The ‘Queen’s Gambit’ on Netflix: What is actually ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ in chess?

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The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix is in a way a show about chess for those who know nothing about chess. However, for the players of the old game there are many chess references, which help to open the story of Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy).

One of them is the title of the TV show. The Queen?s Gambit is a real chess move, which is one of the many possible openings in a game. In an early passage of the novel by Walter Tevis, on which the Netflix series is based, the author describes the move as it was taught to Beth by Mr. Shaibel (played in the Netflix series by Bill Camp):

He pushed his queen’s pawn forward, and she could immediately see that what he had just taught her was useless in this situation. She stared at him all the way down the line and had the feeling that if she had a knife, she could have stabbed him with it. Then she looked back at the board and pushed her own queen’s pawn forward, determined to beat him.
He moved the pawn next to his queen’s pawn, which was in front of the bishop. He did this often. “Is this one of those things? Like the Sicilian defense?” she asked.
“Openings.” He did not look at them; he was watching the board.
“Is that it?” she asked.
He shrugged his shoulders. “The Queen’s Gambit.”

Remarkably, her reaction to this move seems to have set in motion the chaos of her later life, in which she succumbs to an addiction to pills and alcohol: “She decided not to take the pawn offered, in order to keep the tension on the board. She liked that so much,” writes Tevis.

Although the Queen’s Gambit move allows Black to take one of White’s pawns, it is a so-called “pawn sacrifice” move, which aims to gain control of the center of the board.

Although this move is widely used in chess, in the novel and the book it becomes a metaphor for Beth’s own life and the sacrifices she makes for chess. In the show she is, after all, both a chess queen, but also, like the chess queen piece, often much more powerful than the “kings” of chess around her.

Apart from this first use of the queen’s gambit, the move is mentioned four more times in the book.

The first time Beth used it, for example, “she felt with dismay that it had been a mistake. The Queen’s Gambit could lead to complicated positions, and this was Byzantine”.

This seems to represent the complicated positions she was in at the time, when she was rising in the chess ranks, while dealing with her addictions, her burgeoning femininity and her status as an adopted child.

Later in the book, however, she begins to avoid the Queen’s Gambit, as she develops both as a player and as a woman who, to follow the metaphor, gets tired of the sacrifices she has to make.

On about two-thirds of the way into the book we learn, for example, how “she decided to avoid the Queen’s Gambit and try to lead it into unknown territory with the Dutch defense.

Although the series uses chess as a metaphor for Beth’s life in a more subtle way than the book, the Queen’s Gambit is still an opening, which she uses several times and provides a chess fan with an Easter egg that reveals the mental state of the piece throughout the series.

The Queen’s Gambit is now broadcast on Netflix….

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