The Queen’s Gambit

Amy Welborn
8 min readNov 17, 2020

It’s one of Netflix’s most successful original series…so let’s take a look.

Of course, I can’t be rapturous.. of course. Don’t want to harsh your mellow if you loved it — I get it! I didn’t hate it at all, but neither can I gush.

I watched The Queen’s Gambit last week, and then a couple of nights ago, read the book. Don’t be impressed. It’s not super, super long and I skimmed/skirted the very many deep descriptions of chess games. I tried to pick out the elements that were important to plot and character development — I probably missed a few, but I think I got the gist.

Why don’t we start by comparing book and movie. “Of course the book is better” is what you might expect, but I’m not sure I can assert that in this case. But neither is the series just “better” than the book. They’re rather different, with different strengths and weaknesses. I’d give each a 6/10 — for different reasons. Let’s use “different” in one more sentence shall we?

I’m going to say that if you’re at all interested in this story and how it came to be, take a look at this excellent, thorough article on the book’s author, Walter Tevis — who was also the author of the books that inspired The Hustler, its sequel, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell to Earth.

What’s clear from the article is that the real subject of The Queen’s Gambit isn’t chess — but trauma and addiction. Tevis was a serious alcoholic, as well as being a decent amateur chess player — and both inform the novel. It’s not only the chess matches that merit pages of close narrative — it’s the binges, as well.

So to the series. I wasn’t enraptured by it, although there were elements of it I enjoyed quite a bit.

First problem: I thought it was too long. The first two episodes could probably have been condensed into one (in fact the events of the first episode probably comprise five pages of the book). Five episodes would have been plenty. Even four, probably.

Second problem: the lead actress, Anya Taylor-Joy. I felt that ever other actor in the series was very good, and some — particularly the male supporting characters — were superb. But Taylor-Joy just couldn’t convey depth under her steely focus. It’s a challenge — what we have here is a young woman who experienced terrible trauma and loss and threw what purpose, energy, will and intellect she had remaining into this battle on a board. Her main character trait is interior — she thinks and figures things out. How do you express that apart from the perpetually furrowed brow, intense gaze and pursed lips? I don’t know, but I do know that I got tired of Anya Taylor-Joy’s furrowed brow, intense gaze and pursed lips.

Third problem is related to the second, on a broader scale. It’s similar to the problem of dramatizing any intellectual or creative process. How do you do it? Movies about composers are notorious for this problem. How do you put on screen the serendipity, genius and inspiration for coming up with a tune or a theme — the composer sitting at his piano, hearing a bird call through an open window? Walking along a street and being stopped short by the bricklayer’s folk tune he’s brought from the old country? Followed by rushing back to his piano in his garret?

As you can imagine, taking that to… chess is even more challenging. And I get that — and I do think (as I’ll say in a minute) that one of the series’ great strengths is the creativity brought to the depiction of the matches themselves. But where it falls short is in helping us understand that central issue — why does Beth Harmon love chess, what happens to her brain and spirit when she plays, and how does it relate to the rest of her life?

It’s hard, first, to dramatize her giftedness. What we have, essentially, is a series of moments in which other people are exclaiming how wonderful, brilliant and ingenious she is at chess. But — perhaps because it’s technical — we don’t really understand what it is that makes her good.

The book does a far better job of getting this across — not surprisingly.

She felt better. She had learned something more from him. She decided not to take the offered pawn, to leave the tension on the board. She liked it like that. She liked the power of the pieces, exerted along files and diagonals. In the middle of the game, when the pieces were everywhere, the forces crisscrossing the board thrilled her. She brought out her king’s knight, feeling its power spread.

Beth looked at the cover of the book. It was smaller than Modem Chess Openings and there was a sticker on it that said $2.95. She began going through it systematically. The clock on the bookstore wall read ten-thirty. She would have to leave in an hour to get to school for the History exam. Up front the clerk was paying no attention to her, absorbed in his own reading. She began concentrating, and by eleven-thirty she had twelve of the games memorized. On the bus back to school she began playing them over in her head. Behind some of the moves-not the glamorous ones like the queen sacrifices but sometimes only in the one-square advance of a pawn-she could see subtleties that made the small hairs on the back of her neck tingle. She was five minutes late for the test, but no one seemed to care and she finished before everyone else anyway. In the twenty minutes until the end of the period she played “P. Keres-A. Tarnowski: Helsinki 1952.” It was the Ruy Lopez Opening where White brought the bishop out in a way that Beth could see meant an indirect attack on Black’s king pawn. On the thirty-fifth move White brought his rook down to the knight seven square in a shocking way that made Beth almost cry out in her seat.

She sat staring at the board with everything in her present life obliterated from her attention while the combinations played themselves out in her head. Every now and then a sound from Mrs. Wheatley or a tension in the air of the room brought her out of it for a moment, and she looked around dazedly, feeling the pained tightness of her muscles and the thin, intrusive edge of fear in her stomach. There had been a few times over the past year when she felt like this, with her mind not only dizzied but nearly terrified by the endlessness of chess. By midnight Mrs. Wheatley had put her book aside and gone quietly to sleep. Beth sat in the green armchair for hours, not hearing Mrs. Wheatley’s gentle snores, not sensing the strange smell of a Mexican hotel in her nostrils, feeling somehow that she might fall from a precipice, that sitting over the chessboard she had bought at Purcell’s in Kentucky, she was actually poised over an abyss, sustained there only by the bizarre mental equipment that had fitted her for this elegant and deadly game. On the board there was danger everywhere. A person could not rest. She did not go to bed until after four and, asleep, she dreamed of drowning.

So I suppose that gets me to the point of the ways in which the book is better than the series — by its nature, it’s able to get us into Beth’s head and help us understand her gift — and her weakness. We see a bit of this in the series — her friend/mentor/lover Benny makes it clear that he understands this weakness — she’s intuitive and doesn’t (at that point) see the value of deep study and learning from others and from the past. But the book is able to take us deeper into that point. Not surprisingly.

Basically, the series sketches a line from Beth’s (it is hinted) inherited genius (her mother was a Ph.D in mathematics) and mental intensity, her trauma and loss (her mother tried to kill both of them in a car crash, but only succeeded in killing herself, leading to Beth being sent to an orphanage), the impact of the tranquilizers the children were given in the orphanage and…chess. I just felt the line wasn’t drawn strongly enough. I’m not looking for an anvil-dropping moment, at all. But the connections between all of these elements of Beth’s life could have been pulled out a little more strongly, helping us see what chess — as well as booze and pills — gives that perhaps life had taken away.

This mostly negative review puts it more succinctly than I just did:

I want to see this character shot through the narrative like an arrow; I want to see her change from A to Z, especially since we know this is the only season we have with her; I want to see things happen and see those things mean something. By the end of the miniseries, and especially its out-of-nowhere saccharine final episode, I was literally talking out loud to my television, “What does this mean? Why is this happening? What is the point of this show?”

But what did I like?

Of course, no surprise, the early sixties milieu had me from the get-go. (I’ll mention that the series was mostly filmed in Berlin, with the Lexington scenes in Ontario). It’s a beautiful production.

Apart from the lead (IMHO), the supporting work was great — especially notable, to me was Harry Melling — you know him as Dudley Dursley from

Harry Potter films, but perhaps also from a heartbreaking turn as the limbless Artist from The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. He’s marvelous in this — and I see he’s in a forthcoming production of Macbeth as Malcolm. Perfect.

Also wonderful is Moses Ingram as Beth’s one friend from the orphanage, Jolene, Thomas Brodie-Sangster as the hippie-ish chess master Benny Watts

Finally, the great strength of this series, as I mentioned early, is the dramatization of the chess matches. Despite what I said about what I feel is a gap in our understanding of what Beth is doing and thinking and grappling with during those matches, the way they are filmed doesn’t disappoint. Every match is approached differently, with varied cinematography, lighting and effects to bring the match alive and make it (somewhat) comprehensible. Very enjoyable to watch, every time.

One more note:

Most of the best dialogue is taken directly from the book, and is very smart. There’s a lot of intelligent dialogue in this series, sometimes with an amusing arch formality that’s very true to the period. I laughed out loud when Beth accuses her adoptive mother, “You’ve been reading Alan Watts again.”

Originally published at on November 17, 2020.



Amy Welborn

Amy Welborn is a freelance writer living in Birmingham, Alabama. She writes at