When Beth Harmon strides across the room to take her seat at one of the chess tables, all eyes are on this young American beauty who seems on her way to being a world champion. This seven-and-one-half-hour miniseries on Netflix is the story of how she got to this point.
We meet Beth (Isla Johnson) when she is eight years old. Her parents have died, and she is living in an orphanage. There she is introduced to chess by Mr. Shaibel, the school's janitor, and they play games in the basement. She also learns to visualize chess strategy on the ceiling of her room while under the influence of the sedatives dispensed by the school. A loner by nature, Beth does enjoy a friendship with an older girl, Jolene (Moses Ingram).
After she is adopted as a teenager, Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) convinces her mother than she can earn the money they need to survive by competing in chess tournaments. But the toxic mix of loneliness, stress from the competitions, and fears about whether she has the energy and natural talent to become a grandmaster, sends her back to pills and alcohol.
Scott Frank directs this wonderful addition to top drawer films about chess:
The Queen's Gambit is based on the book of the same name by short story writer and novelist Walter Tevis, who has a knack for creating substantive screenplays, such as The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hustle, and The Color of Money. Given the fact that Beth wins so many games competing as the only woman in a tournament with many skilled men players during the conservative 1950s, it comes as quite a surprise when a reporter asks her what it is like competing with the men, and Beth answers: "Chess isn't always competitive; it can also be beautiful."
Fortunately, a group of men Beth has defeated follow her victories and take an interest in helping her become the world champion. Perhaps her most devoted friend is Harry Belik (Harry Melling) who volunteers to help her train for an important match against a Russian champion in Paris. Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), with whom Beth shares a U.S. chess champion title, also becomes a valuable trainer. He recognizes something about American players that puts them at a disadvantage against the Russians. The Russians win because they play as a team, strategizing together between matches. The Americans, on the other hand, work alone as individualists. The path Beth chooses to take will be decisive.
Like other sports dramas, this one is about a lot more than winning and losing. It also conveys a spiritual lesson about where real success resides.