The Queen’s Gambit Explained: What’s Up With the Ending?
December 7, 2022
America, mid fifties. Nine-year-old girl Beth Harmon (Isla Johnston) and her mother get into a terrible car accident. Mother Beth dies, the girl remains alive. Since she has no relatives – the girl’s father left the family long ago – Beth is given to an orphanage in Lexington, Kentucky.
Beth is very reserved, as if out of this world. However, at the orphanage, she makes friends with a dark-skinned girl, Jolene (Moses Ingram), who somewhat brightens up Beth’s stay in this rather bleak institution.
The janitor at the orphanage is Mr. Scheibel (Bill Camp): a sullen and unsociable man who spends all his free time in the back room at the chessboard, on which he endlessly plays games with himself.
At some point, Beth saw Mr. Scheibel with chess and asked him to teach her how to play. Mr. Scheibel at first was not at all eager to do this, but it turned out that Beth grasped everything very quickly, and after a while she began to play on an equal footing with the cleaner, and then she also began to win against him.
The game of chess completely captured the girl: at night she plays games, arranging the pieces on an imaginary board located on the ceiling of the bedroom. At the same time, her imagination is noticeably spurred on by tranquilizers, with which it was then customary to feed the pupils of the orphanage: after taking them, the girls became calmer and caused less trouble to the caregivers.
At some point, the grown-up Beth was adopted by the Whitleys: Alma (Mariel Heller) and Alston (Patrick Kennedy). However, Mr. Alston quickly ran away from the family, Alma, who used to like to drink, began to drink a lot, but Beth pays little attention to anything: she continues to work hard at chess. At some point, Alma, whose financial situation has become very unstable after the departure of Mr. Alston, finds out that good prize money is paid at chess tournaments. And then she becomes Beth’s impresario, and together they begin to travel to tournaments.
The series (more precisely, a mini-series, because it is a complete story) is based on the book “Queen’s Move” by American writer Walter Tevis. The writer himself played chess well, was very well versed in the history of chess, and in order to make everything look as authentic as possible in the book, he invited the very famous chess coach Bruce Pandolfini as consultants. The book was published in 1983 and was very well received.
In the early 1990s, screenwriter Allan Scott acquired the film rights to Tevis’s book and wrote a feature-length screenplay. Actor Heath Ledger showed great interest in this script, and at some point, gradual preparations for the creation of the film began (in particular, Ellen Page was planned for the role of Beth), but the tragic death of Heath Ledger at the age of twenty-eight stopped work on the film.
Some time ago, showrunner Scott Frank (one of the creators of Shameless) was interested in making a miniseries out of Tevis’s book. He seriously revised Scott’s script and offered the project to the Netflix streaming service. They supported the project and did not lose at all. This is already one of the most successful projects of the service: in the first twenty-eight days, the series was watched from 62 million accounts of the service, “Queen’s Move” hit the daily top 10 Netflix in 92 countries and took first place in 63 of them.
This is a mini-series with seven episodes of sixty minutes each, and it’s not really a series: rather, it’s a picture of seven hours, divided into chapters, each of which has a purely chess title: “Openings”, “Exchanges”, “Double Pawns” ”, “Middlegame”, “Fork”, “Game Postponement”, “Endgame”.
And this is really an absolutely amazing series, I never expected that something so exciting could be filmed on the topic of playing chess! After all, a game of chess for those who do not understand this game from the outside looks wildly boring: some people are sitting, looking at the board, making some moves at long intervals – well, that’s all. And they call it sport?!
However, of course, “The Queen’s Move” is not really about playing chess. This is the story of the main character – a girl who was left without parents at the age of nine, and she will be haunted all her life by a terrible memory that her mother wanted to kill her. About how lonely she was, about how she was addicted to tranquilizers from childhood, about how the game of chess entered her life, which became the main and all-consuming passion of her whole life. About how at first she did not trust anyone and how people gradually began to enter her life for whom she was very important and who became very important to her.
With all the hallmarks of a so-called sports drama, this is not a sports drama, although it tells about how hard she studied chess and how consistently and very purposefully she went to her triumph. However, it is clearly shown here that, for example, winning the main chess crown is not the main thing for her. For her, the main thing is to play chess, she is obsessed with this game.
Little Beth at the orphanage is played by Isla Johnston, and she’s a very interesting character. Beth seems to be closed in on herself all the time, slightly inhibited, as it were, but at the same time it is clear how steadily she knows how to achieve her goal. After all, Mr. Scheibel actually “sent” her at first, saying that he does not play with strangers, and girls do not play chess at all. But he has no chance of not teaching Beth, she will still make him do it.
Adult Beth was played by Anya Taylor-Joy, and this is something downright amazing! Cold, distant and at the same time studying the look of the Snow Queen (the actress, by the way, has a rather exotic origin: her mother is an Englishwoman of South African and Spanish descent, her father is a Scottish Argentinean; what a combination, isn’t it?), a manic obsession with chess, a penchant for self-destruction (alcohol and tranquilizers), the initial inability to get close to someone. The image is incredibly bright, original and interesting. I am sure that Anya Taylor-Joy will receive a major Emmy for this role, because it is really something outstanding! And how wonderfully she showed her heroine, who initially does not seem to experience any emotions at all, but then, nevertheless, something begins to appear in her!
But besides the role of Beth, there are still some excellent roles. First of all, I really liked Marielle Heller, who played the girl’s adoptive mother. By the way, Mariel is much more famous as a director than as an actress: she, in particular, directed a good film “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood”. Her Alma at first seems rather boring: well, she drinks herself not from a good life, plays the piano to somehow distract herself. However, when a certain meaning appears in her life – to become an impresario for Beth – Alma is transformed. And there, the process of the gradual rapprochement of the girl with the foster mother is shown very touchingly and very subtly. They are both infinitely lonely, well, including on this basis, they, oddly enough, are getting closer.
Harry Melling is a good actor (for some reason, reviews always mention that Melling is the grown-up Dudley Dursley from Harry Potter, but I didn’t watch Harry Potter, so for me Melling is Wingless Thrush from Buster’s Ballad Scruggs” and Rev. Roy Lafferty from “The Devil Is Always Here”) portrayed in this mini-series Harry Beltick, the first chess player she met on her path, who played a certain role in her destiny. As I expected, Melling’s Beltik turned out just great: a kind of village chess star, contemptuous of everyone and everything at the beginning, but after a while Beltik completely changed his attitude towards Beth and, in general, became her friend and in kind of a coach.
(Film critic Stanislav Zelvensky, in his sharply disliked review, wrote, and I quote: “Let’s note Harry Melling, the former Dudley Dursley, who suddenly became very numerous,” to which I will say that, as for me, Melling does not happen much, unlike from Zelvensky himself.)
It was very unexpected to see actor Thomas Sangster here – he seems to have recently played a teenager Sam in Love Actually – and here Thomas is already thirty years old and he plays a kind of chess genius Benny Watts, who also played a prominent role in the fate of Beth. Interestingly, Sangster has changed very little – it’s the same Sam, only grown up, with a mustache and a passion for wearing western villain clothes: cowboy boots, jeans, a leather coat and a wide-brimmed hat, while he always has a knife hanging from his belt – wow chess player!
Benny is great, bright and original. Weird, yes, but it fits in well with the type of chess genius who, on the one hand, is a nerd, and on the other, uses such clearly brutal paraphernalia: a cowboy outfit, a raincoat, a hat and a knife to hide it. In some reviews, the authors wrote that they saw in him just the matured Sam from Love Actually – no, I will never agree with this: in my opinion, Tom Watts played perfectly, this is a completely independent and bright character, and Tom really good actor.
There was an interesting story here with the world champion, the Soviet chess player Vasily Borgov, who was played by the Pole Marcin Dorochinsky. Initially, this role was offered to Garry Kasparov, the thirteenth world chess champion, an absolutely legendary man in the chess world. But Garry Kimovich wisely refused, knowing full well that the boots should be made by a shoemaker, and the character in the fictitious plot should be played by an actor, although it is understandable why the showrunners of the series were so tempted to invite Kasparov to this role. But on the other hand, Kasparov became a consultant for the series, and this was very important, which we will talk about a little later.
So, Dorotsinsky played Borgova. He played well, but here it is important not only and not so much how it was played, but how in the series, without exaggeration, one of the strongest Soviet chess schools in the world was shown without exaggeration. And this is also a component of this simply iconic series, because Soviet chess players are shown here with great respect! Borgov is never a caricature, but quite the opposite: he is a real grandmaster and at the same time a noble person – even he, the world champion, accepts his defeats with great dignity.
Yes, at first he considered Beth a strange upstart, but when he fought her several times on the chessboard, he realized that she was a top-level chess player with a very interesting and always attacking game. And there is a great scene in the elevator at the championship in Mexico (which, by the way, was invented and proposed for the series by Garry Kasparov), where Borgov, entering the elevator where Beth rides, discusses Beth in Russian with members of his team and talks about how that she is very similar in style to them, Soviet grandmasters, while Beth already understands Russian, because she learned Russian in order to read Soviet chess magazines …
Do you think it’s all such cinematic cranberries? Do you know who Beth Harmon was based on? Of course, Bobby Fischer, the strongest chess player of the twentieth century, there is no doubt about it! He was self-taught, at the age of fourteen he became the US champion, at fifteen he became the youngest grandmaster in history, and in 1972 he became the eleventh world chess champion, after which he became very foolish and stopped playing at the championships. He had an extremely complex and in many ways unpleasant character, he was a very extravagant person. So, Bobby Fischer learned Russian in order to read Soviet chess magazines in the original. And he received the title of the eleventh champion by taking the championship from the Soviet grandmaster Boris Spassky in Reykjavik.
Now about how it’s all delivered and filmed. It’s also amazingly staged and filmed. Recreation of the life of those times, costumes, entourage, camera work (how differently chess games are shown deserves a separate discussion) – this is absolutely wonderful. Well, yes, then Moscow (everyone was filmed in East Berlin) was shown with the Cathedral of Christ the Savior on the site of the then pool (a common story that can hurt only those who remember that once in Moscow there was a good pool in this place, and not this one trade shop for corporate events), well, yes, they raised questions for the stewardess of the Aeroflot plane and for the boy who offered to pour vodka for breakfast in a Moscow hotel, but what do you want – we ourselves created these stereotypes with vodka for breakfast! I will never forget,
The entourage of the World Cup in Moscow looked somewhat imperial, but in fact, these games were played in many places, and the same Kasparov said that it all looks more or less reliable, and who to trust in these matters, if not him ?
Also, the scenes when Beth, leaving the World Championship match in Moscow, is greeted by a crowd of fans, seems completely wild to many reviewers – well, guys, you just don’t understand what chess was in the USSR! And I saw it with my own eyes! There were really crowds of fans who were waiting near the place where the games were held, somehow received the players’ moves, reproduced them on their portable boards (I also had one where the pieces had to be inserted into pockets on the board – the board was held vertically ), and they really greeted the brightest players after the game, as if they were rock stars – they were stars, only chess ones!
Now an important point about how chess games are shown in the series. In many films dedicated to chess, the creators somehow don’t care much about how it should look at all. Well, just think, we’ll make the diagonal white from left to right – but who will even notice? Well, just think, let’s put the pieces on the board from the bulldozer – but who even understands this?
Here – everything is completely different! And it’s also very cool! Garry Kasparov (the same chess coach Bruce Pandolfini, who advises the author of the book, was also a consultant) spent a lot of time making the main (he did not play games in the American outback, because it did not play a special role) games not just real, but also of interest to serious chess players. It was such a challenge for him, he accepted it and took the task seriously.
If you don’t understand anything in chess, then, of course, you don’t care how the pieces are placed there, however, my chess-player friends are already very actively discussing the games from the series, on the one hand, learning some traditional gambits, developments, defenses and endgames, on the other hand, noting how skillfully real games are used here, which at the same time are adapted to the series – that is, to Beth’s attacking style of play (there, by the way, there are very subtle moments that clearly point to Bobby Fischer’s style), and Garry Kasparov told how seriously he worked on it.
I can’t comment on all this due to my rather poor chess skills (my father played at the level of a master of sports, I also studied, but I didn’t reach any decent level), but I will make a reference to a very interesting interview of Garry Kasparov with Mikhail Kozyrev on “ Rain”, where he just told the whole story, also for those who understand chess, I highly recommend reading the most interesting article in “Fontanka” by film critic and chess player Maxim Andreev ““If you train, queen!” How the series, whose chess consultant was Garry Kasparov, became a sensation”, where exactly from the chess point of view the games in this series are analyzed. And it turns out that everything there is not only very reliable, but also insanely interesting – for those, of course, who understand.
Maxim Andreev’s article also contains another very interesting suggestion that “Queen’s Move” is almost pure “Alice Through the Looking-Glass”. I will quote Maxim so as not to retell:
If you haven’t guessed what the matter is, I’ll open the last chess spoiler: Scott Frank’s Queen’s Gambit is the most beautiful, most realistic variation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking-Glass, where Elizabeth’s white queen pawn, like Alice’s white royal pawn, overcomes the path from d2 to e8 – seven squares visited by Beth, that’s exactly seven series! and becomes the White Queen.
There are obvious similarities in the characters: for example, the heroine’s African-American friend Jolene (in the novel she teaches Beth to masturbate) is easily recognizable as the Black Queen.
That is why nitpicking about the realism of the Moscow scenes of the Queen’s Gambit looks like nonsense. Scott Frank shows not Moscow of the 60s at all, but Through the Looking Glass, Gotham City, Camelot, Valhalla, the island of Netine will be, a magical city that exists only in the imagination of Elizabeth Harmon. Had she been in this city, had she won against Borgov, or, like Carroll’s Alice, was she asleep in a drugged dream in an orphanage, and the magic chess danced its gloomy pre-dawn dance over her? And that’s enough – did little Beth really survive after that terrible accident in the first series or did she die with her mother?
Well, in general, an interesting assumption that has a right to exist, especially since at the end of the series, Beth is walking around Moscow in the outfit of the White Queen, and this was not done at all by chance. As well as the appearance of Juozas Budraitis in the very finale – for this once again great respect for the creators of the series, who made a gift specifically for us, immigrants from the USSR.
But what’s great about this series is that viewers can make all sorts of assumptions and interpret it all in different ways.
For me, this is an absolutely outstanding series, which I watched with great pleasure and realized that I would definitely be revisiting it, although I revise something very rarely. Absolutely everything is harmonious in it: the script, the acting, the staging, the camera work, the work of artists with decorators, and the musical accompaniment – well, it’s just almost a masterpiece!
By the way, you can already clearly see what a really explosive interest this series has aroused in chess. A very sharp increase in downloads of chess apps on Google Play and iTunes, a huge increase in the number of purchases of regular chess on Amazon and eBay – well, that’s great! And then when I read about the sharp increase in the number of car thefts after the release of the film “Gone in 60 Seconds”, I thought: “Fuck you, idiots, did you even film this?”
Here we can only say that they filmed very correctly and shot incredibly talentedly. I really didn’t expect it – this is clearly the best series of 2020!
PS The original title of the film, of course, should be translated as “Queen’s Gambit”. But in the English name Queen, in addition to the chess piece, it also means the queen, that is, the white chess queen Beth, so I think the translation option as “Queen’s move” is quite justified.
Queen’s Gambit movie review
Producer: Scott Frank, Allan Scott
Anya Taylor-Joy, Marielle Heller, Moses Ingram, Isla Johnston, Bill Camp, Harry Melling, Thomas Sangster, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd, Matthew Dennis Lewis, Russell Lewis, Marcin Dorochinsky, Moses Ingram, Patrick Kennedy, Juozas Budraitis
Series, USA, 2020, 60 min. 1 season, 7 episodes, 460 minutes