OTwo Reviews: How The Queen's Gambit made chess cool

Image Credit: Nurina Iman Nizam

Nicola Kenny delves into the world of chess, reviewing the break-out Netflix success.

A few months ago it seemed as if only a select few, arguably the nerdiest among us, were engaged in the niche and often derided game of chess. Who was to know that this was soon to change with the arrival of a seemingly unremarkable story about an orphaned Kentucky schoolgirl and her pursuit to become the world's greatest chess player? Using this simple tale, The Queen's Gambit has succeeded in breathing new life into the world of chess, earning it a well-deserved status of 'cool'. The show's creators Scott Frank and Allan Scott clearly recognised this potential when they uncovered the compelling 1983 Walter Tevis novel of the same name. But even they could not have imagined its unprecedented success. 

Released on Netflix in October of last year, the show reached a record-setting 62 million households in its first 28 days. It was ranked No.1 in 63 countries for several weeks, becoming the biggest limited scripted series in the streaming platforms' history before the release of Bridgerton on Christmas Day 2020. The show also generated a significant increase in google searches for "how to play chess?". On Chess.com player numbers expanded fivefold and chess sets inquiries saw a dramatic rise on retail sites. Yet this will come as no surprise to viewers of the show. As the characters start their clocks, and the chess pieces are lifted into place, we are drawn into the world of this utterly captivating game. But how does the show extract such excitement from a sport rarely acclaimed for its visual and dramatic appeal, transforming it to achieve mainstream success? 

The answer is simple. Chess in The Queen's Gambit tells a much greater story, the story of the cost of genius. It is clear that the show's heroine Beth Harmon is gifted, but the precarious balance between this gift and addiction soon becomes apparent. This sets in motion an ongoing battle that is played out as the enthralling story unfolds. Chess becomes her obsession, a means of control as everything else unravels. A simple world on a 64 square board. As Garry Kasparov, renowned chess player asserts: "Chess is life in miniature. Chess is a struggle, chess battles". The series shows us how the game is a relevant reflection of life and the times we are living in. 

Equally, the story centres around mesmerising characters who make chess fresh and relevant. Anna Taylor Joy's alluring and hypnotic performance as Beth draws us into the narrative. She is magnetic on screen, revealing brilliant complexity through her sharp and emotional eyes. As a character, she is everything: deep, sophisticated, faulted, obsessive. Her relationship with other chess nerds Harry Beltik (Harry Melling) and Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) is comical and refreshing. Together, their collective emotional investment and obsession with the game encourage the audience to develop a new appreciation. Their accomplishments increase our interest, making us care deeply about every outcome. As they invite the audience into their exciting and exclusive world, they humanise chess.

Chess's exquisite appeal is further amplified in the series through meticulous design choices. Fashion from Gabriele Binder evolves with each episode. Sophisticated costumes mirror the game. The impressive selection of elegant black and white fabrics and symbolic checkerboard patterns reinforce chess's brilliance. Uli Hanisch's vibrant and highly stylised production design introduces another layer of glamour to the series, taking us to locations like Mexico City, Las Vegas, and Moscow. On these adventures, we see the game's imaginative possibilities. Chess brings us to new places and enables us to experience delicious escapism.

According to chess expert Dylan Loeb McClain in The New York Times, The Queen's Gambit "is one of the best and most successful screen adaptations of the game". This may be true, but you do not have to be a chess expert to appreciate its art. Despite the analytical and technical challenges presented, chess is undeniably thrilling on-screen. The show creators were careful to create a realistic and considerate reflection of the sport, enlisting chess experts and consultants Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini. Working with cinematographer Steven Meizler, they have created an exciting play of visual variety. Together, they make chess gripping and sensational. We may not understand every move and its implications. Still, we can feel what is at stake as the scene unfolds and as the focus moves towards the players' expressive faces. But despite this dramatic tension, there is a balance and meditative quality present in each game, luring us further into the story. The show and indeed chess is precisely the tonic we have needed during this dark time. 

The Queen's Gambit has undoubtedly put chess in the spotlight. It is a niche game revamped, and made cool, earning it major mainstream success. Just like the show's characters, the game has captivated us. It seems only natural that we too want to pick up the pieces, and play.