A chess game between genius and madness

Fatema Bangee watches The Queen's Gambit on Netflix.

Based on the 1980s novel by Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit follows chess prodigy Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Harmon – remarkably acted by Anya Taylor-Joy – in her pursuit of Grandmaster status in 1960s America, in tandem with drug and alcohol use.

I empathised with Beth right from the beginning. In early episodes, we see Beth and her mother abandoned by her father, and her mother’s death. Beth is taken by social services to live at an orphanage, Methuen Home, where she forms relationships with parental figures starting with the janitor, Mr Shaibel (Bill Camp), whose office is in the basement. Mr Shaibel is the essence of the authoritative father, teaching Beth the rules of chess with a firm yet encouraging approach. Beth also befriends Jolene (Moses Ingram), who imparts her teenage knowledge of sex and boys.

Beth is eventually adopted by a couple secretly struggling with marital troubles. It is uncertain whether Beth truly sees her adoptive mother Alma (Marielle Heller) as maternal. Alma uses unconventional methods to support her daughter’s interest in chess, including lying to the school about prolonged illness so Beth can attend tournaments. The pair bond over alcoholic beverages, despite Beth being underage.

As Beth’s chess career takes off, she faces professional and personal challenges, which would leave anyone lonely and disorientated. It is probably why Beth chooses to focus on chess; she admits feeling ‘safe in an entire world of just 64 squares’. Beth appears to pour scorn on a journalist’s suggestion that she has apophenia, a tendency to perceive meaningful connections in unrelated things, which hints at the whole series as a chess game between genius and madness. At the very least patterns are prominent throughout, including in the costume styling and sumptuous cinematography (with the ‘golden ratio’ to the fore in creating visually striking frames).

Beth’s relationship with chess is bittersweet. From an early age, she is seen stockpiling a fictional benzodiazepine drug ‘Xanzolam’, which is given to the girls at the orphanage. Beth collects these tranquillisers even after they are banned, believing they help her win the games with Mr Shaibel and the others. This intrigued me from a psychological perspective, as the human information-processing model of addiction demonstrates that such substances influence working memory and perception. Beth feels the tranquillisers help ‘visualise her games’, yet they ultimately cause difficulties with her mental and physical wellbeing.

Beth appears to find solace in alcohol as a means to endure flashbacks, bereavement and tournament losses. Having supported clients with addictions, Beth’s actions resonated as she pushed her loved ones away. In later episodes, Beth comes to terms with her addiction and seeks support. Without the need for tranquillisers and welcoming round-the-clock help from her friends, Beth prepares for a final chess showdown. Sadly, in reality, stages of recovery for those in her circumstances can take much time and effort, contrary to the clean victory in The Queen’s Gambit.  

Overall, I found satisfying insight into the world of competitive chess, along with themes emphasising the harsh realities of psychological difficulties prevalent within any era. Seriously addictive!
- Reviewed by Fatema Bangee BSc (Hons) PGCert, Self-Employed, Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner, Mindset Coach and Psychology Careers Mentor. IG: @mypsychcareercoach; T: @mycoachfatema

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