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The Queen's Gambit - Episode 1 review

by Shahid Ahmed - 24/10/2020

A lot of movies have been made where chess was either a backdrop, center piece or just one of the key elements to a mystery or climax. But there has not been any mainstream drama series where chess is the main focal point in a series. Netflix decided to adapt The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis into a seven episode mini-series. If you are wondering why we are talking about a Netflix series on a chess portal, then we must tell you that Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini are the Special Consultants of this mini-series. Not only that, Chess Boxing founder late Iepe Rubingh is the On-Set Chess Consultant. Now you can be rest assured that there won't be odd chess board orientation or some incorrect checkmates. Photo: Pinterest

Episode 1 - Openings

Without divulging any major spoiler plot details, we are only going to review the chess part of each episode of this Netflix mini-series - The Queen's Gambit. The Netflix Original has a total of seven episodes. Each episode is roughly about 60 mins or slightly longer. The series is adapted from the book authored by Walter Tevis. Now you are wondering, why you should be bothered about this mini-series because it does not star any chess personality. Well first of all I must tell you that Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini are the Special Consultant for this mini-series. That's not all - Late Iepe Rubingh, the founder of Chess Boxing is the on-set chess consultant. The center-piece of the show is definitely chess. Since it is seven-episodes long, we are going to review each episode separately in detail.

24-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy stars as the protagonist of the show - Beth Harmon | Photo: Collider

The first time we get to see an actual chess board with pieces being set to be played against an unknown opponent (name is yet to be disclosed in the first episode).

Beth Harmon gets ready to play against an unknown opponent | Photo: Netflix stream

If you have read the book then you might know who the opponent or what the situation is. However the first episode doesn't divulge any details behind this. We see the audience and then the scene transitions to Beth's childhood - her origin story. Before the flashback we see some twitches by the unknown opponent which is mostly in Beth's head more than anything else. In case you are wondering about the clock position (usually it is to Black's right side), I highly doubt this is an error because Kasparov and Pandolfini are involved with the series. There must be a reason behind this or the director must have preferred this according to his camera angle.

Beth is shown to pick up a book written by her mother | Photo: Netflix stream

The fictional book in the scene might not hold any direct connection to chess but it explains why Beth is so sharp and a quick learner. Beth is an orphan and lives in an orphanage. An initial car accident scene shows the reason behind her mother's death. The whereabouts of her father are not to be known.

The first time Beth sees a chess board - Queen's Gambit | Photo: Netflix stream

Beth had never seen chess until now. While coming down to the basement to clean her teacher's eraser (duster), she noticed it for the very first time. Without saying a word, she returned back.

Can you guess what this is? | Photo: Netflix stream

When we fancy something, we can visualize it almost anywhere. A child's biggest canvas is sky, roof of a room with limitless imagination. Beth visualizes the chess board on the roof of her dormitory and replays the move she saw the custodian playing.

Beth approaches the custodian | Photo: Netflix stream

Until now Beth only took a peek. Upon a closer inspection, she found that the custodian did not have an opponent. He was playing a game against himself. She enquires the name of the game but the custodian asks her to go upstairs (implying back to her class). When she showed her relentless curiosity, the man told, 'It's called chess'. She asked if he will teach him but he was not interested in playing against strangers. Getting dejected, she returned back upstairs.

No the photo isn't upside down, it's Beth's visualization | Photo: Netflix stream

After seeing the board closely, Beth was able to visualize the entire board along with the pieces on her dorm's roof.

Beth cleans the eraser while hoping to learn the game | Photo: Netflix stream

She gathered the courage to answer that she is not a stranger, she lives there after coming down to the basement under the pretense of cleaning her teacher's eraser. The nine-year-old kid also reveals that she knows some of the game by watching him play. The custodian sternly said, 'Girls do not play chess'. Beth walks up to the board and describes the movement of the rook, pawn and queen. When Beth is about to leave, the old man picks up the bishop first and then the knight to ask about their movement. After being satisfied with her correct answers, he invites her to play with a 'Now or never' clause. Of course Beth accepts.

The custodian ends the game with a 'Scholar's Mate' | Photo: Netflix stream

Without knowing intricacies of the game, Beth fell for the 'Scholar's Mate' trick.

After getting checkmated, Beth wanted to know how he did it, but he wasn't interested to explain it, 'Not today', was the reply.

Beth started replaying the game in her visualization

Now that Beth has played an actual game, albeit a short four-move one, she could replay it on her daily visualization on the roof. She also started playing various moves in her head to figure out the defence. She could play much more than four moves on her own as shown in the above scene.

Beth gets her queen trapped in the opening | Photo: Netflix stream

Custodian - Beth

Position after 5.Bg5

The custodian stopped Beth from continuing the game as she was about to make a move after 5...Qxg5 6.Nxg5 by saying, 'You resign now'. When Beth asked why should she resign, the custodian explained that she should resign because she lost the queen in 'that way' (terrible way). Beth claimed that he did not tell her the rules, the custodian said that 'it's not a rule, it's sportsmanship'. How many times have you seen in movies and series that a player knocks his king down in a dramatic fashion to indicate a resignation but this show had a very nice explanation.

Beth beats the custodian for the first time | Photo: Netflix stream

After a couple of days the basement being locked, Beth finally found the door to be open. She made her way down under same pretense as before. She started playing a game with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 and then the scene cuts to the above shown wide-angle shot of the board which is the following diagram:

Custodian - Beth

Black to play

It is evident that black is winning here. We see the game unfold as 1...f4 2.N3g2 f3+ 3.Ne3 Bxe3 4.fxe3 f2 and then the custodian after a long pause says, 'You're gloating'. After a few moments he starts rearranging the board and Beth does too. He tells Beth that she could have defeated him sooner. Then he says, 'You should learn the Sicilian Defense' and explains her the first two moves 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 in descriptive notation: 1.P-K4 P-QB4 2.N-KB3. She wanted to know what KB3 means, the man explained. Beth exclaimed, 'The squares have names?' He replied, 'If you play well, they have names'. He wanted to play again, the game starts with 1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 once again but we do not get to see the game, instead the camera cuts to the next scene.

The Levenfish variation | Photo: Netflix stream

We see a few days pass by and Beth makes it a regular habit to practice with the custodian. The custodian shows her the Levenfish variation - 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 g6 6.f4

Can you guess what it is? Hint: MVL's favorite | Photo: Netflix stream

On another day, he shows her the Najdorf - 1.e4 c5 2.Nf3 d6 3.d4 cxd4 4.Nxd4 Nf6 5.Nc3 a6. When the custodian asks her to show the variations, she does it by correctly mentioning the names too.

After a few days, the custodian plays 1.d4. Seeing a different move, Beth gets surprised and expresses that it isn't something that he has taught her. She says, 'Is it one of those things like Sicilian Defense?' Then the custodian replies, 'Those things are called openings'. For dramatization purpose, he says 'It's called the Queen's Gambit'. Although only 1.d4 was on the board, so it is not Queen's Gambit yet, but we can let it slide.

Beth plays with white pieces for the first time | Photo: Netflix stream

There are a lot of small nuances in the episode. Beth gets surprised when she sees white pieces being set on her side. The custodian explains, 'From now on, we take turns. It's the way the game should be played.' The girl enquires why she wasn't allowed to play first before. The old man replies, 'Play'. Then the scene cuts to the above position.

Beth - Custodian

White to play

The game gets over in the next two moves - 1.Qe8+ Nce7 2.d5#. After a few more words, we see the custodian handing over his 'Modern Chess Openings' book to Beth and he also mentioned, 'You'll need to learn chess notation before you can read it.' This game can also be found in the Mega Database played between Greco and NN (No name) in Rome 1620.

Beth holding Modern Chess Openings | Photo: Netflix stream

It may not be the actual MCO (Modern Chess Openings) but they definitely did not use any prop book, it was an actual chess book as the diagrams visible in the photo gives it away.

Beth reads MCO during a class | Photo: Netflix stream

In the next scene, we see Beth reading MCO during a class because she is intrigued with chess while she finds the class to be boring. As a former chess teacher in the school, I have been told by the Principal that the other teachers have caught students reading chess books during other subjects. However, they have let it slide, because chess is excellent for a kid's development.

How many of us have done a color toss like this in our childhood? | Photo: Netflix stream

The custodian introduced Beth to Mr. Ganz, a high school (Duncan High) chess coach of a chess club. When Mr. Ganz put his fists forward with hidden pawns, she looked at the custodian and he explained, 'You play the color you choose'. The game started with 1.Nf3 f5 and we cut to the following position:

Can you find out the finish here? | Photo: Netflix stream

Here is the complete position:

Beth - Mr. Ganz

Position after 5...Nc6

Well now the mate in three is obvious. Beth shows the checkmate after announcing mate in three.

When the high school chess coach asks her where she plays, she answers, down here and upon further query she says - in her head, on the ceiling. He gifts her a doll, she reluctantly accepts but asks for another game.

We see Beth playing against Shaibel - the custodian | Photo: Netflix stream

Beth - Shaibel

Position after Bg5+

We see Shaibel knocking his own king down as the checkmate is inevitable on the next move with ...hxg5 Qxg5#. The camera moves to the next board and we are made to realize that Beth was playing simultaneously against both Shaibel and Mr. Ganz.

Beth playing simultaneously with both Shaibel and Mr. Ganz | Photo: Netflix stream

Upon closer inspection, we can deduce that the position between Beth and Mr. Ganz has quite possibly arisen from Caro-Kann opening.

Beth - Mr. Ganz

Position after dxe5

Beth gets up from the chair and moves away from the board. Mr. Ganz says, 'I moved my queen to rook four - check.' She says the bishop blocks without seeing the board. Ganz continues with, queen takes king's pawn. She says, castles. He continues with knight takes knight. Beth very calmly says, 'Mate in three. First check is with the queen on d8. The king must take. Then the bishop checks on knight five and it's mate next.' Notice how the character Beth says the move to make it sound organic and not the exact squares to make it seem like memorized. In case you are wondering what happened, these are the moves - 6.dxe5 Qa5+ 7.Bd2 Qxe5 8.0-0-0 Nxe4 9.Qd8+ Kxd8 10.Bg5+ Kc7 11.Bd8#. A very popular miniature played between Reti and Tartakower in 1910.

After a few scenes, we see Mr. Ganz propose the idea of taking Beth to his chess club to play a simultaneous exhibition which Beth initially doesn't understand. Then he explains it to her that simultaneous means playing against them all at the same time.

Beth playing a Simul | Photo: Netflix stream

We see Beth going to the Duncan high school and she plays a Simul against at least twelve players (as implied by the different camera angles). She returned back to Shaibel after it got over and shared that how bad her opponents were, 'They left backward pawns all over the place and the pieces were wide open for a fork... A few of them tried stupid mating attacks. This boy, Charles Levy, he was supposed to be the best. I had his pieces tied up in 15 moves. I mated him in six more with a knight-rook combination'. We see many players knocking their own king to add to the dramatic effect of resignation. She says that she was told by Mr. Ganz that she beat them all in an hour and 20 minutes. She also said that she felt good as she had never won anything before.

When Kasparov and Pandolfini are involved, you can be rest assured about the technical aspect in the mini-series | Photo: Netflix stream

The first episode ends in a dramatic cliffhanger as a scene from the movie 'The Robe' is shown where plethora of chess metaphors and the protagonist of the mini-series are making a huge mistake to echo that thought. Those who watch a lot of series will be quite familiar with this technique of story-telling.

Conclusion

It makes a promising start in the opening episode with a good amount of time spent in chess. I couldn't find any technical error except in the opening scene which I believe to be a deliberate one or the director's choice. I have watched over hundreds of series comprising of over thousands of episodes. While chess definitely piqued my interest in the series, the story-telling part is also good and can make non-chess fans interested, especially those who like a drama series. For chess players, enthusiasts and fans - of course the episode has a lot and I am sure if you watch it, you will definitely like it and might love it too.

The mini-series is adapted from The Queen's Gambit book by Walter Tevis | Photo: Penguin

Watch the entire episode of The Queen's Gambit Episode 1 - The Openings on Netflix. The series is meant for adults only. So kids if they want to watch the episodes for chess purpose, they can take an adult's help in watching only the chess elements of the mini-series.

Links

The Queen's Gambit on Netflix


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