Since I’m sort of taking a break from political posts, I wanted to write about one of my favorite shows on Netflix: Queen’s Gambit. I realize that it’s been out for quite a while, but I’ve recently been re-watching it (and there are a few scenes that I’ll watch over and over when I feel like a quick peek). So, just some thoughts.
THE CHESS MATCHES
Given that the series is about the game of chess, there were obviously a number of chess matches shown, at least in part, over the course of the show. The chess matches themselves are extremely interesting. In case you didn’t know, the matches in the show were not just random moves. Each game was choreographed by a chess master Bruce Pandolfini and a former world champion Garry Kasparov (who happened to be my favorite chess player growing up). It would be very interesting to analyze some of the moves that were shown in the show, but unfortunately, I’m not enough of a chess player to be able to do that in general.
There are a couple of specific moves that I enjoyed though.
I enjoyed the short sequence in Beth’s second match against Cooke when she sacrifices her Queen. When she took his bishop, Cooke immediately started grinning. He’d knew that he would be able to take her Queen.
Cooke was a very low rated player (only 1520 which was considered in the beginner level), so he was only looking a play or maybe two in advance. His view of the game was very limited. He took her queen grinning knowing that he had beaten Beth and looked up at her with a smirk that says “now what are you going to do”. A second later she moved her bishop and clasped her hands together and looked at Cooke with a look of complete control that said “I’m going to win, that’s what I’m going to do”. The match was trivial, but I really enjoyed the facial expressions of both players during the sequence. I actually consider this ability to be one of the strong points of the series. There are a number of scenes where several of the actors tell important parts of the story just based on their expressions.
This shows up again in her next match against Townes. Even though the later match against Beltik was actually the climax of the episode, it was the match with Townes that really shined. The highlight of the match was when Beth traded queens. A beginner will not trade queens. The queen is the most powerful piece; you guard it. Nothing can compensate for it’s loss. Except of course that that is not true. An advanced player would be willing to trade queens for a significant improvement in position, and that’s what Beth did. When Beth showed she was willing to trade queens, it caught Townes off guard, and he shakes his head as if to say ‘what just happened?’ Up until then, I think he regarded her as a good player, but that move forced him to reevaluate.
One of the characters I most appreciated in the show was Beth’s mother. I found her character to be extremely well played and quite sympathetic even though she was a very flawed character. Also, her character also had a surprising amount of depth to her, more than almost any other player I felt.
Her primary flaw was her alcohol addiction which she unfortunately passed on to Beth. She was the one who first introduced Beth to alcohol. That addiction, coupled with the drug addiction from her stay in the orphanage, had a huge impact on Beth’s life, and this was a pretty bad move on her mother’s part.
On the other hand, her mother compensated for that with some truly noble moves.
Early on, after her husband left her, Beth’s mother said that although she was no longer a wife, she thought she could learn to be a mother. This was before Beth won money from chess, so this was not motivated for any selfish reason. She genuinely wanted to be a good mother and realized that she needed to put forth some real effort. Of course, it helped after Beth won her first tournament and she became more invested in Beth, but her decision to become a mother came before that.
She also demonstrated real confidence in Beth very early. Beth’s mother was educated and smart, though those characteristics were not much valued for women in that society. She recognized Beth’s potential quickly and expressed that when she said she was was confident in Beth’s abilities when Beth assured her she would win the second match. Although her behavior was partially influenced by a selfish motive as well (she certainly enjoyed the excitement that came with Beth’s playing), she was quite cautious and conservative with money. She wasn’t interested in gambling… she just really was confident in Beth’s abilities.
One of my favorite scenes with her occurred after Beth won her second competition. Beth’s mother hesitantly asks for a commission as her agent. Clearly, she wondered if she was just taking advantage of Beth. And yet, she had meticulously organized every detail of the travel. She was extremely careful in how she managed things for Beth. In other words, she was doing exactly what an agent should do… and doing it well. I appreciated that, although she wanted to be involved in the excitement, she was willing to do her part and earn her way.
The final scene I want to mention is where Beth has just lost her first match and she’s angry and frustrated. Her mother says that she’s just learned a lesson that is important… losing is part of the game, and life. Beth lashes out in anger saying that her mother is very familiar with losing. Her mother responds in the perfect way. Rather than replying in anger, she tells Beth that now she too is familiar with losing. I found that entire interaction very moving, and strong evidence that her mother was truly a great person, even with her flaws.
I can’t think of a show where body language and facial expressions have (at least for me) played such a huge part of the show.
For example, the expressions of Townes and Beth in their match is priceless. In almost every other match, Beth’s play is cold and intense, but Townes has treated her kindly and with respect, and she’s attracted to him. So her demeanor is shy, almost like a young girl playing someone she admires. I found that game succeeded in making Beth far more human which allowed a connection to her that carried through the entire series, even in parts where she really wasn’t someone easy to sympathize with.
This was followed by her match with Beltik which was truly great. Beltik had been watching Beth from the start. He was watching her intently when she began her game with Sizemore. He knew she beat him. He didn’t know who she was, but he knew that she was a threat. So he looked for any advantage he could. He showed up late. He asked her her name as if she wasn’t even someone he was interested in. Her name was posted on the game boards. He knew her name… he was just trying to intimidate her. His style of play was very condescending… make her feel like a little girl; scarcely even worthy of consideration. Between almost every move, he stared at her. He timed his yawns to be their most annoying. Beth’s reactions were perfect. She was flustered, confused, not in control of the game.
So she jumped up, went to the bathroom, and took a break (and a pill), and when she came back, her facial expression was cold and hard. She was no longer intimidated. And Beltik’s were equally good… in just a second with no words spoken, he recognized the change and from that second on, he was on the defense.
One final scene. Though less dependent on body language, Beth’s match with Luchenko was perhaps the most moving of the entire series. Once again, she was playing someone she looked up to and admired, and the almost shy quality shown in the Townes match came back.
So, there were very few mistakes (or perhaps missteps is a better term) in the show. None are serious. There is one that I wanted to mention though because it bugged me a bit.
After winning the Kentucky State championship, Beth’s second tournament (a short but unspecified time later) is in Cincinatti. Beth is still clearly new at the game (for example, on check-in, she doesn’t understand the time control), but when she goes to play her very first match and she introduces herself to her opponent, his response indicates that he know’s he’s going to lose. Later in the same tournament, she meets Matt and Mike and they say she destroys everyone she plays. This type of reputation should only have come after one or two more tournaments. Having it here was too early. I would have liked to see those same reactions to her, but in her 3rd or 4th competitions.
My larger complaint deals with some omissions that were made. There were parts of the story of Beth that, while not critical to the story, were parts that I really wanted to see, but for whatever reason, they were not included.
The first omission was the conclusion of the game with Sizemore? I wanted to see how it played out. When Beth started playing Sizemore, she was disturbed by his habit of combing his hair. Unlike in her game with Beltik, this behavior of his was not aimed at her (you see him combing his hair in the match that he played at the same time that Beth and Townes were playing). Combing the hair was just some personal habit that he probably used to help him concentrate.
As illustrated in her match with Beltik, Beth needs to be a master of the game, not only on the board, but with respect to the players. She encountered many players that got under her skin (Beltik with his condescension, Watts with his ability to point out a mistake in her play), but Sizemore was the first. She won… but we never saw how. I wish they had shown that. Given that it is missing, I’m forced to make a few assumptions. Clearly in her next match against Beltik, she had not yet mastered the art of filtering out the distractions. Beltik succeeds in putting her off balance and keeping her that way. Given that, I imagine that Sizemore’s hair combing annoyed her the entire game, but she was enough better than him that she beat him despite the distraction. I would have like to see that confirmed however.
The second omission is the fact that Townes was absent in her match vs. Beltik. Townes had demonstrated a deep interest in Beth, so he absolutely would have been there to watch her match vs. Beltik. All of the people who had interacted with her during the competition were there. Each of her opponents were there including Packer, Cooke, and Sizemore. Matt and Mike (the two boys manning the desk for the tournament) were there too. But Townes was not in the crowd (I’ve looked repeatedly and I don’t thing I missed him). In real life, there are things that could have happened that would have prevented him from watching (a death in the family perhaps), but in the show, he should have been there.
The final omission was the scene where Matt and Mike went from doubters (who said that Sizemore, Goldman, and Beltik would eat her alive) to believers (they were clearly enjoying Beth’s play as they watched the Beltik match). Beth’s interplay with Matt and Mike was a high point of the 2nd episode, and I really wanted to see that scene. It came either when Townes turned in his card (while Beth was in the bathroom) or when Sizemore turned in his, or a combination of the two. Either way, missing that scene really disappoints me.
Probably far too long of a post for a single series, but I like chess, and I really enjoyed this show. The acting is strong, the players are interesting. What’s not to like?