The Most Powerful Piece (re: The Queen’s Gambit)
Author: Mailen Aguilera Rivas
Published in: Canal USB
December 15, 2020
Translated and edited by Walter Lippmann for CubaNews.
They tell some stories of minstrels who once showed Queen Isabella of Castile a board game that had become very popular on the European continent. But when the sovereign knew about the limits on movements of her equivalent in the field of the 64 squares, she demanded, furiously, that it be modified immediately. It could be only a legend, although it coincided with the time when the queen of chess changed the displacement of a square in all directions to the infinite possibilities of having only the end of the board as a limit. The truth is that it doesn’t stop to seem unusual that the only female piece is revealed as the most fearsome, to the point that not few players prefer to free themselves from it by means of exchanges or sacrifices to avoid complications.
Elizabeth, in its English version, is also the name of the main character in the novel “Queen’s Gambit”, by the writer Walter Tevis, which recently was adapted in a television mini-series transmitted by Netflix. Under the direction of Scott Frank, it has in the main role Anya Taylor-Joy, a young revelation who had made her debut several years ago with Robert Eggers in his disturbing “The Witch”.
She is accompanied by other actors including Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Game of Thrones) as Benny Watts, Harry Melling (The Old Guard) is Harry Beltik and the director Marielle Heller now in front of the cameras playing Alma Wheatley. The story is about Beth Harmon, an orphaned girl extraordinarily gifted for chess, a sport almost exclusively for men and more in the historical period she reflects, immersed in the middle of the Cold War.
Although this proposal began without lots of publicity fuss, it has already snuck into millions of homes and been proclaimed as the most-viewed Netflix in the year. A real surprise for those who read the synopsis and didn’t predict great acknowledgments. So it’s fascinating to unravel the keys that made the simple story of “girl overcomes the obstacles of her time” the unprecedented success it has become.
First of all, Walter Tevis was one of those authors with such a coherent narrative style that when we read it we feel like we are in front of the big screen. That is why several of his books have been taken to the cinema like “The Lifeguard” (starring Paul Newman) or “The Color of Money”, with Tom Cruise in the main role. In the novel “Lady’s Gambit”, she offers us the incessant but satisfactory journey of the attractive plot that, like the aerial board that the young woman recreates in her head, transforms the places described during the reading into magnificent sequential shots. Beth’s inner struggles, her irreverent way of interacting with others, make up a very solid and unforgettable character. Therefore, for the experienced director and screenwriter Scott Frank, it was enough to just create the product as faithful as possible to the original work.
The visual language of the series is so exquisite that for those who read the book and then looked for the television adaptation, they experienced the already known, the typical déjà vu. This added to the careful recreation of the time, the soundtrack (impeccable work of the composer and guitarist of Cuban descent Carlos Rafael Rivera) coupled with the various scenarios, the work of costumes and makeup as well as the stellar direction of actors, contribute to make “Gambito de dama” the different and necessary proposal. It is irrefutable proof that the public still prefers a good story over any effective machinery.
However, despite the magnificence of such a team, the queen reaffirms herself as the most powerful. Anya Taylor-Joy became with astonishing naturalness the Beth Harmon of literary work. Through her impeccable performance, she manages to show the fragile balance between genius and destruction that plagues the protagonist. Perhaps to some her character, while fascinating, may also seem unsympathetic and unemotional in the face of common feelings.
But in the disarray of her existence, Beth discovers the logic to explain it only in front of the board. The addiction to drugs and alcohol, more than physical support, becomes a means to feed the demands of her gifted mind and at the same time to make her forget that, like the chess lady, she will always be alone even among crowds. The fight acquires the dimension of titanic task because to reaffirm her only reason of existence, to become Great Master and to be the champion of the world, she must constantly fight against all kinds of discriminations.
Both in the book and in the series, she faces legendary considerations that stipulated the game science as an indisputable domain of the male sex, a situation that becomes more acute in tournaments (Listening to both of them, she felt something unpleasant and familiar: the feeling that chess was a man’s business, and she was a stranger. She hated that feeling).
“Lady’s Gambit” manages to unveil the mysteries of the 64 squares even for those who don’t know all the rules. As an amateur player many years ago, I still remember the exhaustive intellectual combat of each game, the anguish of the move to be made, the anticipation of every possible move of the opponent. In short, a very difficult battle to attract many spectators because it takes patience and genuine interest to follow something that can last for hours.
For this reason, although I would have preferred more specifications of openings, strategies and endings, as it is told in the novel, it is understandable that the adaptation to the audiovisual medium sacrificed part of the essence of the game in order to achieve the interest maintained by a heterogeneous audience. The palms also for all the editing work, led by Michelle Tesoro, another of the team that accompanies Scott Frank in his projects.
The sequences related to the mental sport are then referred to the controversial and resounding plays or, mostly, to the expressions on the face of each participant. It is not surprising that in the interest of achieving near-perfect results, they had the advice of emblematic figures such as Garry Kasparov.
On the other hand, I must highlight some elements that, despite not tarnishing the final product, did seem to me to be counterproductive. During the tournament in Mexico, they clarify that the men who accompanied the champion Borgov were from the KGB to prevent him from running away, a detail that is not mentioned at all in the book. What the novel does show is that Beth, besides fighting against social machismo, also had to face the institutional one imposed by the country, which hindered her training and prevented her from being a child prodigy like little Girev.
At all times, Walter Tevis gives to the game science practiced in Russia the superior level that Beth must decipher to accede to the throne (This was not the attack chess with which she had carved her reputation in the United States: it was chamber music chess, subtle and intricate). For that nation, the sport of the 64 squares has been revealed for decades as a proud practice of crowds with constant support from official institutions.
That is why, with the exception of Bobby Fischer, it has monopolized the World Championship for almost 50 years. That’s why I also find the crowd’s cheers for Beth in Moscow when they had one of their own discussing the title notwithstanding the impression the young American would have made.
The truth is that both the series and the novel had the effect for thousands of people, including myself, to fall in love with chess again. Not only of that disciplined, methodical, that is achieved with years of study and dedication, but also its intuitive and exceptional variant of which our brilliant Capablanca showed off. “Lady’s Gambit” also becomes the expression of a long-cherished dream: a woman with the title of absolute world champion, without distinction of sex. Milestones such as the Cuban Maria Teresa Mora, the aforementioned Nona Gaprindashvili or Judit Polgar are examples that other Beth’s may exist, waiting in the shadows for the right moment to be crowned.
Technical Data Sheet
Title: The Queen’s Gambit
Country: United States
Duration: 60 min.
Direction: Scott Frank (Creator), Allan Scott (Creator), Scott Frank
Script: Scott Frank (Novel: Walter Tevis)
Genre: TV series. Drama : Chess. Cold War. 50’s. 60’s. TV miniseries.
Cast: Anya Taylor-Joy, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Bill Camp, Harry Melling, Johnston Island, Moses Ingram, Chloe Pirrie, Janina Elkin, Marielle Heller, Marcin Dorocinski, Patrick Kennedy, Matthew Dennis Lewis, Russell Dennis Lewis, Rebecca Root, Christiane Seidel.
Producer: Netflix (Distributor: Netflix)