The Queen's Gambit

The protagonist's speedy evolution into an anti–Cold Warrior is the better subplot.


The Netflix adaptation of Walter Tevis' 1983 novel The Queen's Gambit has punched above its weight since it started streaming in October. The sets and costume are gorgeous and the acting is good, but the stakes are nonexistent: We know from the first episode that child chess prodigy Beth Harmon (played by 24-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy) is going to win a lot of matches, even with a tranquilizer habit clinging to her back.

But there is more to this story than a phenom making the most of her gifts. Set in the 1950s and '60s, The Queen's Gambit has more to say about geopolitics and culture than it does about opening moves. Episode by episode, we learn that America's best players were largely anonymous, duking it out in drabby hotels and high school cafeterias, while in other countries—particularly Mexico, France, and the Soviet Union—chess was a celebrated and even glamorous sport.

It's fascinating to watch Taylor-Joy as the only woman climbing the American ranks, but her speedy evolution into an anti–Cold Warrior is the better subplot. Upon qualifying to play in Moscow against the USSR's top talent, Harmon is recruited first by a Christian nonprofit hellbent on fighting the evils of atheism and then by a State Department apparatchik who cares only that Harmon can beat the Soviets "at their own game."

She rebuffs both parties by refusing the former's funding and the latter's instructions to bash the Soviet Union. For Harmon, chess no more "belongs" to any nation or gender than does the moon. When she wins, it's for her, not the jingoists.

NEXT: Hillbilly Elegy

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  1. “Christian nonprofit hellbent on fighting the evils of atheism and then by a State Department apparatchik who cares only that Harmon can beat the Soviets “at their own game.”

    Those dastardly Xtians and American apparatchiks, casting shade on the land of hugs and peace. I bet that Solzhenitsyn was enjoying a good game of pinecone chess in his idyllic forest retreat at the time this movie was set.

    I’m sure it won’t be long until Netflix starts to show us that there were some good people who just wanted to get along in the Nazi regime too.

    1. “pinecone chess”

      Frozen turd chess.

      1. What about the white pieces?

    2. Of course this represents the best part of the film for the Marxist apologists at Reason. Shilling for bloodthirsty communist regimes since they cashed the first Koch check in the 1970s.

    3. Please explain how being against the Cold War is the same as being a communist apologist or a Soviet sympathizer or whatever you’re implying in your critique.

      1. Hi White Knight.

      2. The Cold War was a geopolitical rivalry between the “free world”, let by the United States, and the communist bloc, led by the Soviet Union. Being opposed to US opposition to Soviet expansion and global supremacy is kinda like being a Soviet apologist. You of all people should know since you have repeatedly defended Stalin and the Soviet gulags on your several other handles, ever since the olden days when you went by shreek.

        Now go suck some more commie cock like the good little faggot you are, and I’ll play the part of Che and blow your brains out for it.

    4. Well that will never happen. Maybe Mao’s China though.

  2. the moon is
    mine, mine, mine, all mine!

  3. Good show.

    Chess is just one example of how sports and games are politicized. The US Soviet rivalry peaked in the 70s with Bobby Fisher defeating Spassky.

    In the end she refuses to be used as a pawn in the political game. She has been used all of her life and other than booze and drugs, chess has been her one outlet. It has bought her independence.

    1. So brave. So real.

      1. So stunning and brave.

  4. Turkish Gambit is a good movie. A Netflix production seems like it would contain social programming.

  5. “It’s fascinating to watch Taylor-Joy as the only woman climbing the American ranks, but her speedy evolution into an anti–Cold Warrior is the better subplot”

    In the series, she does not transform into an anti-Cold Warrior. She transforms into a communist. She can’t beat the Soviets because Americans are all working as individuals, and the Russian players are all working together collectively to defeat her. She only ends up defeating the Russians because she and her friends start working together collectively to defeat them. Her individual genius is insufficient to defeat the Soviet system. In the end, she literally leave the U.S. behind and joins the Soviet proletariat, playing chess with the Russians in Gorky park–against American viewers watching at home. Her transformation into a communist is then complete.

    It should be noted that the superiority of communism to American individualism is the ,main plot from the beginning of the series to the end. The story of her life is a tour of American individuals who constantly fail because they’re struggling in a system that reverences individuals working alone. The reason her mother tries to kill them both is because it’s impossible for her to raise her daughter alone in a capitalist system. The man who teaches her chess as a child is reviled for being a janitor–rather than praised as being part of a collective system. Her adopted mother can’t cope with life on her own and gets no support from her husband. Her model friend exposes the emptiness of consumer culture. Her chess friends fail because they struggle to compete against each other as individuals rather than work together to defeat their opponents.

    The reviews I’m reading by libertarians (and I think this is the third or fourth I’ve read on Reason), seem to be telling us more about the people watching the series and their feelings about the Cold War than it does about the piece itself or the intentions of the director. The piece itself is about an American orphaned individual’s transformation into a committed communist–playing a supremely Russian game by finally surrendering to the superiority of the communist system. For goodness’ sake, let’s stop pretending it says whatever we want it to say–just because it’s so well written, so well directed, so well acted, and so well edited.

    I’m dying to see somebody finally attack this piece and hit it where it really hurts. Let’s start with the reason why they had to invent an historical fiction in order to make this series. Surely it has something to do with the fact that when the western chess players went up against the Russian heavyweights during the Cold War, Bobby Fischer won. He didn’t win because he colluded with other Americans–although the Russian did collude. The World Chess Federation changed their tournaments from round-robin to elimination matches, specifically, in response to the collusion of Soviet player against Fischer.

    And let’s talk about other disciplines dominated by the communists and how some of the best individuals defected from the communist, collectivist system as soon as they could–from Nureyev in the 1960s and Baryshnikov in the 1970s to Nadia Nadia Comaneci in the 1980s. If the greatest achievements of the greatest individuals only comes from the collective efforts of the proletariat, why did so many amazing individual achievers flee the communist system for the capitalist and individualist West?

    Have we talked about the American defeating the Russians in hockey in the 1980 Olympics? The reason the international bodies didn’t want professional athletes playing in the Olympics, back then, was because American professional athletes–playing for their own selfish reasons–were so good, the Americans would have dominated everything, and when they started letting professional basketball players play in the Olympics, the Dream Team absolutely annihilated the competition. The reason Americans like Sean White destroy at the Olympics is because American capitalism both enables a tremendous amount of leisure activity among a larger group of people, and the rewards for individual success are so dramatic.

    1. Well that’s one way to view it, but I guess you find what you are looking for.

      I didn’t see a glorification of the communist system in the show, I saw a Soviet state grooming top players from an early age and rewarding them with status and perks, as long as they kept winning.

      Harmon didn’t win because she colluded with other top US players, she won because she overcame her inner demons and put in the work studying her opponents past games, mastering speed chess to improve her feel for the game, and accepting advice and other perspectives. Trusting her innate talent was enough in the minor leagues that was US chess, but she had to earn her victory against the best players in the world.

      The show does have her collaborating with her other US chess buddies to form a strategy against the Soviet champion, but their combined plan falls apart when he figures it out and shuts it down, so Harmon has to improvise to beat him.

      And I view the final scene of her playing chess against Russian chess enthusiasts in the park not as her becoming a commie, but as a sign that people from different systems are still people, and a common love for a game can bring them together.

      1. “Harmon didn’t win because she colluded with other top US players, she won because she overcame her inner demons and put in the work studying her opponents past games”

        That is factually incorrect.

        She saw the Russians were colluding on their moves in an adjacent hotel room.

        She was only able to go because he childhood friend gave up the ability to go to law school so that she could go to Russia and play in the tournament.

        She was only able to win because her boyfriend came from the United States and surprised her in her hotel room–and all of her friends back in New York were working together to help her formulate her next move. Only then was she able to defeat the Russians–through collective effort rather than individual genius.

        “Well that’s one way to view it, but I guess you find what you are looking for.

        And that’s what happened regardless of whether you were looking for it.

      2. At the end of the movie, she literally rejects the United States and joins the proletariat.

        1. You must have seen a different “movie”.

          1. She literally left a U.S. limousine, refused to participate in a press event that would make communism look bad, and dressed as the White Queen (as a chess piece won by the Soviet Union) she joins the Soviet proletariat to play “the game”–regardless of whether I mistakenly called it a movie.

            Here watch for yourself.


    2. This review is hilarious. Thanks Ken.

      1. Yeah, this series is openly advocating communism, but other than that, it’s a great series?!

        Birth of a Nation portrays the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force, and Triumph of the Will is pro-Nazi propaganda, but apart from that, they’re great movies–is that what I’m supposed to think?!

        . . . but other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you enjoy the play?

        1. Meh

          She is not playing with and against communists. She is playing with and against Russians.

          She is not interested in politics. She wants to get inside the heads of the best players in the world.

    3. “She transforms into a communist.”

      Read the book. I haven’t yet, but I’d be very surprised if in it the protagonist converts to communism. In The Hustler, Tevis’ first novel on pool sharkery, the player’s main struggle is not to succumb to his ‘inner loser.’

  6. Who ever is writing this script or book did not know the 1970’s to 1980’s chess community to well ( or even 90’s for that matter). We had a lot of chess masters that fled the Soviet Union for the U.S at that time ( as well as Eastern Europe. ). Who told tell us how bad it was on the other side back then. We had one who lived here in Colorado, when anointing his games, He would make a lot of comments about how the communist psychologist would try to convince him that he was insane for rejecting their doctrine. He also wrote about how his skills at chess proved that they where wrong about him being insane. I wish their was a way to scan the commentary he did and put it up here. Being anti cold war would have been a good way to have western chess player give you the cold shoulder back then.

    1. It seems like they knew it very well. The Russians were terrified that their top players would defect during the tournament in Mexico. They assigned KGB agents to accompany them the whole time.

  7. Hillbilly Elegy and Queen’s Gambit reviews? What is this, recycled movie and TV review week?

    1. Sullum gobbled up the budget with anti-Trump articles.

  8. Being an anti-Cold Warrior was a good thing,…why?

    What is the virtue of opposing the opposition to Communism?

    1. Apparently, it’s a libertarian principle that everyone should be free to advance ideologies that seek to destroy libertarianism. It seems a little self-destructive, but that’s just me.

      1. It is hard to reconcile a philosophy based on individual sovereignty with forced imposition of an ideology. As individuals or a freely associated group we can be against communism as we are against many other things governments do but it does not give us the right to force our views on others.

        The USSR did not collapse because of the Cold War. It collapsed because nobody wanted to buy Bulgarian Shoes as PJO put it.

        We had all the good stuff. Levi’s, Ford Mustangs, Bon Jovi, stores stocked with every kind of food. They were waiting in line for bread.

        True story about Gorbachev walking into a random grocery store in Texas and was just amazed. He insisted it must be a fake. When he was convinced it was just a normal grocery store he knew the game was up.

    2. At Reason, the mindset is that all you have to do is trade with despotic regimes and they will magically see the error of their ways and become capitalists serving the Koch empire.

  9. I look forward to reading the book. The same author wrote The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Both very different and excellent.

  10. One of the things I really liked about the show was how she was treated as a female in the male dominated sport. Initially she was questioned about her abilities not only because she was a woman, but also because she was unranked. After her first tournament that all changed. For the rest of the movie she was treated as an equal.

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