In The Queen’s Gambit, on Netflix, young Beth Harmon takes the male-dominated world of chess by storm. Played by Anya Taylor-Joy, Harmon hones her talent – and confronts her demons.
Photo By: Dennis Van Tine / Geisler-Fotopress / Picture Alliance
You’re in the zone, in flow. It’s elusive, but when you’re there, it’s magic. It’s simple too. You have to be interested. Then, if you’re lucky, you follow that interest until you find an opportunity. You develop a talent, perhaps one you didn’t know you had.
You see this whenever you meet someone who loves what they do. They put in the time. When they fall down, they get up again, like a child learning to walk. To a child, everything is play, everything is a game.
Take chess. An ancient game, it’s based on war — but it’s a game. It’s something you play. I know a lot of chess players. When they play, the rest of the world disappears.
In The Queen’s Gambit, the quirky Netflix series that has captivated the world, Beth Harmon is taught the game by a janitor in the basement of an orphanage. Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, the author of The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth, it’s about talent coming of age.
Tevis was a hard case. He was passionate about chess, pool, writing – and alcohol. He was good at a lot of things, but drinking always took him down.
The series has made a household name of lead Anya Taylor-Joy. While the young actress has been doing quality work for years, this is her moment and it’s not going away. Her character is quirky, brilliant, passionate and disciplined. Unfortunately, she has an early introduction to tranquillizers at the orphanage, and later to booze. Talent meets opportunity – meets drugs and booze.
Set in Kentucky in the 1950s, it’s a tale of finding one’s identity and overcoming challenges, not only at the personal level but at the social one as well. From a young age, Beth Harmon learns that females are second class citizens. Along with her black girlfriend from the orphanage, she learns that society has a structure. It lifts some up and holds others back.
These issues haven’t gone away. Prejudice is out there. Who are your parents? Where did you grow up? What’s your gender and sexual orientation? Your race? Your religious and political affiliation? Your education and occupation? Good luck with all that.
The story starts when Beth Harmon ends up in an orphanage after her mother dies. She’s young and clueless about how the world works. She’s different. Her uncanny ability to focus helps her at chess, which takes over her life.
In this orphanage, the kids are given tranks. These help her to relax and to visualize chess moves – giant pieces that move upside down on the ceiling. Later, booze allows her to dance around the house, relax around people. Then, just when she’s getting really good, it all blows up.
She screws up again and again, but she finds allies and gradually makes her way in a difficult world. But it’s not an easy path. She walks a knife edge.
Taylor Joy was not a chess player, but she connected with the story. When she discovered acting her life changed fast. She knew it was for her. She worked hard and got a few breaks. She’s also unusual. She has piercing eyes and a fierce intelligence. A photographic memory helps her to learn her lines.
When you see talent at work – or at play – you have no idea of the forces behind the scenes. It’s often the case that the greater the talent, the larger the obstacles.
In our patriarchal society, it’s fitting that on the chessboard most of the pieces have male identities. The king is the central character. It all revolves around him. But he is actually a weak piece, constantly under attack and in need of defenders.
The strongest piece is female – the queen. This has been true in many societies from ancient Sparta to many indigenous groups, where the grandmothers get the final vote.
Beth Harmon is the queen. She has the power. But she has to learn what it is, how to use it, and how to protect it. That’s a metaphor our society can use. Go, Beth, go!
The Full Story: You can get the full digital issue with the whole interview on Optimyz right here.
Your might also enjoy last issue’s cover story with Drew Barrymore.
Author: David Holt is the Editor-in-Chief for HUM@Nmedia, the parent brand for Optimyz and Silver Magazines. Former editor of Progress Magazine, an avid writer and outdoorsman, David is a prolific writer.