I finished watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix recently. Here are some random thoughts:

Competent protrayal of chess

While the show’s story centers around competition chess, it’s not really about chess at all, it’s about characters, and in that regard it does a good job of capturing the drama of the game by focusing on characters’ emtional reactions to chess moves instead of the games themselves. This is the same sort of thing they did in Searching for Bobby Fischer. At the same time, it doesn’t try to dummy down chess concepts so the audience can understand them, like the stupid gravity assist scene in The Martian, where a character over-explains a relatively simple science concept to colleagues who should not be that stupid for the sake of the audience. Or this ridiculously stupid scene from Hidden Figures in which a NASA scientist is skeptical of Euler’s method because “it’s ancient”; trying to show the brilliance of a character by having others be over-the-top stupid.

I also appreciated that no one hit the clock with the wrong hand, a pet peeve of mine when chess master characters show up on TV.

Obsession as comfort

The “tortured genius” character is certainly cliché (Good Will Hunting, bleh!), and there is a bit of that, but chess does not really come easily or naturally to Beth Harmon. She is shown constantly studying the game. What is rare is not her innate “genius” but rather her ability to become entirely obsessed with it, to be able to focus on it for long periods of time, even without a physical board. This is likely a coping mechanism for dealing with personal trauma. As she says, “It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And it’s predictable. So if I get hurt, I have only myself to blame.” Quite self-aware! Some have wondered if Bobby Fischer’s obsession with chess during childhood provided a similar escape or sense of comfort; he was raised by a single mother who was an outspoken political activist. Perhaps, but in the real world such an overpowering obsession at a young age is still rare, so whatever is going on in an obsessor’s brain is probably more complicated than that.

Pills!

The green pills Beth takes throughout the show appear to be fictional (unfotunately, because I want some) but they remind me of ADHD meds. They’ve been used to calm children down, they help people focus, people can abuse them, and they might improve your chess game. From this article:

According to a new study in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology, two prescription drugs can help chess players compete: modafinil and methylphenidate. The former is sold as Alertec, Modavigil, and Provigil, and the other is best known as Ritalin. Participants in the study were dosed with these drugs, and then their chess playing abilities were observed. While the drugs resulted in test subjects playing more slowly, they also increased their performance. Using modafinil improved player’s results by 15 percent, while methylphenidate improved results by 13 percent.

… International chess tournaments began incorporating drug testing in 2001

So Harmon is lucky that she got obsessed with chess at just the right time in American history when she could earn money and fame from the game and at a time when they didn’t do any drug testing! (She could even get a benzodiazepine over the counter in Germany!)

Overall

Overall, I have mixed feelings about the show. It was well-made and well-scripted, but the emotional journey wasn’t all that engaging to me, a lot of supporting characters were a bit cliché and two-dimensional, and of course chess tournaments are portrayed as very fancy and dramatic, very “Hollywood”. But then, like any movie or show about “geniuses”, the audience is never really asked to relate to all the boring studying that makes the rest possible; we are only asked to empathize with the fun parts: the attention, the applause, the success, the failures, the opportunities, the traveling, etc. It can give a very false day-dreamy impression of “genius”, which is really 99 percent perspiration. But that’s almost always the case in any fictional portrayal of someone successful. The grunt work is boring.

The real trick to being a genius is, as Harmon shows us: childhood trauma! No, not that, but rather love / obsession, not for the sake of fame and money that would make a biographical show interesting, but the willingness to work hard at something you’re interested in when there’s no guarantee of any reward beyond your self-satisfaction.

(On a side note, the word “genius” is really just an opinion of someone’s work. In fiction, you can create empathy for a character by having other characters admire their “genius”. But in fiction you have the advantage of being able to empathize with a character while also being able to consider them from the outside, to see them as other characters might see them. It’s a sort of strange dichotomy you can’t really experience in the real world.)


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