‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Tries a Risky Play: Betting Chess Can Be Good TV


“The Queen’s Gambit” includes more than 300 games, some glimpsed only in the foreground or background. To keep each match and each tournament from blending entirely into the next, the production designer, Uli Hanisch, developed unique color palettes to distinguish one locale from another. Steven Meizler, the cinematographer, varied the angles. The sounds the pieces make against the board change, as do the rhythms — from allegro to adagio.

No traditional match plays out fully from start to finish. (A few speed chess sequences come close.) Typically, the camera captures only a few moves. Novice viewers rely on sportscasters or whispers among the audience or the gestures of the characters — drummed fingers, blinked eyes, pursed lips — to understand the dynamics and stakes.

For Beth, abandoned first by her birth parents and then by her adoptive family, the stakes tower. Only while playing does she feel a sense of purpose and belonging. In a later episode, Beth overhears some Russian champs discussing her. “She’s like us,” a grandmaster says. “Losing is not an option for her.” (This was dialogue Kasparov suggested.)

Beth struggles with her addictions, believing that tranquilizers enhance her play. The accuracy that defines the chess scenes perhaps falters here — could someone play excellent chess while doped? “I can’t tell you I’ve ever heard of a chess player performing on Valium,” said Jennifer Shahade, a two-time United States Women’s Champion.

Pandolfini’s response: “This is entertainment.”

Whether a woman could play this well ever, on or off tranquilizers, has been a source of debate since the novel was released. One Times reviewer wondered whether women had the “extreme aggressiveness” required. Another doubted that women lacked the “physical stamina.” Those views didn’t end in 1983.

At chess camp, Shahade remembered, a visiting lecturer told the girls that women lacked the I.Q. Shahade sees the lack of great women players as more of a social one: Women don’t see other women playing so they don’t take up the game themselves.

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