“The Queen’s Gambit” is a Different Kind of Sports Story

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.

When and How Will Sports Come Back?

With the country mostly shut down due to coronavirus, it’s been nearly two weeks since the last live sporting event in the U.S. There isn’t a clear end in sight for this period of social distancing, which was recently extended to April 30th, and I expect it to go on potentially much longer as the virus continues to make its way through various areas. The future of sports in this environment feels unimportant in the grand scheme of things, but at the same time, there is a collective need for distraction and entertainment, and historically sports have served as a strong unifier and a way to rally the country. This is a big reason why I expect sports to be one of the first normal things to come back, likely in June or July, though it will have to be in a vastly different form than we’ve seen before.

Until there is a vaccine, widespread herd immunity, or some unforeseen mitigation of the virus threat, I do not expect sporting events to be played in front of crowds. This will make for a weird viewing experience, but it also opens the door for creative solutions: without a live crowd, the actual location where you’re playing the game is irrelevant. This is the key to my proposed solution, which will sound insane — but these are insane times, and a weird, unprecedented problem like this will likely have weird, out-of-the-box solutions. The concept of “social distancing” would have sounded crazy weeks ago, but now seems like the obvious correct thing to do.

A league that wants to play games could theoretically quarantine all of their players, test them (we’ve already seen how accessible testing is for NBA players), and then isolate them in a location that is not as susceptible to the virus — something like a small town in rural Montana, but there is room to go crazy here if you want to ship players to the Yukon. This is a possible solution for the NBA, which still wants to finish its season, and really only needs a traditional basketball court to play. The two conferences could quarantine in a local hotel or something, then play games all day at a random gym, with the Western Conference taking one day, then resting the next while the Eastern Conference plays. Assuming thorough testing, this is not that far-fetched of an idea, and it could potentially give Americans hours of live basketball to watch each day while stuck indoors.

Sports leagues are heavily incentivized to come back, and whoever jumps first in this game of chicken has potential to reap serious rewards — they can establish a narrative of helping the country “bounce back” while also generating attention to their games, which could lead to iconic moments that are replayed forever (think Mike Piazza’s home run after September 11). I assume every league in season right now is thinking of these sorts of drastic measures to get games in, simply because the benefits are so significant. With that said, here are the three leagues I think are most likely to jump into the pool first:

MLB: Commissioner Rob Manfred is a desperate man who has been doing anything he can to get more eyeballs on the game and try to win new fans. Baseball being the first sport to return would be a perfect opportunity for that, and it will be in the summer which is strongly associated with the sport. MLB can also credibly argue that they play the safest game, as it is typically outdoors with much less intense physical contact than basketball, hockey, or soccer.

The biggest issue I see with MLB is finding enough fields and being able to get the games (which take forever) in while quarantining the large rosters. I am skeptical about teams traveling around and playing in their home parks while this is going on. It’s possible there is a complex in the right location with enough fields to play the needed 15 games, which could obviously be staggered throughout the day. Even if there is, baseball teams often jettison players back and forth from the minor leagues, and it’s hard to envision a situation that supports a full major league and minor league slate. This would likely necessitate larger rosters (which have already been discussed), but a lack of minor league games still would have a ripple effect on the trade market and the development of young players. If MLB can figure out a solution to those complex issues, they have a strong chance of being the first sport to come back.

WNBA: Their draft is still on as scheduled and we’re approaching when the season would start anyways. The WNBA has a few things going for it: it has the fewest players of any league, it only needs simple basketball courts (as discussed earlier), and it’s the league with the most to gain from being the first league back. They’ve needed a shot in the arm for popularity and more exposure to the sport forever, and I think the country will be so sports-starved that even those skeptical of women’s sports will tune in. When they do, they might be surprised by how much they like it.

The only complicating factor here is that WNBA players are very socially conscious — I’m not sure if that would manifest in them not wanting to participate or in them desiring to get on the court and give the country a distraction. There are also still some old gender roles issues at play with many players who are mothers and may be more reluctant to leave their families during these heightened, stressful times, especially since they’re not making millions like their male counterparts. However, the WNBA always deals with players sitting out seasons even when things are going fine, so I’m not sure if that’s a dealbreaker, and in the end, my hunch is that athletes will want to play and compete if assured of their safety. This is a sleeper pick and might be my favorite right now.

MLS: This is another rising sports league that would love to get some attention, and also benefits from being outdoors and playing on a basic field. I honestly don’t follow the league enough to know its social dynamics or what the commissioners are thinking, but they will clearly have one of the stronger incentives to get back on the field as soon as possible.

Those three strike me as the most likely right now, but almost any projection is clouded with uncertainty. The NBA has a problem where if it wants to return for its playoffs, they would be playing through their typical offseason. It’s possible the league will still finish its season and then permanently change the start of their regular season to Christmas — something that has already been discussed by owners so they compete less with football. The NHL season feels like a lost cause to me, as getting rink space for every team seems difficult, and I think even the start of their next season might be an issue. If none of these leagues return in the summer (which would shock me), the NFL will have months to prepare a solution and I think will find some way to play empty arena games for its season, even if it means shipping the players to Antarctica.

Any return by one of these leagues will require planning, some creative thinking, and an acceptance of some level of risk. However, I think the rewards are too great, and the demand is too large, for every league to just sit out this entire pandemic. How all of this happens is one of the things I’m most curious about, and I expect around May or June we’ll see the ideas start to roll out and some semblance of normalcy will be returned to our lives.