‘The Queen’s Gambit’ ~ TV TALK with BILL CUSHING


By: Bill Cushing – Dec. 2020

You don’t have to know the game of chess to enjoy Netflix’s superb binge-worthy new series. ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is a seven part limited series about a female chess prodigy coming of age during the Cold War.

It begins in a Kentucky orphanage in the late 1950s. A young Beth Harmon is coming to live there after the death of her mother. There she will struggle to find herself in this new place with strict discipline, while also being exposed to several things that will end up as big parts of her life, starting with the tranquilizer Librium. The children at the orphanage are even given these tranquilizers to keep them in line, and Beth quickly develops an addiction problem. Before long she meets the janitor, Mr. Shaibel, and he teaches the other thing that will become pivotal in her life… the game of chess.

Mr. Shaibel soon realizes that Beth is a prodigy and encourages her to play more. Beth becomes obsessed with it and devours everything she can about the game. Reading books about chess and staring at the ceiling every night where, with the aid of the tranquilizers, Beth sees chess pieces come to life and move around an imaginary board, playing out her strategies. Her drug addiction becomes amplified by her belief that she needs the pills to succeed at chess, the one thing in the world she really loves.

After several years Beth is adopted by a woman named Alma Wheatley, an alcoholic whose husband only agreed to the adoption to keep her happy and quiet. Beth gradually forms a strong bond with her new mother, and Alma encourages Beth’s undeniable chess talents. After Alma’s husband leaves her, she and Beth begin to travel the country, and soon the world, where Beth keeps playing chess and winning competitions.

As she begins her rise through the ranks of professional chess players, Beth becomes associated with her almost exclusively male opponents. There’s Harry Beltik, who becomes obsessed with Beth after she beats him for the Kentucky state title at age 15.  D.L. Townes, a dashing older player who immediately catches Beth’s eye. Benny Watts, an American champion who initially dismisses Beth’s talent before eventually helping to train her to take on the world’s best chess players, the Soviets.

The chess sequences that Beth plays are engrossing, but none more so than when she plays the Soviet grandmaster, Vasily Borgov. You cannot help but get lost in the scenes, both when Beth is developing her strategies in her mind and when she’s about to fall back into some old bad habits. It proves just how much the top notch writing and acting here can get you caught up in this fascinating world.

Anya Taylor-Joy (Peaky Blinders) is brilliant and mesmerizing as Beth, giving one of the best television performances of the year. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, including terrific work from Bill Camp as Mr. Shiable, Marielle Heller as Alma, and Harry Melling as Harry Beltik.

The series is directed by Scott Frank, and is based on Walter Tevis 1983 novel of the same name. Tevis was also the author of such well known titles as ‘The Hustler,’ ‘The Color of Money,’ and ‘The Man Who Fell To Earth.’

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is one of the best shows of 2020. It is a riveting, smart, and immensely entertaining seven episodes that is well worth the time invested in it. It is available to stream on Netflix.

Consider this my Christmas gift to you. Watch ‘The Queen’s Gambit.’

Bill Cushing

If you have any questions about TV you can email me at BillsTVTalk@gmail.com.  I will answer all of your questions and will feature some of the questions I receive in a future Mailbag column. Follow me on Twitter and Instagram @BillsTVTalk and on Facebook at BillsTVTalk for daily up-to-the-minute TV news and discussion. ◊