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Separating Fact from Fiction in The Queen's Gambit

Was chess the big deal that the Netflix series makes it out to be back then? Yes — briefly.
  • Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit. (Netflix)
    Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit. (Netflix)

    One of 2020’s most deserving hits is the Netflix adaptation of Walter Tevis’s bestseller The Queen’s Gambit. It’s deserved not just for being a great story with a superb cast — especially Anya Taylor-Joy as chess whiz Beth Harmon and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as her frenemy Benny Watts — but, as I noted in my review, it’s an excellent use of the limited series format to make super-sized movies out of richly-told novels.

    Even though it’s fiction, The Queen’s Gambit is inspired by true life, notably the chess boomlet of the 1970s, the US-Soviet cultural battles of the Cold War, and our enduring nostalgia for Sixties style. For those who thought Mad Men had cornered the market on that particular retro look, feast your eyes on the America that The Queen’s Gambit brings to life. There’s the quiet desperation of the suburbs where Beth comes of age, the flashy hotels where she launches to chess fame, the rural Kentucky orphanage where she spends her first 13 years, the gritty basement-dweller’s view of New York, and the pining of young men for women (or other men) in a time of sexual restraint. But perhaps most surprising is how vividly the Netflix series brings back the Cold War era, which was when Tevis wrote his book.

    So — granting the novelist his license to make up certain details — how much does the world of The Queen’s Gambit reflect the world as it was?

    Chairwoman of the board

    Every character on a chessboard is masculinized except one — and she’s the most powerful piece in the game. So it’s only fitting that when Beth’s genius for the game of kings is revealed, she wears it like her Audrey Hepburn-inspired wardrobe.

    But (a) was there ever a female chess champion as good as Beth is in The Queen’s Gambit and (b) did she lord it over the guys like Beth did? The answers to those are absolutely, and absolutely not.

    Remember the scene where a male chess champion appears on the cover of Sports Illustrated? That actually happened in 1961, but not to a man. Lisa Lane was the women’s U.S. champion from 1959 to 1962, sharing the title in 1966, although her expert score was relatively low compared to male champions of that time. So why the cover of SI? “I guess I was good copy,” said Lane, who went on to say it “got to be embarrassing constantly being introduced as a chess champion at parties.”

    The reality is that women were held in low regard by the dweebs who dominated chess until years after Tevis wrote his book. “They’re all fish,” said the always-charming Bobby Fischer. Susan Polgar, who at 17 was the first woman to qualify for the World Chess Championship in 1986, said that the sexism Beth casually brushes off in The Queen’s Gambit “seems like it was a picnic compared to what I had to deal with in real life.”

    Her younger sister Judit, considered the greatest female chess player of all time, doesn’t complain much about the guys. That’s probably because her career took off several years after Susan’s, and because her take-no-prisoners approach has even given the best-known grandmasters fits. Judit Polgar has notched wins against Magnus Carlsen, Boris Spassky, and Garry Kasparov, none of whom dared to compare her to a fish.

    Bobby Fischer with some smoothing

    As Tevis alludes to in the author’s note at the beginning of The Queen’s Gambit, his novel was inspired by the real-life story of Bobby Fischer and his battle for the ages against Boris Spassky, the defending world championship, at a showdown in Iceland in 1972 that was covered across the world. It was featured on ABC’s Wide World of Sports, which back then drew an enormous audience that had few other viewing choices on a Saturday afternoon.

    Like the fictitious Beth, Fischer had a mother who chased away his father, choosing to raise her child in squalor while he grew up to become a chess genius. Regina Fischer eventually became estranged from Bobby. Soon after the triumph over Spassky it became clear there was something seriously mentally wrong with Fischer. That downward mental spiral ended with him dying alone in 2008, a babbling, angry paranoid exiled to Iceland, the only country that would have him.

    Needless to say, that is the stuff of documentaries, not escapist TV shows like Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit. So the edges are smoothed off Beth’s character. Her madness is caused by little green tranquilizer pills given to her at the orphanage as a girl. The pills help her envision chess moves, playing out entire games upside down on the ceiling above her bed at night.

    How big was tournament chess, really?

    The Netflix version of The Queen’s Gambit suggests that Beth was slathered in media coverage when she played tournaments outside the United States. A BBC announcer is shown doing play-by-play of some of Beth’s high-end matches. By comparison, anytime she plays in America, it’s in front of second-rate print journalists. Of course, there was a Cold War going on in those days, and chess was a source of tremendous Soviet pride. Eastern Bloc players won every single World Championship from 1948 until 1972.

    In The Queen’s Gambit, Benny tells Beth that the Soviets are superior because they play as a team, which gives them an edge against the rugged individualists of the West. This echoes Fischer’s complaint that “the Russians cheat at chess” by agreeing to draws in games played against other Soviets, thus boosting both players’ ratings. There was definitely truth in the perception of the Soviets as all-for-one, and Fischer was nothing if not his own man. But media outlets treated the epic Fischer-Spassky showdown in 1972 as a clash of two highly idiosyncratic chess geniuses who were also proxies of their respective superpower countries.

    In The Queen’s Gambit, a Christian evangelical group is willing to sponsor Beth’s trip to godless Russia, but when she tells those nice ladies to go to hell, she’s forced to turn to the U.S. State Department, which agrees to pay for this bit of cultural chest-thumping. There’s a lot of truth in that story. Henry Kissinger has famously taken credit for arranging the Spassky-Fischer duel, one of only three stagings of a unique battle royal between the Soviets and the rest of the world ever held. As a result, news coverage of their match was global and intense.

    But chess rarely got that kind of press. The BBC never broadcast chess on the radio after 1962. The media coverage that follows Beth is unique to the Netflix view of the chess world.

    Comparisons to Tevis

    And that raises an interesting historical question: How does the Netflix series compare to the 1983 book of The Queen’s Gambit? What liberties did the screenwriters feel they could take with Tevis’s highly-praised original story now that it was nearly four decades after the fact? (Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, the New York Times’ weekday reviewer, incisively described the book as “a contest pitting human rationality against the self’s unconscious urge to wipe out thought.”)

    For the most part — and be aware, spoilers follow — the movie is true to the book. There is, after all, a reason that Hollywood keeps optioning Walter Tevis novels. He wrote books with characters, dialogue, and storylines that seemed made for the screen. Way more description of chess strategy is found in the book, but by that token, the stylish Netflix version of The Queen’s Gambit pays far more attention to Beth’s good looks and sartorial sense. That’s a trade-off you’d expect.

    Two female characters have bigger roles in the Netflix series than in the book — Jolene, Beth’s Black friend played by Moses Ingram, and Cleo the fashion model, played by Millie Brady. The scene that opens The Queen’s Gambit — Beth waking in a panic after Cleo takes her out for a night of carousing in Paris — never happens in the book. In fact, Beth’s pill-popping habit plays a much larger role in the screen version. By contrast, on the night before her big Paris match, Tevis has Beth downing three tranquilizers and getting a good night’s sleep.

    Both book and series have pretty much the same outcome, but the series has much more of a Hollywood ending, as Beth’s conquered rivals all band together to help her seal the win against the top Russian.

    If you’re looking to watch a film that captures Peak Cold War Chess as it actually was, check out the documentary Bobby Fischer Against the World on HBO Max.

    The Queen's Gambit is now streaming on Netflix.

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    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: The Queen's Gambit, Netflix, Anna-Joy Taylor, Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky, Judit Polgar, Millie Brady, Moses Ingram, Susan Polgar, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Walter Tevis