The Boys' Club Trap

Scott Frank’s The Queen’s Gambit – based on a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis – debuted on Netflix on October 23, 2020 as a 7-episode limited series. Since it deals with a rising female prodigy in male-dominated chess of 1960s America, a certain curiosity regarding the quality of the chess content offered by this film was inescapable. With Garry Kasparov and Bruce Pandolfini as consultants on the series, an October 16, 2020 piece in the New York Times assured its readers that “...when it comes to chess positions - the particular arrangement of pieces on the board - no other work rivals this one in terms of both number and painstaking accuracy."

In this brief article, I’ll address what caught my attention regarding the historical game references we see throughout the show. Through the specific placement of pieces on the board, we see brief tributes to Paul Morphy and Bobby Fischer. Most of Beth Harmon’s key games or positions are built upon or identical to famous games of the past. Here are a few, in the order in which they appear throughout the episodes: Nezhmetdinov versus Kasparyan (1955), Mieses versus Reshevsky (1935), Fischer versus Larsen (1958), Jakovenko versus Stellwagen (2007), Stein versus Matanović (1965), Averbakh versus Tolush (1953), Topalov versus Kasparov (1995), Sax versus Korchnoi (1986), Hübner versus Kasparov (1995), and Ivanchuk versus Wolff (1993). What these games or game fragments have in common is that they were all played by elite male players. As far as I could see, in whatever Harmon touches there is not a single game reference to a brilliant game won by an elite woman player, from trailblazers like Vera Menchik of the 1930s to Nona Gaprindashvili of the 1960s or from Judit Polgar to Ju Wenjun. In fact, the only reference to a real-life woman player I saw was to Gaprindashvili: in the last episode, we are told “she [Gaprindashvili] never faced men,” which, of course, is untrue. Fiction or no fiction, there’s a danger to attaching demonstrable untruths to real names. Gaprindashvili of the 1960s made a ground-breaking effort to take part in men’s tournaments. 

In an October 16, 2020 interview for Observer.com, Anya Taylor-Joy discussed her role and added: “Unfortunately, if you look through history, everything has been a boys’ club. Of course, it pertains to chess. But even now, we’re struggling to break the constraints.“ Here’s the irony: this movie script offered a chance to counterbalance that male-dominated history by also showcasing genuine samples of female brilliancy at the board. There’s plenty of historical material on that but this opportunity was clearly missed. Consequently, in a film dealing with a female character’s admirable conquest of a world dominated by men, Beth Harmon ended up following a roadmap designed by men and, more significantly, one that pays tribute only to their brilliancy.

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