Home >Opinion >Columns >The Gueen’s Gambit that won the US a cold war of chess

I don’t know a thing about chess. Last week’s big buzz made me look up the American period drama about a chess prodigy’s personal quest to be the world’s greatest champion, The Queen’s Gambit (spoilers ahead). The objective of ‘the queen’s gambit’ is to temporarily sacrifice a pawn to gain control of the centre of the board, I learnt from a write-up on the chess move, and thought—mistakenly—that Netflix’s most-watched mini-series might be about not sweating the small stuff, and focusing instead on big wins.

It isn’t. Losing a parent, growing up in an orphanage, tranquillizer-pills dependency and unrequited love are not minor setbacks. Beth Harmon is the broken-hearted people’s queen. She’s poised and glamorous through life’s let-downs.

The fictional story starts in the mid-1950s and proceeds into the late 1960s. Beth is sent to an orphanage in Lexington, Kentucky, at age nine after her mother dies in a car crash. There, she discovers chess and her own genius for it. She also gets addicted to tranquillizer pills given to the orphanage’s girls. At 15, she is adopted by Alma Wheatley and her husband from Lexington. Unrated and inexperienced in competitive chess, Beth enters a tournament and wins, beating a former Kentucky state champion. While struggling with drug and alcohol dependency, she rises to beat one of the world’s best, Soviet Vasily Borgov.

Interwoven into this brilliant story is subtle commentary on the political economies of the countries Beth plays matches in. The United States, true to reputation, is the land of opportunity, where an orphan with emotional and drug issues can succeed in her chosen career. Beth’s struggles are unlike those of vulnerable individuals in other countries, specially India. The ecosystem is not perfect, but it does not diminish her special gifts or ambition. Rather, the orphanage, the adoption arrangements, the public school that girls from more privileged backgrounds also attend, the common meals for all students of this school, the entry rules for tournaments—all play a supportive role.

Championships take Beth to Mexico City, Paris and Moscow. Wherever she goes, glass ceilings shatter. But Beth sees herself as a chess player. Not a woman chess player. Beth, the Queen of Broken Hearts, does not see herself as a victim, bears no resentment. Her struggles are against herself. Not the opponents she must compete with to become the best chess player.

Christian groups ask her to denounce communism and atheism, but Beth declines, and even returns the sponsorship money they lined up for her trip to Moscow for the competition she has been waiting for. Beth gets money from the least expected source: Jolene, an African-American woman she’d befriended at the Kentucky orphanage who is now a paralegal. The money she loans Beth is her savings to go to law school—this is the second (but sketchily-told) story of the role of the US education system in unlocking opportunities, and success for individuals even when they cannot fallback on social networks, family wealth or privilege.

Before accepting help from Jolene, Beth seeks financial support from a government department. But this is the US. The department is unable to hasten the processes that must be gone through for state sponsorship.

Mexico is the opposite: When Alma Wheatley dies of suspected hepatitis in a hotel where Beth’s playing a tournament, the legal paperwork is expedited and no bother at all. Moving in swiftly, the hotel takes care of it all, as it does of the costs entailed, including a substantial alcohol account.

In contrast, the state is neither overbearing nor completely absent in the US. The tranquillizer pills that Beth has become dependent on are available at a local pharmacy on the basis of medical prescriptions and in limited quotas. No grey market or underhand deals are shown. If there’s a rules-based market economy in the US, Mexico has a free-for-all system riddled with corruption. Tranquillizer pills are freely available. They are simply unavailable in Moscow.

The Soviets lack economic freedom and individualism. But they’ve got team spirit. Chess lovers in Moscow follow Beth’s matches, in which she destroys Soviet player after player, and line up at the tournament venue to get her autograph. Back in the US, she has been on magazine covers, but journalists have fit her in templates calculated for what sells and what does not.

Beth slays Borgov. To do so, she beats her pill-dependency first. Competitiveness wins. Whether or not she acquires the world’s top rank is not shown. After Borgov’s defeat, the series ends in a Moscow park, where Beth plays with local enthusiasts. This is not competitive chess, but she is chuffed. The backdrop too contrasts with the dingy basement of the orphanage where her journey to chess stardom had begun.

This is an unconventional story of a home-grown American underdog taking on a superpower of the Cold War era. The Queen’s Gambit offers a nuanced, contemporary take on the politics and economics of the time that sidesteps sharp divides and gives the series its uplifting quality.

Puja Mehra is a Delhi-based journalist and author of ‘The Lost Decade (2008-18): How India’s Growth Story Devolved Into Growth Without A Story’

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