Queen's Gambit Accepted - Chess in the Netflix Miniseries
Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful. — Elizabeth Harmon
Recently I finished watching Netflix’s new hit miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit, starring Anya-Taylor Joy. It’s quickly become one of my favorite Netflix shows: I binged the whole series in three days and am still re-watching sections to this day.
The Queen’s Gambit is wonderfully directed and filmed, rife with symbolism, unique character development, and close-up shots of tense facial expressions. Making Charlie Chaplin proud, Taylor-Joy conveys combinatorial calculation through silent stares, young love through silent stares, and drug withdrawal symptoms through… silent stares. Not to mention that Carlos Rafael Rivera’s soundtrack, which artfully blends into each scene and even each pawn push, has become my de-facto study music. For those of you who haven’t seen it yet, this series is a must. You don’t have to be a chess aficionado to enjoy the story of Beth Harmon.
Yet as someone who loves a casual game of the 64 squares, and has been intermittently studying it for three years, the accuracy and beauty of the show’s chess scenes really take it to another level. Sure, if you were to nitpick, there’s a couple errors, like when Mr. Shaibel refers to 1. d4 as the Queen’s Gambit, even though d5 and c4 aren’t on the board. But GMs Bruce Pandolfini and former World Champion Garry Kasparov, who worked on the chess aspects, manage to find better variations in actual real life games, including a couple brilliancies.
For each moment, these grandmasters choose the perfect chess game, with the dynamics on the chessboard often symbolizing the current episode’s situation, whether it’s catalyzing Beth’s downward spiral through a loss to Borgov playing her favored Sicilian (Episode 6) or contrasting a positional endgame victory against 13-year-old Girev with her young opponent’s innocent worldview (Episode 4).
In this post, I’d like to share two chess positions that are especially fitting, from a creative and chess perspective. I will be using algebraic chess notation to analyze them. I fully admit I may be overanalyzing some of these - but honestly, with the meticulous effort that went into the rest of the show, I wouldn’t be surprised if most of these details were included on purpose. After all, as Beth notes in Episode 3 to the annoying Life magazine reporter, “Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be… beautiful”.
Townes vs. Harmon (Episode 2)
At the Kentucky State Championship, Beth is introduced to the male-dominated world of tournament chess, as well as D.L. Townes, who she (unrequitedly) crushes on for much of the series. While her other games at this tournament are won by tactics and brilliancies, the kind of chess young prodigies often play, in this match she finds herself in a roughly equal endgame against the older boy.
As Beth is portrayed as a better player than Harry Beltik (beating him with a brilliant queen sacrifice in a complex middlegame), who is around 500 rating points higher than Townes, even reaching this endgame is indicative of Beth’s hesitance to beat her crush, whether that’s through playing more drawish lines or trading down pieces.
It’s perhaps fitting that this episode is titled “Exchanges”: our protagonist exchanges dreary orphanage life for her colorful suburban home, Jolene for her adoptive mother Alma Wheatley, and traditional activities like social clubs for a world of chess. And now, she exchanges pieces with Townes in an atmosphere that is carefully filmed to resemble a date. They move the pieces in a tentative manner, almost intimately, looking more at each other than the board. Teenage love, Beth Harmon style, can be a lot like these positional endgames: both sides slowly - and sometimes awkwardly - maneuvering, trying to accomplish their plans. Here is the position from their game (White to move):
Harmon, playing Black, has a knight and a pawn for three of Townes’s pawns, including a very advanced one on the sixth rank. The computer rates the position as roughly equal, but Townes plays a critical blunder: Rxh6. At first glance, the pawn looks free, and taking it would equalize material for White. However, Beth instantly spots the mistake (visibly swallowing during the scene, because crushing her crush isn’t fun) and plays Kg7. Now, White’s rook doesn’t have many squares to go to: the only ones not attacked by a piece are h4 and h5. If Rh4 Black then plays Nf3, forking the king and rook.
So Townes plays the only logical move, Rh5. But Beth keeps chasing her opponent’s rook with Kg6, and now White has no good squares: h7, h6, g5, f5, are attacked by the king, b5 by the knight, and h8 and d5 by the rook. In addition, going to any other square is met with a fork! Beth would play Nf3 in response to Rh4 or Re5, and Nb3 in response to Rc5 or Ra5. Caught in the trap, Townes takes this opportunity to flirt with his opponent:
Townes: “Harmon, you’re humiliating my rook.”
Beth: “He won’t have to suffer much longer.”
The pawn on h6 is an example of a “poisoned pawn”, and symbolizes what taking the plunge with Beth Harmon is like to many of the characters who have romantic relationships with her. Two of her rivals-turned-lovers, Beltik and Benny Watts, are attracted to an idealized Beth, most notably to her sharp chess skills. In Benny’s case, he denies his feelings for the better half of an episode, but Harmon’s demolition of him and two other American GMs in a blitz simultaneous eventually turns him on, leading to the pair having sex (Episode 6). But as their relationships deepen, both Beltik and Watts contend with Harmon’s substance addictions and PTSD, the nefarious side of “taking the free pawn”. Upon leaving her, Harry compares her to Paul Morphy, the best player of the 19th century, who went insane in his 20s (Episode 5).
Harmon vs. Borgov (Episode 7)
The final showdown, Beth Harmon’s third match against World Champion Vasily Borgov, is an improved version of an IRL game by Ivanchuk, a moody, brilliant player who - just like Beth - also stares at the ceiling to calculate.
Beth’s previous matches with Borgov have always kick-started low points in Beth’s life. Right before learning of her mother’s passing, she loses in Mexico City to his Rossolimo variation of the Sicilian Defense, once considered her best opening (Episode 4). Their second matchup in Paris comes after Beth, who has come quite close to quitting substances, falls prey to her own temptations, with a little push from Cleo (Episode 6). Again, she loses to a Sicilian, only this time playing White. Borgov is a sobriety test of sorts for Beth. In order to win, Harmon has to be on her A game. The challenge that is beating the World Champion embodies her internal struggle against drug and alcohol addiction.
Beth’s opening choice is the Queen’s Gambit (1. d4 d5 2. c4), a departure from her usual 1. e4. Like with other opening gambits, here White sacrifices the c-pawn in exchange for early leads in development of pieces. This idea of trading a material advantage for a positional one is a metaphor for Beth’s life: she loses her mother at a young age, but living in the orphanage leads her to discover chess through meeting Mr. Shaibel. She’s addicted to drugs as a child (due to the orphanage giving the kids daily tranquilizers), but the very same pills help her stay awake at night for ceiling chess games (Episode 2).
The game is eventually adjourned, during which Harmon reunites with Townes. In an intimate moment, she admits to her former crush how substances help her calculate chess, but this time she stays sober with the support of Benny, Harry, and others calling in from the States.
After the adjournment, things go swimmingly until Borgov surprises them with d5:
d5 is a strong move which reinforces the rook on e4, preventing it from ever hanging. For instance, if Black instead had played a move like b4, White would intentionally give up the exchange with Rxf6. If Black takes with Qxf6, then Qxe4+ simply leaves Beth up a knight. So in this line, Black must play gxf6, which is met with White promoting their e pawn to a queen. In this line, Black is forced to play Qxe8, losing the rook with check. However, The World Champion’s d5 keeps his position together.
In this pivotal moment, Beth only has one winning move: the second best one has a computer evaluation of 0.00, where, if both players are playing perfectly, the game would end in a draw. Unfortunately, previous exposition in the miniseries characterizes Harmon as a sharp, attacking player, like Morphy or Alekhine, and Borgov as an endgame machine like Karpov or Capablanca. In a drawish endgame position, it’s likely that Beth would lose.
Cue the dramatic music - our protagonist stares at the ceiling, calculating at incredible speed, notably without any tranquilizers! The main theme plays, and Beth plays the best move, Bc5. After a few more moves, the two have just played Qf5+ and Kh8, and we see her brilliant idea:
Beth sacrifices her queen with Qxf6! After gxf6, she responds with Rxf6, threatening Rf8+, which attacks both the king and the queen and leads to an inevitable promotion on e8, where White is up a piece and should win. Moreover, this queen sacrifice is ultimately enabled by her climactic move before, Bc5. If the bishop were not on c5, Black would snap up the pawn on e7 after White plays Rxf6, halting the promotion threat. Beth bests Borgov purely through wits and skill, outcalculating him with the sacrifice. It’s an impressive culmination to an incredible series.
You’re no orphan, not anymore. — Jolene
In the aftermath of the car crash that killed her mother, Beth’s clothes heavily resemble a pawn (Episode 1). In the ending scene, she wears all white, along with a pointed hat that makes her look like a queen. Just as a pawn yearns to reach the eighth rank for promotion, Beth Harmon has capped off her coming-of-age story with a beautiful chess game.