The Queen’s Gambit is a Netflix miniseries that tells a deep story woven with chess and substance abuse. I’ll try not to give everything away, but I do describe some scenes. I love chess. It’s an intelligent, romantic game at which I have no skill. I think my dad taught me to play when I was a kid. The board and chess pieces, themselves, are beautiful, carved into elegant shapes on top of the clean boundaries of the black and white squares. This is what attracted me when I saw it on Netflix and then I saw that it was about addiction and I decided to keep scrolling. I’m an alcoholic and former addict, so I am a little cautious about watching that sort of thing. My mom was sure I would like this one and just turned it on one day when I was over for lunch. I thought, how exciting can a show about chess be and how interesting can this plain-looking girl really get? The answer was so much more than I had imagined. It was really interesting to learn about the chess world and how competitive it is but it was also exhilarating to see the ways I relate to Beth Harmon and the way actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, did an impeccable job demonstrating what felt like pieces of me.
Oh, what it must feel like to be truly gifted, to excel at something beyond all others! In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon is a gifted chess player and orphan who learned to play when she was nine years old. She read stacks of books on the subject, studied eight hours a day and played games on the ceiling in bed. I never could just choose one thing and perfect it. No, it was never enough for me. It’s still never enough. Upon watching the first three episodes, I felt like crying because I’m not gifted. Perhaps, I had been given a gift but it was tossed aside like a book I’d never get around to reading. I have had interests and things I enjoy doing. Some of those things people have even said I was good at but I’m a master of none, really. That is where Beth and I differ. I used all my energy trying to fit in everywhere and she just stuck with chess. I wish I would’ve done that. Leave it to me and 21st century entertainment to make me feel depressed for not living up to a fictional character.
Vodka and Chess
The show was extremely triggering yet it felt validating at the same time. The images depicted in The Queen’s Gambit are vivid and eye-catching with blue and white capsules beautifully displayed in glass decanters and engraved pill vials. Drinks were served in the best crystal with all the mouthwatering garnish. There was beer, wine, champagne and vodka. Oh, the vodka! I hate onions but I wanted to dive right into those Gibsons. I love her adopted mother, who also seems to have social anxiety, unable to perform as a talented pianist. She sets out to be a housewife but after losing a child and adopting Beth, her husband leaves her. Her love of drinking triggered me, but her escape of ever seeming out of control seems unrealistic. She starts using tranquilizers not knowing Beth’s history of using them and then eventually offers her liquor. I wasn’t an orphan but my parents were drug addicts and alcoholics. It happens so unintentionally but we learn observed behaviors. It was fantastic that Beth got a loving and supportive mother and I was so happy for her. I love the way her mother talks, very matter of fact and eloquent. The costume and set design are absolutely delightful! It’s fun that she travels to large hotels in Mexico, Las Vegas, Russia and Paris for chess tournaments. The décor is amazingly on point in every city and very luxurious. Sixties fashion is well represented in The Queen’s Gambit and Beth always wears something chic. I loved watching her hair and makeup evolve from the fifties to the sixties. Even the soundtrack is perfection.
More astoundingly, I was also triggered from a mental health standpoint and I expect there are many others who feel the same. It was jarring how much I relate to Harmon in that I’ve always felt different in some way. Maybe, you could call it eccentricity or being precocious but we are different than most people. It’s inclusive of social anxiety and the substances we need in order to relax enough to feel comfortable, in order to have fun, or even just hold a conversation. It made me miss that girl. She was confident and funny, interesting. She knew what to say to people. She felt good. But it isn’t good, is it? I hate to be the bearer of bad news but it never goes away. I was reminded that I feel like I don’t belong most of the time. However, developing self love and acceptance helps exponentially.
There is a scene where Harmon is invited to a meeting of Apple Pi, a high school club, and all the girls listen to music and start dancing. Harmon is so confused and just stands there wondering what to do before excusing herself to the bathroom. This exact thing happened to me in high school when two friends that I wanted to fit in with invited me over. They started playing loud music and dancing around on the bed and such. I had the hardest time making myself do it. And I don’t remember how the situation ended up. I just remember feeling utterly out of place, standing there looking at them. Yes, it looked fun and that was fine with me, but not something I wanted to do — sober, anyway.
It was lovely to see her in her sober period in New York, killing it at chess. I enjoyed becoming familiar with more chess terms and the process of tournament play. I had no idea there were books written about chess strategies. These players are on another level when they start playing speed chess or spouting off positions from their head. Her friend, Benny, kept giving me David Spade vibes but he was a fantastic character and chess coach. Then I was sickeningly satisfied to see her ruin her game after drinking and then eventually spiral out of control. Finally, she turned into something very ugly. It was an accurate portrayal. Being gifted did nothing to save her.
Leave it to Jolene to bring it all around for me! I love this strong black woman and I loved her in the orphanage, too. When they started talking about why Beth was a drunk and she immediately started questioning her birth mother she was echoing what had piqued my curiosity in the beginning. I’m back to wondering why some of us are prone to this social awkwardness. Is it our genetics or childhood trauma. I appreciate that it doesn’t try to explain it. Well, it actually states that often genius and madness go hand in hand and with that I have no commonality because I have never claimed to be a genius. When they pull up to that trailer, where Beth lived before her mom killed herself, I almost went through the roof. That’s where I grew up, almost identical. So, Beth went to an orphanage and I stayed in that trailer. Jolene told her that her mama’s gone and to stop thinking about what’s in the past. She is absolutely right because it doesn’t matter anymore.
It was heartbreaking but touching to see Beth go into the janitor’s room after his funeral. Beth didn’t realize until then how much this man had truly meant to her. Seeing the pictures of her that he kept, she realized that he was the closest thing to a father figure she ever had. I can relate to not realizing my actual emotions about something until they actually hit me in the face. I think it’s a defense mechanism of the emotionally damaged. That also brings up the way Benny told her never to call him again. Broken relationships are always a given in the life of an alcoholic. Unfortunately, in real life, they are not usually all there cheering you on in the end.
It was a beautiful story and it was dramatically and artistically written, performed and directed. There is a lot of growth throughout the series, as there has been in my life, and I love the ending. My favorite quote is “To thine own self be true” and, in the end, Beth walks alone into a park full of regular people to play chess. I think that is what really gives us all happiness, to just be around others who enjoy what we enjoy and do what we love doing. ♟