|The Queen's Gambit|
|Based on||The Queen's Gambit|
by Walter Tevis
|Written by||Scott Frank|
|Directed by||Scott Frank|
|Music by||Carlos Rafael Rivera|
|Country of origin||United States|
|No. of episodes||7 (list of episodes)|
|Running time||46–67 minutes|
|Original release||October 23, 2020|
The Queen's Gambit is an American coming-of-age period drama streaming television miniseries based on Walter Tevis's 1983 novel of the same name, created for Netflix by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, and written and directed by the former. Beginning mid-1950s and proceeding into the 1960s, the story is about an orphaned chess prodigy on her rise to becoming the world's greatest chess player while struggling with emotional problems and drug and alcohol dependency.
The Queen's Gambit was released on October 23, 2020. After four weeks of viewing it became Netflix's most-watched scripted miniseries. It has received critical acclaim for Anya Taylor-Joy's performance as Beth Harmon as well as for the cinematography and production values. It has also received a positive response from the chess community and is credited with spurring a resurgence of public interest in the game.
The Queen's Gambit follows the life of an orphan chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, during her quest to become the world's greatest chess player while struggling with emotional problems and drug and alcohol dependency. The series' title refers to a chess opening of the same name. The story begins in the mid-1950s and proceeds into the 1960s.
The story begins in Lexington, Kentucky, where a nine-year-old Beth, having lost her mother in a car crash, is taken to an orphanage where she is taught chess by the building's custodian, Mr. Shaibel. As was common during the 1950s, the orphanage dispenses daily tranquilizer pills to the girls, which turns into an addiction for Beth. She quickly becomes a strong chess player due to her visualization skills, which are enhanced by the tranquilizers. A few years later, Beth is adopted by Alma Wheatley and her husband from Lexington. As she adjusts to her new home, Beth enters a chess tournament and wins despite having no prior experience in competitive chess. She develops friendships with several people, including former Kentucky state champion Harry Beltik; gifted but arrogant chess prodigy Benny Watts and journalist, photographer and fellow player D.L. Townes. As Beth continues to win games and reaps the financial benefits of her success, she becomes more dependent on alcohol and other drugs.
|No.||Title||Directed by||Teleplay by||Original release date|
|1||"Openings"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|Elizabeth "Beth" Harmon is orphaned when her mother dies in a car crash on New Circle Road. In a later flashback, it is revealed that her mother deliberately ran head on into a truck. She is taken to an orphanage, where the children are given tranquilizing pills to make them compliant. While cleaning erasers in the basement, Beth discovers the custodian, Mr. Shaibel, studying chess on his own. After repeated requests he reluctantly agrees to teach her the game; she has already worked out how the pieces move by observing him. She becomes obsessed and improves quickly, thanks to her spatial intelligence and abuse of mind-altering tranquilizers that allow her to focus and visualize chess games on the ceiling above her bed. When she is able to beat him regularly, Shaibel introduces her to the local high school chess club teacher, Mr. Ganz, whom she also beats. Ganz invites her to play a simultaneous exhibition against his entire club. She beats all of them easily, later commenting to Shaibel on their poor chess skills and how invigorating it is to win. After the state passes a law outlawing the use of tranquilizers on children, Beth begins to suffer from withdrawal. She is caught stealing a jar of the medication and passes out after overdosing from swallowing several mouthfuls of pills.|
|2||"Exchanges"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|After her overdose, Beth is forbidden to play chess. Time passes and Beth is adopted as a teenager by suburban couple Alma and Allston Wheatley. Allston is emotionally distant and frequently leaves for "business trips"; it soon becomes clear that their marriage is not a happy one. At her new high school, Beth is bullied by the popular girls from the "Apple Pi Club" for her drab clothes, but she eventually stands up for herself. Beth discovers her adoptive mother is taking the same tranquilizer pills that she was given at the orphanage and secretly steals some for herself, allowing her to play mental chess again. She also steals a chess magazine and learns about the upcoming Kentucky State Championship. She writes to Mr. Shaibel, who sends her the money for the entrance fee. As she cruises through her games, she develops a crush on one of her opponents, an older boy named Townes. After the second day of the tournament, during which her periods start, Beth comes home to find that Allston has deserted them. Beth fears that she will be sent back to the orphanage, but Alma tells her they will lie so she can stay. During her final game of the tournament against Harry Beltik, the highest-ranked player, Beth becomes flustered and runs to the restroom, where she takes a tranquilizer pill, then wins the game. Upon learning of the prize money on offer in a tournament in Cincinnati, Alma hatches a plan for the two women to support themselves.|
|3||"Doubled Pawns"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|Beth wins the tournament in Cincinnati. Her mother asks for 10% of the prize money as an agent commission, but Beth gives her 15%. Beth continues to skip school while traveling to tournaments, where she is quickly gaining national recognition for her achievements. She is also dressing more stylishly as her winnings increase. Back at school, Beth is invited to a meeting of the "Apple Pi Club" by the girls who had initially shunned her. She soon realizes she has nothing in common with typical teenage culture and, stealing a bottle of gin, escapes back home. In 1966, Beth heads to Las Vegas for the US Open where she is reunited with Townes, now a journalist who is covering the event. They return to his hotel room where Townes takes pictures of her. The two play chess and share an intimate moment before being interrupted by Townes' roommate, who Beth suspects is also his boyfriend. Beth abruptly leaves before Townes can explain the situation. Beth runs into the current U.S. national champion, Benny Watts, who points out an error in her game against Beltik. Beth is taken aback and suddenly loses confidence. She experiences her first professional loss against Watts the next day; they finish the tournament as co-champions.|
|4||"Middle Game"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|Beth takes night classes in Russian at a local college. She attends a party where she smokes marijuana and loses her virginity to one of the students. Left alone in his empty apartment for the weekend, Beth indulges herself with more alcohol and drugs. After graduating high school, Beth travels to an international tournament in Mexico City with Alma. Alma spends most of her time with Manuel, a longtime pen pal, and begins a sexual relationship with him. Beth competes against several international players including thirteen-year old Soviet prodigy Georgi Girev, whom she defeats in a tough game that lasts two days. In a crowded elevator, Beth uses her growing knowledge of Russian to eavesdrop on Soviet world champion Vasily Borgov and two associates. While they point out her weaknesses as a player, Borgov merely comments that she is an orphan and a survivor like them. Manuel soon abandons Alma, saying he needs to make a business trip to Oaxaca. The following day, Beth plays Borgov and loses to him in an intense game after he surprises her with an off-beat opening. Back in the hotel room, Beth discovers her mother has died of suspected hepatitis, likely worsened by her excessive drinking. She flies home with Alma's coffin to arrange for her burial. Beth manages to get Allston on the telephone in Denver, but apart from telling her where her mother's family plot is, he wants nothing to do with her. However, he agrees to let Beth keep Alma's house.|
|5||"Fork"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|Beth returns home to Kentucky and reconnects with Harry Beltik, who is attending college. Beltik, who has harbored romantic feelings for Beth for years, moves into Alma's house to accompany the now lonely Beth. The two spend time training and sleep together a few times until Beltik realizes Beth's obsession with chess will always supersede any relationship they may have. The two part ways, as Beltik admits he no longer has any passion for the game. Beth meets her former high school tormentor Margaret in town; she married soon after leaving school, has a baby daughter, and is fast becoming an alcoholic like her. Beth travels to the 1967 US Championship in Ohio, where she reunites with Benny Watts. The evening before they are scheduled to face each other in the final game, Benny challenges Beth to several rounds of speed chess for five dollars each in front of a large crowd of tournament attendees. An experienced speed chess hustler, he beats her consistently and cleans her out of all her cash. The next day, however, Beth wins a quick victory over Benny and the two discuss Beth's future in international competition. Benny, recognizing that Beth needs both a role model and a trainer, invites Beth to train for the Paris International with him in New York City.|
|6||"Adjournment"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|Benny drives Beth to New York in his VW Beetle; they entertain themselves along the way by playing chess without a board and practicing Russian. In New York, Benny has Beth sober up and begins an intense and disciplined training regime to prepare her for the big tournament in Paris. He brings in a couple of strong players to assist, culminating in a speed chess simultaneous where she beats all three of them and wins back much more than he took from her in Ohio. Beth bonds with Cleo, a French model who once had a brief affair with Benny and is present with the rest of the group. Eventually, Beth and Benny give in to the sexual tension between them and sleep together. Beth goes to the Paris International and works her way up to the final game with Borgov. Cleo reveals that she's also in Paris and invites Beth for drinks, causing her to relapse. Beth is woken by the hotel management after sleeping with Cleo and rushes downstairs to the tournament. Hungover and unable to focus, she loses once more to Borgov. Devastated, Beth declines Benny's offer to continue staying with him in New York and instead goes back home to Kentucky. Allston goes back on his word and asks an excessive price for Beth to buy his equity in the house. Beth plunges into a days-long drug and alcohol binge, culminating with her passing out after hitting her head on a table. Beltik confronts her in public and tells her that she needs treatment for her alcoholism. Beth angrily tells him to leave her alone and storms off. The next day, she is shocked to find her old friend Jolene at the door.|
|7||"End Game"||Scott Frank||Scott Frank||October 23, 2020|
|Jolene informs Beth that Mr. Shaibel has died. They both attend the funeral, and Beth revisits the orphanage. She is moved to tears when she finds newspaper clippings on Mr. Shaibel's basement wall revealing that he had followed her career up until his death, as well as a photograph of the pair together during her time at the orphanage. The experience allows Beth to come to terms with her past. Beth gives up her funding from the Christian Crusade after they insist she signs a declaration of her faith, which she refuses. After getting a loan from Jolene, Beth travels to Moscow to play in the prestigious Moscow Invitational, accompanied by a CIA agent who gives her strict instructions. Beth proves to be very popular with the Russian public, who call her "Liza", and is mobbed for autographs every time she exits the playing venue. She defeats several tough opponents, including the formidable ex-World Champion Luchenko. The final game is with Borgov and Beth plays the Queen's Gambit; the game is adjourned after forty moves. That evening, Townes, who is covering the tournament, visits Beth in her hotel, where they reconcile. The next day, Beth receives a phone call from Benny, who has assembled a team which includes Beltik, his friends, and the twins, to help her analyze the adjourned position of her game with Borgov. Beth is grateful to receive the help from her friends and takes detailed notes of their analysis. When play resumes that evening, Beth beats Borgov in the adjourned game after refusing to accept a draw. On the way back to the airport, her CIA handler tells her the President wants to receive her at the White House for a photo opportunity. Tired of being used by others, Beth exits the car and walks around the city. She finds a group of elderly local men playing chess in a park and joins them.|
On March 19, 2019, Netflix gave the production a series order consisting of six episodes. The series was written and directed by Scott Frank, who also created the series with Allan Scott. The two also served as executive producers alongside William Horberg. Scott had been involved in attempts to get the book on screen since 1992, when he purchased the screenplay rights from Walter Tevis' widow.
The series was released on October 23, 2020 with seven episodes instead of the original six-episode order.
Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov and chess coach Bruce Pandolfini acted as consultants. Pandolfini had consulted with Tevis prior to the novel's publication some 38 years earlier, coming up with the title "The Queen's Gambit".
Pandolfini, together with consultants John Paul Atkinson and Iepe Rubingh came up with several hundred chess positions to be used for various situations in the script. Then Kasparov developed critical moments in the story, such as when a real 1998 game between grandmasters Arshak Petrosian and Vladimir Akopian was improved to showcase Beth Harmon's skill.
Alongside the series order announcement, it was announced that Anya Taylor-Joy was set to star as the lead. In January 2020, it was reported Moses Ingram had joined the cast of the series. Upon the miniseries premiere date announcement, it was announced that Bill Camp, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Harry Melling and Marielle Heller were cast in starring roles.
Principal photography began in August 2019 in Cambridge, Ontario. Filming also took place in Berlin, including the Kino International, the Berlin Zoo, Humana and the Friedrichstadt-Palast.
Production designer Uli Hanisch developed the series' sets to evoke the aesthetic of the 1950s and 1960s. Much of the series was filmed in Berlin because of how interiors found there could stand in for a large number of the show's locations, including Las Vegas, Cincinnati, Mexico City, Moscow, and Paris.
The musical score was composed by Carlos Rafael Rivera. Frank initially wanted the score to be piano-based only, but in the end decided with Rivera for a full orchestral score for more "instrumental depth and color". Rivera found scoring for chess a challenging task, having been warned by Frank that "music would be doing a lot of heavy lifting". He decided to reflect Beth's growth – both as a person and a chess player – by adding more and more instrumentation over time.
On October 28, 2020, the series became the most watched series of the day on Netflix. On November 23, 2020, it was announced that the series had been watched by 62 million households since its release (according to the way Netflix itself reports viewership), becoming "Netflix's biggest scripted limited series to date." Of this, Scott Frank stated "I am both delighted and dazed by the response" while several outlets characterized it as an "unlikely success". On November 30, 2020, it was reported that the series was on the top of the Nielsen's U.S. streaming rankings for the week of October 26 to November 1, 2020.
On review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, The Queen's Gambit received an approval rating of 100% based on 74 reviews, with an average rating of 8.06/10. The website's critics consensus reads, "Its moves aren't always perfect, but between Anya Taylor-Joy's magnetic performance, incredibly realized period details, and emotionally intelligent writing, The Queen's Gambit is an absolute win." Metacritic gave the series a weighted average score of 79 out of 100 based on 28 reviews, indicating "generally favorable reviews".
In a column where she argues "So many lives would be different if we’d had 'The Queen’s Gambit' 50 years ago," culture critic Mary McNamara said, "I loved 'The Queen’s Gambit' so much, I watched the final episode three times." Darren Franich of Entertainment Weekly gave the series a B and described the lead actress, "Taylor-Joy excels in the quiet moments, her eyelids narrowing as she decimates an opponent, her whole body physicalizing angry desperation when the game turns against her." Variety's Caroline Framke wrote "The Queen's Gambit manages to personalize the game and its players thanks to clever storytelling and, in Anya Taylor-Joy, a lead actor so magnetic that when she stares down the camera lens, her flinty glare threatens to cut right through it." Reviewing the miniseries for Rolling Stone, Alan Sepinwall gave it 3 out of 5 stars and said, "An aesthetically beautiful project with several superb performances, all in service to a story that starts to feel padded long before the end comes."
Critics also frequently discussed the series' prominent theme of substance abuse. Phoebe Wong notes that "Interestingly though, unlike other works which study the self-destructive aspects of perfectionist obsession, mental health and substance abuse issues extend beyond the protagonist to other characters" in her review for The Tufts Daily. Her summary reads "Impressive in its own right, 'The Queen’s Gambit' adopts a fresh perspective by delving into chess’ intersections with substance abuse and gender discrimination". Matt Miller writing for Esquire stated "The result is a pretty scary depiction of the stress of competitive chess in the 1960s." When asked to comment on this aspect of the show, Nona Gaprindashvili – the world's first female chess grandmaster – stated "You have to be psychologically and physically strong, and have a drive for excellence." On the other hand, Harper's Bazaar's Lilly Dancyger considered the "misrepresentation" of drug abuse to "nearly ruin the show" for her, explaining that the "self-delusion of addiction" should not be presented as fact.
Bethonie Butler from the Washington Post, while praising the show overall, criticized the characterization of Jolene, the show's only major Black character, saying "(her) backstory and character development are so limited that she seems to exist merely to make Beth's life easier".
The series received praise from the chess community for its portrayal of the game and players. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Woman Grandmaster Jennifer Shahade said that the series "completely nailed the chess accuracy". In an article about the miniseries in The Times, British chess champion David Howell felt that the chess scenes were "well choreographed and realistic", while British Women's chess champion Jovanka Houska said, "I think it's a fantastic TV series ... [i]t conveys the emotion of chess really well." Reigning chess world champion Magnus Carlsen gave it 5 out of 6 stars.
Several female chess players, including Houska, British Ladies Chess Champion Sarah Longson, International Master Dorsa Derakhshani, and Swedish Grandmaster Pia Cramling have suggested the show's legacy might well be a surge in interest from young female players.
In November 2020, The Washington Post reported that the COVID-19 pandemic had already made the interest in chess surge when the success of The Queen's Gambit made it explode. According to The Guardian, grandmaster Maurice Ashley has been inundated by messages from people – mainly women – enthused by the series: "the frenzy around it is crazy". Sales of chess sets are reportedly up several hundred percent, to over a thousand percent, because of the series. The gaming site Chess.com reports several million new users since the release of the series.
The way Netflix reports viewing is based on the number of viewers who have watched at least two minutes of a piece of content, which is very different from how the TV industry measures audience
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