into a new life. In Pawn Sacrifice, chess represents the Cold War, and the line between genius and madness. In The Queen’s Gambit, Harmon resists the pressures of both religion and the state to be her own woman.
Mainly, chess thrives on screen because it offers something no other sports film can: long, still close-ups. Character is revealed in the flicker of an eye. Even if you don’t understand the game, you feel the tension. Chess is cinema at its essence – two humans, face to face.
Which is why no one in the chess world much minds the one detail The Queen’s Gambit got wrong. In Harmon’s final game, set in Russia in 1968, the distinctive “Latvian” set she uses, with its slender king and queen sporting coloured finials, is from the 1990s. “But that set hasn’t changed much in 50 years,” Power concedes, “so they probably felt they could get away with it.”
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