What Is Netflix's "The Queen's Gambit" All About?

If you like chess, you really need to watch Netflix's "The Queen's Gambit"
Christopher McFadden

Are you looking for something different and mildly educational to watch on Netflix? Then "The Queen's Gambit" might be right up your street. Read on to find out why. 


What is the "Queen's Gambit" Netflix series about?

"The Queen's Gambit" Netflix miniseries is a fictional story that centers around the life of an orphan chess prodigy called Beth Harmon. It follows her story from the tender age of 9 until her early- to mid-twenties. 

Throughout the series, Harmon goes from a complete novice to become the world's greatest chess player of her age. She does all this while constantly battling her alcohol and drug addictions—to a fictitious tranquilizer called xanzolam which is likely supposed to be a form of benzodiazepine—partly stemming from mistreatment she went through during her time at the orphanage. 

the queens gambit tv series
Source: Netflix

The story begins in the mid-1950s and ends in the 1960s. All well and good, but why should you watch it? Well, more on that later on.

How old is chess?

Chess is one of the oldest board games we know. While there are some much older ones—like the East Asian game go—chess still has a very long lineage. 

Some of the earliest forms of chess appear to originate in India sometime in the 6th century AD. But the game has some earlier predecessors like the game chaturanga

the queens gambit chess
Source: Romain Guy/Flickr

This was a four-player war game that prefigured several key aspects familiar to anyone who has ever played chess. A form of this game traveled to Persia where the name of the "king" piece changed from Sanskrit rajah to the Persian shah.

The game spread to Europe thanks to the expansion of the Islamic Arabian Empire. 

It is from this term that all European names for the game are derived. The terms "chess" and "check" enter the English language from the French descendant echec

Other terms, like "rook" also descends from the Persian rukh, which is thought to have meant either "chariot" or "boat". It was also the Persians who also introduced the notions of "check" and "checkmate".

What does The Queen's Gambit mean?

The "Queen's Gambit" is a popular type of chess move called a gambit. The move involves the sacrifice of the queen's bishop's pawn (the pawn in front of the bishop to the left of the queen) in an attempt to gain control of the center of the board.

the queens gambit moves
The "Queen's Gambit".
1. First, the white player moves their queen's pawn to the middle. 2. Then, hopefully, the black player counters with their queen's pawn. 3. Lastly, the white player plays their queen's bishop's pawn to attempt to entice the black player to take it.
If the black player falls for the gambit, the white player has the option to counterstrike with their king's bishop, or not. In either case, they retain control of the center of the board; at least for now. 

Modified from The Chess Website

While most gambits in chess are generally considered unsound against the perfect play, the "Queen's Gambit" is often said to be the exception. 

For reference, a gambit in chess is the sacrificial of a piece—usually a pawn—in an attempt to gain an advantage. 

Gaining control of the center of the board is usually a very important objective in the game of chess. Generally speaking, whichever player can control the four central squares of the board will tend to be able to better command the outcome of a game of chess.

This is because any piece in the center of the board has more options to move than one that is somewhere else. For example, consider if you were to place a knight on a center square, and another in one of the corners of the board. 

You can immediately appreciate that the knight in the center of the board has many more options to move than the "cornered" knight. If you replaced the knight with a queen and you can appreciate the power of the position. 

Another reason to control the center of the board is to provide "cover" for your other pieces, enabling them to travel much faster to the other side. Oftentimes, when playing chess, you will find that most of your pieces will travel through the center at some point. 

chess control the center
You should always try to control the center of the chessboard if you can. Source: Chessity

By commanding this critical area of the chessboard, your opponent will have a harder time countering any attacks you might set up. 

Is the "Queen's Gambit" a good opening?

In chess, there are no perfect or foolproof openings. All have advantages and disadvantages, especially if you are playing an opponent who knows how to counter well-known set pieces. 

That being said, the "Queen's Gambit", is a very popular one thanks to its very potent attacking prowess. 

It is a very aggressive move that will often force the opponent into a more defensive position. The move is great if you are the kind of player who revels in putting constant pressure on your opponent. 

By keeping up this kind of pressure, you will force your opponent to counter your moves and less likely to formulate and mount an attack on your army. It is, however, not without its downsides. 

queens gambit declined
The "Queen's Gambit Declined" is a common counter to the "Queen's Gambit". Source: Chess for Novices

The main one being that your opponent refuses to take the bait and take the sacrificial pawn. A popular counter called the "Queen's Gambit Declined" or QGD for short, sees the opponent defending their own central pawn instead. 

This firmly entrenches the "d file" (column) pawn and opens up lines of attack the King's Bishop. However, this defensive counter is also restrictive as it blocks the opponent's queen's bishop for a time. 

Other than that, the QGD is a very popular defensive move.


Back on Netflix's the Queen's Gambit

If you are a fan of chess, or even having a fleeting interest in it, you will absolutely adore this miniseries. For those who appreciate the attention to detail and historical accuracy, the series is also filled with many "Easter Eggs" from the period it is set. 

Set and costume designs are on point, and you really feel like you are actually in the 1950s and 1960s. The acting is also very good, which makes a nice change. 

It is also a great little introduction to the world of chess for beginners. We can guarantee that you will, at the very least, be inspired to attempt to learn the basics of chess. 

While the miniseries is heavily dramatized, it does offer some insights into the reality of playing chess. Some basic concepts are discussed, and it also leaves the viewer with an appreciation of the dedication that top-level chess players have to their game. 

queens gambit chessboard
Source: Peter Miller/Flickr

Honestly, it actually makes the venerable game of chess feel "sexy". 

Is the Netflix "Queen's Gambit" series based on a true story?

In short, no. The miniseries is based on the 1983 fictional book by Walter Tevis.

While fictitious, some have drawn comparisons to the life and times of the legendary chess player Bobby Fischer. 

Robert "Bobby" James Fischer was an American grandmaster and the eleventh World Chess Champion. He was a chess prodigy, who became the youngest ever U.S. Chess Champion at the age of 14.

By the age of 15, he had become the youngest chess grandmaster at the time and was also the youngest candidate for the World Chess Championship. 

At the age of 20, Fischer managed to win the 1963/1964 US Championship with 11 consecutive wins — the only perfect score in the history of the tournament!

Fischer also wrote the book "My 60 Memorable Games", which was published in 1969, which is widely regarded as essential reading in chess literature. He also won the 1970 Interzonal Tournament and won 20 consecutive games, including two unprecedented 6–0 sweeps.

queens gambit fischer
Fischer at 17 playing 23-year-old World Champion Mikhail Tal in Leipzig, East Germany. Source: Bundesarchiv/Wikimedia Commons

Fischer, in July 1971, became the first official FIDE number-one-rated player. In 1972, Fischer also won the World Chess Championship by defeating Boris Spassky from the USSR in a game that was widely considered analogous to the struggles of the Cold War at the time. 

Fischer also made some important contributions to chess including the invention of a modified chess clock (now the standard) and Fischer Random Chess (aka Chess960). 

This is a chess variant in which the initial positions of the pieces are randomized to one of 960 possible positions. 

So, why should you watch Netflix's "The Queen's Gambit"? Because it is all about chess, and chess is an awesome game!

Enough said. 

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