In the past couple of months, there has been a buzz about a Netflix series called, “The Queen’s Gambit.” After its release last October, it soared to the top of the Netflix charts and received worldwide acclaim from chessplayers and non-chessplayers alike. It has given chess a different look from the distorted “geek” imagery normally associated with the royal game.
Chess movies come in many different flavors. You have the romance-drama “The Luhzin Defense,” the biographical sketches seen in “Searching for Bobby Fischer” and “Pawn Sacrifice.” There were depictions of chess as an escape as in “Life of a King” and “Fresh.” There were also inspirational stories, such as “Mighty Pawns,” “Brooklyn Castle” and “Queen of Katwe.” More on the other Queen movie later.
What makes “Queen’s Gambit so different? There have been so many chess movies, even some involving a similar theme. Yet, there was a particular intrigue of Beth Harmon. Let’s examine.
Meteroic Rise of Beth Harmon
The profile of chess has gotten a tremendous boost due to the showing of “Queen Gambit.” The TV series has been viewed in more than 60 countries and has been discussed on media outlets worldwide for its storyline and chess realism. The series had Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini as consultants adding credibility to the production.
“Queen’s Gambit” is a fictional story of Beth Harmon who would become a child chess prodigy of world acclaim. The series begins with a 19-year old Beth Harmon being late for a major tournament in Paris after wearing off the effects of binge-drinking from the previous night. Addiction would become a recurring theme throughout the series.
“It’s a TV series on chess that has been dominating Netflix in almost every country of the world.”
The film rewinds to the aftermath of a deadly car crash. Alice Harmon (Beth’s mother) tragically died in the head-on collision, saying her last words… “Close your eyes.” The impression given was that the incident was a suicide. Beth stood shellshocked by the road as authorities discover that the father was not present in her life.
Now orphaned at eight years old, Harmon is sent to Methuen Home for Girls where she shows tremendous intellectual talent. After blazing through her work with full marks, the teacher sends her on an errand where she meets custodial worker Mr. Shaibel. He is engrossed in the study of chess. Beth quietly inches closer and becomes intrigued. After initial reluctance to teach her, he finally agrees. As she settled into her bed to sleep, she discovered that she could visualize chess with the aid of tranquilizers.
The movie then follows Beth’s chess exploits while she makes breakthroughs at the state and national level. After beating the defending U.S. champion, Benny Watts she sets sights on the elite Soviet player Vasily Borgov beating him in a finale in Moscow. He had previously crushed her in a Mexico City tournament. This revenge victory was an incredible whirlwind.
In an interview by Marco Werman (The World), Kasparov stated,
I can hardly overestimate the importance and positive impact of the series for the promotion of the game of chess worldwide. It’s a TV series on chess that has been dominating Netflix in almost every country of the world.
The movie had wonderful cinematography, and of course, the chess scenes were authentic. There was a bit of realism in that many players have the same hopes and dreams and may envision the same life as Beth. In fact, some believe the movie is based on the life of Bobby Fischer, but that would be a stretch for so many reasons. Nevertheless, the accuracy of the chess scenes made it a refreshing change from the clumsily-crafted chess movies with so many technical mistakes.
The Triumph of Phiona Mutesi… The Queen of Katwe
Everyone familiar with chess understands that the queen is the most powerful piece. This was in honor of Queen Isabella, who helped lead the Reconquista against the Moors. It is also symbolic that two films with a female as the central character have “queen” in the title. The “Queen of Katwe” was a Disney movie adapted from a book of the same name.
“Phiona Mutesi is the ultimate underdog. To be African is to be an underdog in the world. To be Ugandan is to be an underdog in Africa. To be from Katwe is to be an underdog in Uganda. And finally, to be female is to be an underdog in Katwe.”
Author Tim Crothers embarked on a journey to one of Africa’s poorest parts to follow a story of a 9-year old Ugandan girl who had beat all odds to make a breakthrough in chess. Granted, her exploits were modest by international standards, but most will know that everyone was once a beginner and had to show some initiative to improve.
Phiona left Katwe traveling to the country’s international airport. She marveled at Kampala’s airport before experiencing air flight for the first time. She went to Sudan and unexpectantly triumphs and returned home to a hero’s celebration. It was certainly a whirlwind for the young girl from the Katwe. Not to be outdone, she made the Ugandan women’s national team and earned a trip to travel to Russia’s Siberian region to participate in the Olympiad. There she experienced snow for the first time.
This tournament would steep her in the harsh reality of competition amongst world-class players. The adjustment was difficult as the food was not agreeable, and Phiona was devastated at her performance. With tears soaking her pillow, she took the lesson as one of her life experiences. Phiona went on to represent her country in five Olympiads. After her taste of fame, and U.S. tour, she got her mother out of the shack, bought her home, and then went off to the U.S. to enter Northwest University.
Both stories have similarities, but also, there are many contrasts. Anya Taylor-Joy, who played Beth Harmon, has hobnobbed with Grandmasters and has been on all types of interviews explaining the magic of the movie.
Phiona was also a subject of intrigue as she toured the U.S. telling her life story. She played a game with Garry Kasparov and visited the Marshall Chess Club. While her story is indeed powerful, it did not gain the public interest and frankly fizzled at the box office.
Harriet teaching Phiona hard lessons of life. The chemistry between Lupita Nyong’o and Madina Nalwanga was exceptional. Image from Walt Disney.
Marquee performances by Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo and able directing by Mira Nair gained them many nominations and a few awards. One may ask, why was there such a difference in the way “Queen’s Gambit” was received compared to “Queen of Katwe?” It’s an interesting question.
Analysis of the Two Queens
Even though Beth Harmon’s story was fictitious, it is a story that would resonate with many chess players, male and female. For those who play competitive chess, we are always striving for that moment of inspiration to achieve our goals. “Queen’s Gambit” was also a story of intrigue because of the human element… a sort of “rags-to-riches” story.
Phiona’s story was indeed compelling and touched the soul. It details the sorrows of a girl and her family gripped in poverty while working hard to survive day-to-day. Chess, in this case, was merely a vehicle and not the objective. The “Queen of Katwe” was set in one of the most impoverished places of Uganda and perhaps not a situation many (in the western world) can easily relate to.
There are a number of factors, but the issue here is not to say that one film is better than the other, but to show that both “queen” films are equally important when looking at the different social challenges these two girls had to overcome. Many are afraid to broach the subject because, symbolically, it may seem to be a discussion on race. Perhaps, but in this essay, a larger point is being made. Let us examine.
Marketing: Media formats have changed in the past decade. It seems just yesterday that Blu-Ray DVDs were the latest media platform, but in today’s streaming world, people have become accustomed to “binging” on multipart TV series. Some of the shorter TV series are a bit more palatable because watching the entire series could be done on the weekend… maybe even one day. You get seven or eight hours of the story as opposed to two-and-a-half hours.
The movie theater has been hurt by the current pandemic as most have stayed confined to the home, which is much more conducive to watching an entire series with the family. Even back in 2016, this platform had already been suffering mightily. “Queen of Katwe” had a limited release on September 16, 2016, and was only seen in selected theaters. The other mistake was that Katwe was marketed as a chess movie when the game was mostly metaphorical.
“In chess, the small one can become the big one.”
~Gloria in “Queen of Katwe”
Opportunity: Many would prefer being poor in the world’s wealthiest country than being poor in a relatively poor country. There was a big contrast in the cinematography and setting given the economic factors. As girls, Beth was rather somber while at the orphanage, while Phiona flashed a 1000-watt smile amidst abject poverty. How the two coped with their situations is also intriguing.
One may argue that Beth had a better chance of finding her way out of her unfortunate circumstance. Even her best friend Jolene moved out of the orphanage and graduated from Kentucky State University. Beth’s teacher Mr. Shaibel recognized her talent and immediately introduced her to influential people within the chess community. She was giving simuls shortly thereafter.
Beth was later adopted by a couple who provided her with stability until her ambivalent adoptive father left the family. Her alcohol-binging mother decided to help Beth exploit her chess talents and did so in grand style, playing in upscale hotels in Las Vegas and Mexico City.
Jolene and Beth ponder their futures at the orphanage.
Image from Netflix series, “Queen’s Gambit”
Robert Katende (left) in Katwe, Uganda, with Phiona Mutesi.
Photo by David Johnson, Silentimages.org.
Phiona had no such path to success, and in fact, her mother wanted her to leave the game. Fortunately, she succeeded by a number of fortuitous events.
- First, Robert Katende spotting the shy girl and exposing her to this strange world of chess.
- Second, her would-be friend Gloria helping her to broaden her mind by telling her that in chess, “the small one can be the big one.” Metaphorically, it was the idea that a person in the lower rungs of society can rise to be something special.
- Thirdly, Phiona realized that through chess she can see other possibilities in life. Soon, chess expanded her options as she began to travel outside of Katwe for tournaments.
Incidentally, actress Nikita Waligwa, who played the role of Gloria died last year at age 15.
Chess Realism: Chessically, “Queen’s Gambit” is arguably the best chess movie from a technical standpoint. The boards were not only set up properly, but the games were classics taken from previous high-level tournaments (notably A. Petrosian – V. Akopian, 1988). Obviously, Beth’s character was depicted as a supremely strong talent, adding to her intrigue. It was exciting to see such a meteoric rise, and many made comparisons to Judit Polgar, the strongest woman ever.
One of the criticisms was that Beth’s chess journey to fame seemed to be too easy. She wins the Kentucky State Championship beating defending champion Harry Beltik, co-winning the U.S. Open with Benny Watts and later beating him to win the U.S. Championship.
In contrast, many in the chess community scoffed at Phiona’s relatively modest accomplishments and decried the amount of attention she was getting after the movie’s release. It certainly was not good publicity, and the word got around that the movie was being overhyped.
In the latest New In Chess (2020/8), I described Phiona this way:
There seemed to be more attention on her chess rating than the horrid conditions under which she was able to survive and thrive. Phiona’s story is not about her chess skill. It is about her triumph over hopelessness and despair in one of the poverty-stricken parts of the world, the slums of Uganda’s capital Kampala. Chess was simply the avenue out of a poverty of thinking.
Many news stories referred to Phiona as a “prodigy.” The subtitle of Phiona’s story mentioned her quest to become a Grandmaster and was quickly seized on by chess elitists. There was indeed a lot of pressure for Phiona and in an interview, she reflected on the situation.
“My name, like, went so high, and my chess — it was still so low,” she says. “I wasn’t even the best chess champion, like, in Uganda. It was so hard.
I was working hard, but the more I worked hard, I couldn’t find my name. My name is there, but my chess is still here. I’m working so hard on it, and I felt like I was starting to forget about myself, my family.”
Phiona was under watchful eyes every time she sat down to play. Here at The Chess Drum, we had to address these criticisms and taunts. The reality is that Phiona achieved a modest 1600 FIDE rating when some equipped with libraries of books and software have not achieved the same. Nevertheless, chess was not the main lesson of her story and there are many who appreciate her life story.
Relatability: Years ago, I asked my sister if she had seen “Queen of Katwe.” She had not. She then asked, “Isn’t it about chess?” That is the question many had because that was the perception. Perhaps few non-chess-players would want to see a movie “about chess.” On the other hand, Beth’s story was very much about chess, and it was captured in great detail. It was exactly the point of her story.
Image from Netflix series, “Queen’s Gambit”
In both stories, both girls had no visible father figures due to very different circumstances. Phiona’s father died of HIV/AIDS, while Beth’s father was estranged from her mother. Fortunately, she had Mr. Shaibel who started her on her path of self-discovery. Phiona’s mentor was Robert Katende who provided mentorship and guidance.
Both girls also managed to develop themselves in circles of chess friends. Beth seemed to have greater challenges in understanding her identity. Her experimentation with drugs, sex, and alcohol added an edge to her life that we have seen depicted in many dramatic movies… and even in real life.
“Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful. It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”
~ Beth Harmon
Aesthetics: “Queen Gambit” was a masterpiece as far as the movie sets, cinematography, and vintage clothing. Beth became every bit of a fashionista and, of course, the center of attention as she strode into cavernous halls like a flower in a desert. Actress Anya Taylor-Joy has been a constant fixture in fashion and chess magazines after her ground-breaking performance and it is obvious that her stage presence was a major attraction.
There was not much of a fashion statement attempted in “Queen of Katwe,” although Lupita Nyong’o showed African standard of beauty in various photoshoots to promote the movie. Phiona had a different appeal with her gleaming white smile amidst dire circumstances. In her portrayal, there was more of an emphasis on the strength of human spirit rather than material sustenance. In that sense, the movie had tremendous aesthetic appeal.
Lupita Nyong’o on the cover of October 2016 Vogue magazine
during the run of “Queen of Katwe”
Beth Harmon in Moscow during the final scene.
Image from Netflix series, “Queen’s Gambit”
Race and Class: The elephant in the room these days is the topic of race. It is a subject that many avoid, but it is everpresent in western societies. In these two films, there are two realities. Two girls (one Black, one White) find themselves gripped in unfortunate circumstances. There is something about these two girls’ lives that are very similar while the circumstances are very different.
Beth is the daughter of a mathematician with a Ph.D. from Cornell who, despite Ivy League pedigree, chose to raise her in a run-down trailer. That had to be the most puzzling thought of the series. Phiona is the daughter of a market lady who lives in abject poverty in a windowless, ramshackle dwelling. While some may believe Beth had it better, there was an interesting paradox.
Phiona walked around her poor village with pride and responded to others in a happy tone. Her daily routine had a certain air of predictability. Beth was more somber, relied on tranquilizers, and struggled to heal from her tragedy. Her life was filled with constant uncertainty, even as an adult. The beauty is that both found chess (at the same age) as a vehicle for self-discovery and to gain access to a better life.
Phiona Mutesi at Northwest University
Photo by Eilís O’Neill for WBUR
Is a Caucasian girl living in an American orphanage and rising to chess stardom (even elite level) very different from an African girl growing up in abject poverty and making it out of Katwe, Uganda, to attend university in the U.S.? Yes and no. If one looks a bit deeper, both are fascinating stories with tremendous life lessons and chess as a common denominator.
Final Thoughts: One of my graduate school professors asked the class about fiction books we’ve read. I offered that I didn’t have time. However, he responded with some very keen insight into how fictional works can help us see things that our biased minds (confined by the real world) would otherwise miss. “Queen’s Gambit” is indeed a fictional story, but there have been many profiles relating this story to real players such as the aforementioned Polgar, Bobby Fischer, Vera Menchik and more recently Nadya Ortiz, a student at Purdue University.
Garry Kasparov talked about the importance of the “Queen’s Gambit” and was one of the show’s technical advisors. His voice and consultation provided credibility to the magic of Beth Harmon. Of course, stories like Phiona’s do exist, are often overlooked, and sadly go untold. It has been part of the mission of The Chess Drum to tell these stories.
Interestingly, when one attends an Olympiad, these same stories play out when you watch the interviews at the press conferences. So many stories, and they are fascinating. You will find someone from a small island, a large city, a mountainous region, or a dusty rural area having the same passion for chess! All have very different paths.
It is my hope that more of these stories will be told so that chess doesn’t have to rely on a fictional account to gain worldwide appeal. Beth Harmon’s story captured the imagination, and all types of records were set for the sales of chess sets. In addition, “Queen’s Gambit” was Netflix’s #1 series for weeks. The “Harmon Effect” has been real. As we wait for another season, will we encounter a real Beth Harmon?
While 2020 has been a year of history-making events, the pandemic has wreaked havoc and has forced the world’s 7.8 billion citizens to take stock of what is important in life. Despite the threat of ominous death, chess has gotten a tremendous boost. “Queen’s Gambit” was the chess star of 2020, but we cannot forget that there are more than a few queens around the world who have trod interesting paths in chess.