I learned how to play chess when I was younger. I mean, I know how the pieces move and I know the general rules of play, but that's about it. It was never something I did for fun, I didn't follow chess as a hobby, never paid attention to tournaments or anything. So why did The Queen's Gambit appeal to me? Here's a short (maybe slightly spoilery) review.
The trailer I shared above isn't the one I saw on Netflix, which was what pulled me in. In the trailer on Netflix a young Elizabeth (Beth) Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) is registering for her first ever chess tournament. Upon hearing that she doesn't have a rating (as this is her first tournament), the two guys handling the registration counter ask her if she is sure about competing. She assures them she is, and so they proceed to place her in the beginners section (as there's no women's section). She says she's not a beginner and asks to be put in the open section. Again, the two guys try to dissuade her and say she'll be eaten alive by the competition. Undeterred, she continues to fill in the registration form and is placed in the open section.
I feel like this was a great scene to show people what to expect. A young girl competing in the world of chess which at the time was largely seen as a man's domain. Throughout the story Beth finds herself in these situations where other people look down on her not just because she's young, but also because she's a woman and an orphan. She's confronted by her (adopted) father who tries to evict her from their house. She's labelled by some critics as being too "glamorous" for chess. Even her very first interview (with a female reporter) focused more on the fact that she's a girl in a man's world, and not on her amazing chess performances. To her credit, Beth handles all these situations with immense elegance, poise, and most of all, confidence, despite her young age.
But as you can expect, it's not all smooth sailing for the young chess prodigy. Along her journey she faces ups and downs, and sometimes those downs threaten to derail her entire journey. Substance abuse is her biggest obstacle, in addition of course to being alone and somewhat socially awkward. She makes some friends over the years, but her self-destructive nature costs her some of those relationships, which only served to hasten her downward spiral.
There's a lot to like about the series. It's short - only seven hour-long episodes - but feels fulfilling and complete. The cinematography, as with most Netflix productions, is very well executed and pleasing on the eyes. You wouldn't expect chess matches to be thrilling, or easy to follow, especially for those who aren't familiar enough with the game, but the director and writers did a good job of translating the atmosphere surrounding the matches to the screen, and an excellent job of informing viewers which way a match was leaning. Facial expressions, hand gestures, audience reactions, these were all used very effectively so the audience can gauge what exactly is happening on the chess board.
It's always a risk producing a movie or series surrounding something that people are passionate about, because real-life fans and enthusiasts will dissect everything for any mistakes. Luckily for the crew behind The Queen's Gambit, the chess community reacted very positively to the series. With a former world champion and a well-known chess coach consulting on the production of the series, you can be assured that this show is as authentic as it gets.
I kind of wish the show was maybe a bit longer, but the story is succinct and the quality could suffer if it was unnecessarily longer. The show looked amazing, the chess was well translated for the less-informed audiences, the story was well-paced, and casting was excellent with Anya Taylor-Joy rightfully getting all the plaudits. Even if you don't follow chess, you can still enjoy The Queen's Gambit, and that to me is the sign of a great show.