I made it through episode 5 of The Queen’s Gambit last night, but I doubt I will finish it. A noticeable deterioration takes place on all fronts as the story proceeds: weak dialog, dull cinematography, clumsy editing. It’s as if the creative folks behind the project had done what they set out to do and were now just playing out the endgame.
But here I want to focus on the chess, the way the game is portrayed in the Netflix series. I have some experience at this, since I was a “promising young player” during the mid-sixties, the period during which The QG is set. I traipsed around to open tournaments, staying in downtown hotels in mostly midwestern cities (few as glamorous as the ones Beth Harmon visits), and developing a bit of a reputation on the circuit. No, I never made the leap to professional stardom, not having either the talent or dedication it requires, but I saw the real life version of what the TV series portrays.
1. The pace and ambience are all wrong. No, players don’t routinely blitz out their moves, nor do they slam the pieces down and stare into their opponents’ faces, much less talk with them during the game. Tournament rooms are eerily quiet, with the loudest sound at the board being the nerve-wracking ticking of the chess clocks. I realize that drama has to be poured on for mass entertainment purposes, but surely a few sequences could have been taken slowly and silently to convey a different, truer type of tension.
2. No post-mortems! In real chess tournaments, as soon as the game is over the players head to the analysis room, where they try to figure out what just happened. The winner, of course, takes the lead in explaining where the loser went wrong, unless the stronger player was the one who lost. (More on that in a moment.) There are a lot of “what were you thinking when....?” questions, or “what about this other move?”, when alternatives rejected during the game are given a new look. If the players are highly rated, their board is quickly surrounded by a crowd of observers eager to see how the best chess minds think. The jockeying and camaraderie of the analysis room is where the social side of chess tournaments gets played out.
3. The role of luck in chess is completely eliminated in the show. No, the stronger player doesn’t always win, nor does a single win demonstrate who is stronger. And lots of games are draws, especially as you move up to the higher ranks of the sport. Chess players talk about the “draw zone”, the window between a small advantage and a small disadvantage in which neither side, with reasonably accurate play, can bring home the full point. A better player can blunder, get caught in an opening they hadn’t prepared for, or just randomly miss something crucial beyond their calculation horizon. And often the advantage that results from better play just isn’t enough to move the game beyond the draw zone. A brilliant player regularly loses and draws against their inferiors, although of course they win often enough to maintain their position. How one deals with regular, unavoidable disappointment is the central emotional issue in competitive chess.
4. Soviet chess is misrepresented to feed Cold War stereotypes. Yes, Soviet players playing abroad were often accompanied by KGB agents, more to keep them in line than to strategize with them. But, the greatest chess sin committed by the QG is to present Soviet chess as stolid, boring and “bureaucratic”. (This word actually appears in the dialog.) But the opposite was true. It’s not a defense of the ugliness of the Soviet regime to acknowledge the innovative, creative accomplishments of the players churned out by its chess machine. The art of positional sacrifice, for example, advanced by leaps and bounds among the Soviets, along with paradoxical opening ideas—consider the Taimanov variation in the Sicilian Defense, to take one example. Yes, Soviet chess was the best, but not at the expense of inspiration. (I began subscribing to Shachmatny Bulletin, the leading Russian chess magazine, when I was 14 to get that inspiration from the source.)
I could add a lot more, but these were the jarring miscues that undermined the chessic part of the story. The believability of the emotional side I’ll leave for others.