If you were thinking of giving someone a chess set for Christmas, you might have a hard time finding one. Since the release of The Queen’s Gambit, chess boards have been selling like toilet paper in a pandemic. And girls are in on the game like never before thanks to Beth Harmon, (Anya Taylor-Joy as the adult Beth) the fictional chess-playing star of this TV movie mini-series.
Chess players will know the title is taken from an oft-played chess opening. The story is based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name.
The story follows Beth’s troubled childhood, beginning with her arrival in an orphanage at the tender age of 5. Flashbacks at the beginning of each episode fill in the haunting memories of her own mother. The orphanage is lonely and oppressive for an already traumatized and introverted little girl. But Beth develops an unlikely friendship with the janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) when she discovers him playing chess in the basement of the orphanage. She becomes his protégé, surpassing him in skill until adoption into a family takes her away from him forever.
The episodes follow Beth into early adulthood where her life is held in a precarious balance and both her skills and drugs push her to new levels of chess success, at state level, nationally, and finally onto the world stage.
The film has been lauded by serious chess players as being true to the game. However, a non-chess player is sure to be caught up in protracted scenes of chess pieces moving on the board knowing little about the game’s possibilities. Taylor-Joy gives Beth, a character both brash and vulnerable, that mysterious quality that creates suspense at the end of each episode. Beth’s adoptive mother (Marielle Heller), her orphanage friend, Jolene (Moses Ingram), and the quirky cast of chess players who support Beth are equally intriguing in their roles.
Although the story might have been told in a feature-length movie, the call to make it a seven-episode series was a good one. (Rated TV-MA for coarse language, suggestive sexual content, and self-harming drug and alcohol abuse. Netflix)