When I’m goin’, when I’m really goin’, I feel like a…like a jockey must feel when he’s sittin’ on his horse, he’s got all that speed and power underneath him, he’s coming into the stretch, the pressure’s on him–and he knows. He just feels when to let it go and how much. ‘Cause he’s got everything working for him–timing, touch. It’s a great feeling, boy–it’s a real great feeling–when you’re right and you know you’re right. Like all of a sudden, I got oil on my arm. Pool cue’s part of me. You know, it’s a pool cue, it’s got nerves in it. You can feel the roll of those balls…. You don’t have to look. You just know. You make shots nobody’s ever made before, and you play that game the way nobody’s ever played it before.
–Fast Eddie Felson
Fast Eddie, you will remember, is a pool shark and the hero of Walter Tevis’s novel, The Hustler, and memorably played by Paul Newman in the 1961 movie version. The late Tevis also wrote The Queen’s Gambit, that novel about big-time chess forming the basis for the much praised and awarded 2020 TV miniseries of the same name. Fast Eddie’s wonderful characterization of what it feels like when you are at the top of your game and why, given that rapturous state, you keep seeking that experience, applies perfectly to chess prodigy Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit, that title signifying a particular strategic opening in a chess match.
The Queen’s Gambit, set in the mid-Fifties to the Sixties, is a superb film owing to Tevis’s understanding of prodigies–how their minds work and what their marvelous talents not only reward but impose, the latter in some cases (as with Beth Harmon) addiction to tranquilizers and liquor as a boost to both the preparatory and game-time imagined sequences of chess moves–“fringe consciousness”– which could lead to victory against a supremely formidable opponent and hence to the craved ecstatic victories.
Tevis himself learned pool and chess in his younger years and suffered addictions he believed enhanced his play. His stories are highly reflective biographically though such does not explain the born talent itself. Beth Harmon is prodigious almost from the beginning and remains so: her mysterious and rare talent is not ravaged by the pills and the Gibsons. Nor is Beth a lush who misses matches; she works hard on her chess and shows up for the matches. The world chess hierarchy respect and like her.
Tevis in his novel and the superb filmmakers in the TV miniseries create an irresistible story. First, one of the great recent acting perfrmances is turned in by Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon: she won a Golden Globe award as best actress in a miniseries or TV film. And The Queen’s Gambit itself won eleven Primetime Emmys.
Beth is a classic American hero of the New World, striking out on her lonely own for the New. Like Huck Finn, for example, she is effectively an orphan; her parents are gone early and in her girlhood she ends up in an orphanage, the likes of which are entirely realistic as I can tell you after stints at a couple of boardng schools: if for no other reason, the compelling realism of Beth’s orphanage is worth the viewing of the miniseries: it’s that good.
She learns to play chess by skipping classes and playing the orphanage janitor, William Shaibel, enacted perfectly by actor Bill Camp in a touching segment you won’t soon forget. Immediately Beth shows prodigious talent, soon overwhelming the appreciative Shaibel.
From there she eventually departs the orphanage when she is problematically adopted (here resembling her de facto cousin Huck Finn and the Open Road quest of the New World, for like Huck in Twain’s masterpiece she is beset with a vicious largely absent father and a well-meaning but abandoned and somewhat hapless housewife for mother), wins the Kentucky State Chess Tournament, and moves triumphantly upward through several increasingly prestigious chess tourneys to an international match for the World Championship in Moscow against the reigning Grand Master and World Champ from the Soviet Union.
I’ll not be a spoiler.
Along the way her personal adventure–her life somewhat outside her chess (“somewhat” is mandatory accuracy in reporting on this superior storyline) concerning boys, money, fashion etc.–is chronicled but not at the expense of the arc of her chess drama which remains preeminent in her drama and unifies this compelling, brief, economical and gripping miniseries.
A lot could be said further, but then, the film itself needs little commentary.
Aside from the sublime performnce of Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth, look for Thomas Brodie-Sangster’s portrayal of Benny Watts, U.S. Chess Champion.
Don’t miss this one.