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The Queen’s Gambit: I get by with a little help from my friends

By Nelson Smith
December 27, 2020 - 15:06

A recent surprise hit TV series, based on the life of a fictional chess prodigy, gave us all, player and non-player alike, much to chew on.

First of all, “The Queen’s Gambit” is, beyond anything else, a retelling of the ‘American Dream’, a story of compulsive drive overcoming obstacles in life that would drag many of us down. Right out of Horatio Alger, what makes this version very much of our time, and not of the time (late 1950s, early-to-mid 1960s) in which the story is set or, for that matter, Alger’s time, is that the lead character is female. The heroine, abandoned by a brilliant, desperate and suicidal mother, finds a refuge of sorts in an orphanage for girls. Fate plays its hand by arranging for her to meet the school’s janitor, who just happens to play chess with himself in his basement lair when he is not attending to his janitorial duties. As she cleans an armload of dirty chalk erasers, she watches him play and, soon enough, convinces him to overcome his reluctance and tell her how the game works. Not that she hadn’t already figured much of it out. Courtesy of the tranquilizers that were handed out like candy to orphans in those days, she found herself hallucinating as she lay in bed, envisioning chess pieces on the ceiling of her dorm, upside down, moving on their own according to some unstated plan. Talk about a performance-enhancing drug! She ultimately rises to the pinnacle of the chess world, aided by drugs and alcohol. Not necessarily a good message, and she does stumble, but redemption stands at the ready, as we soon enough learn.

Second, it is more than a sly dig at the very American dream that she ostensibly embodies. Thanks to some eye-popping sets and costumes, the stifling social norms that we of the sixties generation rebelled against are drawn in high relief and with a gimlet eye. Our heroine is a classic outsider, unsure enough of herself to accept an invitation to a high-school slumber party with the cool girls, but sure enough of herself to bolt from the slumber party when it becomes clear that she simply does not fit and that the cool girls’ goals and values are, to her, dead at the core. Later, when she is a rising star, heading to a tournament in Russia, she flatly rejects an offer of funding from some ladies, representing a fundamentalist Christian group, whose only wish is that she take the message of American exceptionalism and righteousness to the Godless Soviets. Worse, the Soviets are presented very sympathetically, as a people who work together to achieve a goal, who worship their chess heroes (as the increasingly large crowds that meet her as she departs the tournament building after yet another victory show), and who lose not only with grace but with admiration and acknowledgement of genius. Talk about subversive!

But the thing that struck me, more than anything, was the underlying religious subtext. Her visions present themselves on the ceiling of whatever room she sleeps in, as if heaven-sent, the pieces moved by an invisible hand. In her adopted home, she has torn a large hole in the canopy of her bed to ensure an unobstructed view, and it is to this bed that she runs after bolting from the slumber party from hell, all to the sound of an ear-worm of a song from the 60s, “You’re the One” by the Vogues, which reaches its climax as the chess pieces re-appear on the ceiling. It’s hard to miss the reference to bridal theology and the notion of a mystical marriage found in gnostic writings from the middle ages. She has fervent disciples, who support and encourage her in her mission. Like Joan of Arc, who also had visions, she takes the battle to the enemy (Soviets? Men?). She struggles with drugs, alcohol, her sexual identity, patriarchal society, and, falling from the path and seriously hung over, loses a critical game to the Soviet champion.

But redemption is available to her who truly repents and cleans up her act, both of which she does. In the big tournament in Russia, she reaches the final game against the same Soviet champion. The game is adjourned; her opponent seals his move. That evening, her disciples provide her with detailed trans-Atlantic analysis of every possible situation, but, even then, her opponent makes a move so unexpected that all the earthly coaching is to no avail. Slightly rattled, she does the only thing she can do in the situation. She looks to the ceiling, which certainly perplexes her opponent, and then beatifically makes the perfect move, forcing him to resign. It’s dangerous to stretch analogies, but I suspect that those ladies back home would say that she had God on her side.

Nelson Smith is a Toronto-based writer and musician.

Last Updated: February 5, 2023 - 09:06

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