Columns

The Feminist’s Gambit: A Skeptical Take on Netflix’s 'The Queen's Gambit'

(Netflix's "The Queen's Gambit" promotional poster)

At one time Chess was the reigning passion of my life, amounting almost to an obsession. I regularly visited the chess clubs in Old Montreal and played scrappy games with strangers on linoleum “boards” with chintzy plastic pieces. In time I acquired an extensive library of chess books and fell in love with opening theory, which I studied assiduously. I had a chess table built for me, bought a set of lovely hand-carved rosewood pieces, set about analyzing the games of the masters, and played as often as I could with friends, students and chess buffs. 

Soon it seemed I was doing little else. Montreal had become a mecca for chess tournaments, provincial, interzonal and international, which I devotedly attended. It was at the Tournament of Stars, sponsored by Quebec’s major French newspaper La Presse, that I met grandmaster Robert Hübner, then ranked sixth in the world. We became close friends over the years. Robert would visit me in Montreal and twice he spent summers with my family on the Greek island of Alonissos, where he would prepare for various international matches. As a friendly test and on a whim, I once asked Robert to set up the pieces as they were on the 18th move in the 27th game of the Alekhine-Capablanca 1927 World Championship match in Buenos Aires. It took him only a few seconds to reproduce the formation. 

By that time chess had become the center of my life. Though I never played in formal competitions, Robert assigned me a hypothetical rating of 1700, which falls into the FIDE Class B category. Eventually I came to understand chess as one of the great metaphors for life and published a book of poems, Chess Pieces, in which each chess piece, the various rules and the major opening gambits, stood allegorically for some aspect of human relationships.

Though many years have passed, my fascination with the game has never entirely waned. Thus, when Netflix featured the pseudo-biopic The Queen’s Gambit, based on the Walter Tevis novel of that title, which appears to have ignited a chess boom across the country, I couldn’t help binge-watching the career and exploits of chess prodigy Beth Harmon—Tevis’ “tribute to brainy women,” as he told The New York Times. The series (like the book) was quite mesmerizing—a gripping narrative of a young girl surmounting childhood trauma to reach the pinnacle of the chess world, with excellent production values, and snatches of games cloned from the manuals—which many commentators have fulsomely praised. And yet I found myself naggingly dissatisfied with the affair. Too much detracted from the aura of authenticity which the series aspired to.

To begin with, although there have been (and are) amazing women chess players, they were always few in number. This was not because they were held back by the “Patriarchy.” In the Soviet Union, Israel, and other nations, they were coddled and subsidized, but never reached the status of the very top world-class male grandmasters. The closest any woman ever came to winning an Open World Championship was the extraordinary Judit Polgar of Hungary, who finished last of eight participants in the 2005 San Luis Invitational, losing to Veselin Topalov, though she was playing White

I have always admired Polgar, as did Robert—but Robert never lost to a top-seeded woman. “In the last analysis,” he once said to me, “there is always a difference.” “Why is that?” I asked. “Because men are haunted,” he replied in his puckish way, “by the betrayal in the Garden.” Perhaps more realistically, Dinesh D’Souza refers to the Bell Curve distribution in which men are over-represented in the standard deviation categories. In any case, the likelihood of Beth Harmon ever reaching the absolute summit, as in the book and more vividly in the miniseries, is approximately zero, but a feel-good story takes precedence over reality, especially as it exhibits the political and cultural slant du jour.

Secondly, The Queen’s Gambit is predicated on the mythological Hero Quest, in which the postulant sets out on an adventure involving near-insurmountable hurdles, including having to face his own inner demons. Beth Harmon’s demons were a traumatic childhood and an addiction to tranquilizers and alcohol, but her story does not strike me as equivalent to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight or the saga of The Hero with a Thousand Faces or, in the chess realm, to the inner monsters that blighted the lives of geniuses like Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer. Nothing is presented as her responsibility and the ravages that should accompany her excessive drinking fail to materialize. She remains slim, beautiful, and attractive to men and women—the film includes the requisite lesbian scene. She can hurt others in love relationships with an insouciant “I do that” attitude. The Amfortas wound never quite bleeds. 

Generally speaking, the Quest hero struggles with his fears, weaknesses, and inadequacies, which he must labor to overcome, not always with success; the heroine merely has to vanquish what the world has done to her in order to become what she is, what she always was. What we are observing is not so much a transformation as a recovery—by no means the same thing. The fact is that people suffer all manner of turmoil and psychic havoc without considering they have conquered monsters. Suffering in itself is not a prerequisite for spiritual achievement if the cosmic perspective is lacking.

Thirdly, chess masters, as I can attest from experience, are rarely as charming, complaisant, and gentlemanly as the characters in Gambit. More often, they are churlish, vindictive, and ruthlessly aggressive. I have seen them stalk away from the table after a loss in a sullen or tempestuous frame of mind. I have seen them try to disorient their opponents by intense staring, unnecessary fidgeting, loud coughing, disruptive pacing, and frequent breaks at critical junctures. I once saw a grandmaster suddenly light up a cigar and blow smoke in his opponent’s face. Robert told me the story of one grandmaster who used a small, winch-like pincer to remove the captured pieces from the board, rolling the device through the open spaces to seize its prey. The effect on the other side of the table was profound. Bobby Fischer allegedly said, “I love the moment when I break a man’s ego.” Alekhine and Capablanca grew to hate one another, famously refusing to be in the same room together, decorum be hanged. The standard handshake, not always cordial but often perfunctory and sometimes menacing, occasionally reminded me of the scene in Rocky IV in which the Russian champion Ivan Drago, instead of touching gloves before the fight as is customary, slammed Apollo Creed’s extended hands and said: “You will lose.” Then he killed him.

A fourth problem is the complete absence of narrative tension. It’s a feminist project, after all, and the viewer knows from the start that Beth is going to win the championship. There is no chance that she will lose to a superior (male) opponent, and possibly grow as a character in humility and fortitude. The sequel is as predictable as a fairy tale—which is what The Queen’s Gambit basically is.

Ultimately, as noted, the major problem with The Queen’s Gambit is that it is a staple leftist/feminist narrative. Christianity is mocked as a righteous platitude in the form of two feeble-minded elderly biddies who attempt to bribe our heroine into anti-Communist statements. Beth’s black friend is not a raging BLM activist or intersectional zealot but a successful paralegal, budding Civil Rights lawyer, and sister-goddess who bankrolls Beth’s trip to Moscow. The Soviet Union is a chess paradise filled with kindly and agreeable people, multitudes seeking Beth’s autograph, and elderly men happily playing chess in the streets. Beth is lionized wherever she goes. And, of course, in losing to his female opponent, the Soviet world champion Vasily Borgov, already handicapped in playing Black, bestows a tender hug and applauds her victory—as implausible a scenario on both counts as one could imagine. The feminist theme is metaphorically foregrounded as Borgov breaks protocol, not by toppling his king as is customary but handing it to Beth, the Queen, whose gambit has succeeded. Message: the Queen is King.

The female is unstoppable. As Tevis writes describing the end game, “She moved the pieces with deliberate speed, punching the clock firmly after each, and gradually Bergov’s responses began to slow.” As we’ve seen, the series plays all the moves and advances all the pieces of the current cultural game: racial gratitude, female superiority, rejection of Christianity, capitalist greed (Beth’s adoptive father going back on his word to deed her his house, which he then sells to her for a profit), socialist intelligence, and the Russian accommodating spirit.

The Queen’s Gambit is not so much a multi-segment movie as a kind of documentary propaganda for the leftist/feminist world view masking as a true-to-life story, but one that could never happen. As D’Souza says, it is an enjoyable fictional portrait that “appeals to fantasy.” Beth Harmon is, so to speak, now in harmony with her real self, having found peace without sacrificing an iota of her talent. The best parts of the series, however, are some of the chess sequences, modeled on the games of other chess maestros, for example, Vassily Ivanchuk and Patrick Wolff at the 1993 Biel Interzonal and possibly the historic 1972 battle between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer in Reykjavik, so far as I can detect the moves in the speed cuts and camera angles—though I can’t be sure about this. In any event, these moments are the nearest the story ever comes to the truth.

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Note: For those interested in navigating the complexities of the Queen’s Gambit, a far more demanding opening than is often thought, I would recommend Chris Ward’s excellent Play the Queen’s Gambit