Fast and Slow in “The Queen’s Gambit”

In the brilliant and hugely successful 2020 Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit, the chess prodigy Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) polishes off her male opponents with style and speed. Because the story is set in the 1950s and 1960s, there are no cell phones, social media, or computer chess programs. Life was slower then, as it again seems to be nowadays during the pandemic.

In the 1960s, anyone who wanted to develop a deep knowledge of the game had to pore through tomes like Modern Chess Openings. To learn the latest variations coming out of the Soviet Union, where most of the best players were, there was no choice but to wait for 64 magazine to arrive on a slow boat from Moscow, and then navigate the Russian.

Based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis (author of The Color of Money, The Hustler, and The Man Who Fell to Earth), The Queen’s Gambit has a simple premise: What if the American chess player Bobby Fischer – one of the all-time greats – had been a woman? (Tevis, who prided himself on constructing characters from his own imagination, was lucky that his book came out just before the emergence of the amazing Hungarian chess-playing sisters Judit, Zsuzsa, and Zsófia Polgár, whose real-life story would make an even better film.)

Most of the Netflix series hews closely to the novel and strives to be faithful to both the period and the game. The director, Scott Frank, even enlisted former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and legendary chess coach Bruce Pandolfini to ensure that all the games in the series were authentic.

Whereas the novel describes Beth as winning with a spectacular queen sacrifice – a rare and exciting event in chess – The Queen’s Gambit portrays an actual game in which this occurred. The big game in the seventh and final episode of the series also follows a real match, except for a spectacular finish checked against a computer for accuracy.