One of the classic sports movies scenes is from Rudy, where all of Rudy’s teammates put their jersey on fun-hating coach Dan Devine’s desk and refuse to play unless he lets the undersized go-getter dress for their game against Georgia Tech. The film is allegedly based on a true story, but this scene is fiction; in reality, Devine was perfectly fine with letting Rudy play, and he later called the scene “unforgivable” and “untrue.” I probably think about poor Dan Devine more than the average adult: the man did nothing wrong, but because of this hokey movie, tons of people think he was an ass who got in the way of Rudy chasing his dreams, and when he died in 2002, I’m sure many Americans cheered for the demise of Sean Astin’s antagonist.
The scene in Rudy is indicative of the tension between entertainment about sports and the way sports actually work. When I was a young sportswriter a few years ago, one of my internal struggles was how to make games seem interesting without inventing drama where there wasn’t any. Often, narratives about “rivalries” and teams “hating each other” are just that — they’re ways to make a basketball or football game seem like a story, when really they’re just athletes competing at a high level and focusing primarily on their own performance and execution. Of course, there is still some human drama and sometimes players and teams really do despise one another, but I rarely think games are won or lost based on those emotions. But on film and TV, sports often demand a more “compelling” story, which is how people like Dan Devine end up getting portrayed as contemptuous monsters.
So when I decided to watch Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, knowing it was about a young woman chess prodigy, I expected a similarly heavy-handed approach, with a lot of scenes of evil men sneering at her before losing and various characters yelling “WOMEN DON’T PLAY CHESS” at her. Instead, I was blown away by just how darn nice every character was. As Beth Harmon rises the ladder, going from a young kid playing with a janitor in the basement of her orphanage to world champion, every opponent she topples takes their loss graciously, sometimes to a surreal extent. Her initial foes, state champion Harry Beltik and U.S. champion Benny Watts, are defeated and become something between mentors and lovers to her. In her final showdown with the Russians, I would have expected a lesser show about sports to portray her opponents as cruel; instead, one compliments her as the best player he’s ever seen, and her final “nemesis,” Borgov, raises her hand at the end and says she deserves her ultimate victory.
Leaving aside the debate of whether chess is a sport, The Queen’s Gambit shows an unusually deep understanding of how high-level competition really works. Beth’s real opponent isn’t any of these chess masters, but herself: she battles addiction throughout the series, which at times derails her life as she loses her motivation and goes into self-destructive spirals. For viewers, it’s always apparent that Beth is good enough to win as long as she can keep her composure and play her game. Sports is full of stories like this that aren’t based on imaginary conflict, but on plain unsexy hard work, of players grinding every day and trying to fix their flaws or find the next technique that can take them to the next level. Putting in this work often requires a single-minded, bordering on deranged obsession with the game, and The Queen’s Gambit shows Beth’s fixation on chess from the very beginning, with her love for the game dominating all aspects of her life. She struggles to relate to “normal” people, preferring to devour a chess strategy book, and her mental state often hinges on her satisfaction with her in-game performance.
I’m sure the conventional thought with these sports narratives is that they make the otherwise boring games interesting — that, without the conflict, there is nothing to hook viewers in or make them care. But some of the best scenes in The Queen’s Gambit still are able to tap into the primal joy of watching sports. Her early games as an underestimated orphan who topples unsuspecting men in her path are like watching a perceived underdog you believe in dominate a game you knew they could win; later games that show her at the height of her career are more like when you watch an amazing athlete like Lebron James do the impossible. It’s clear a lot of thought went into how to make chess scenes fun to watch, and the show uses music, montages, and visuals of chess pieces on the ceiling to add intrigue to Beth’s games. A lot of this also lies on the performance of Anya Taylor-Joy, who is able to let viewers understand the character’s thought process through her expressions and movements. She helps make viewers root for Beth, who risks being a little too perfect of a protagonist. Greatness and being hated often go hand-in-hand — just ask Tom Brady — but the show is still able to make Beth’s wins worthy of a fist-pump without portraying her rivals as dickheads.
And in portraying her opponents as so respectful, The Queen’s Gambit ends up making a feminist point in its own sly way. At a certain point, the lack of abuse or suspicion Beth faces for her gender starts to feel utopian, and I think that’s the idea: the show is subtly asking what our culture would be like if women like Beth were respected for their abilities and treated equally in a male-dominated world like chess. A New York Times article called “I Want to Live in the Reality of The Queen’s Gambit“ hit this nail on the head, describing the fantasy of the show — how Beth gets to achieve greatness in part because she is allowed to focus entirely on her skills instead of on being a woman, dealing with harassment, etc. The thrill in The Queen’s Gambit is watching Beth accomplish greatness in the same way that men are able to in real life.