How Scott Frank’s “The Queen’s Gambit” turns a queen into a sacrifice.


Gambit: “a device, remark, or opening action with a degree of risk that is calculated to gain an advantage.”

“The Queen’s Gambit” is a popular Netflix miniseries written and directed by Scott Frank. Before becoming an online sensation, the captivating story filled all 322 pages of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name.

The Netflix adaptation, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as chess prodigy Beth Harmon, revolves around the themes of addiction, depression and genius. The series opens on Beth as a young girl in Kentucky’s Methuen Home orphanage. Surrounded by unfamiliar girls and territory, she escapes to her refuge: the 64 squares of a chess board. Under the direction of Methuen’s janitor, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), Beth quickly grows into a formidable chess player. 

It is at Methuen that both Beth’s passion for chess and her addiction begin. In typical 1960s fashion, the girls at the orphanage are fed two sedatives every morning: one green and one red. When taken before bed, the green pills unlock a new world for Beth: a world where she can envision chess wherever she goes. Her hallucinations, while carrying her to greatness, come at a cost. Throughout the series, her addiction and genius are locked in a complicated dance.

Beth is later adopted by the Wheatley family, consisting of a distant husband and a traumatized wife. Shortly after the adoption, Allston Wheatley (Patrick Kennedy) abandons Beth and his wife, Alma (Marielle Heller). Left with an unstable adoptive mother and virtually free rein, Beth quickly moves through the chess ranks with a pill in one hand and a bottle in the other. 

Chess becomes Beth’s only focus and the Russian player, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), becomes her singular target. Aided by green pills and the occasional help of comrade Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), Beth defeats grandmaster after grandmaster. Her final face-off against Borgov is both the series’ climax and ending. 

The series stays true to its title. Beth is clearly the queen, moving along the board as a lone, imposing figure. The show portrays her as a glamorized loner, a role typically reserved for men in cinematic depictions (Jack Reacher, Batman, James Bond, etc.). A typical loner is isolated and does not play well with others, whereas a glamorized loner moves through the world independently, charming everyone they meet along the way. In this way, Beth’s standoffish behavior does not alienate her peers, instead it draws them to her. Whether purposeful or unintended, the aspect creates an interesting role-reversal. 

Gambit is also an apt description for Beth’s behavior and the entire series. Playing chess requires gambits: risky sacrifices to gain advantages. In chess, the queen’s gambit strategy involves risking a queen-side pawn to gain more control of the center of the board. Issues arise when Beth translates that idea into her life. To achieve genius, she believes that she must risk madness. Instead of sacrificing a pawn, she sacrifices herself.