Chess is not the sexiest of subjects. With a reputation as a staid, even nerdish pastime, it’s often seen as the preserve of bookish boys and old men.
But thanks to a mesmerising performance by British actress Anya Taylor-Joy, and a riveting book by American author Walter Tevis, the chess drama The Queen’s Gambit has become the surprise boxset binge of the second lockdown.
Taylor-Joy, 24, plays Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy and orphan from Kentucky whose genius is never in doubt, but whose drug and drink addictions mean disaster is constantly stalking her — both on and off the board.
The seven-part series has gained fans among both chess professionals, for the authenticity of the game strategies, and fashionistas for the stunning Sixties clothes and interiors.
So was there a real Beth Harmon? Who advised the makers on the games? And where did they film the show that’s topping Netflix’s charts? ALISON BOSHOFF has the story.
Checkmate: Anya Taylor-Joy as chess prodigy Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit
THE PLOT AND ITS OPENING MOVES
Based on a 1983 book The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, the show tells the story of Beth Harmon, who is brought to live at the Methuen Home for Girls after her mother, a maths professor, kills herself.
At the orphanage, the children are given tranquilliser pills, and Beth, aged eight, becomes hooked on the drug.
She also starts to play chess, taught by the janitor Mr Shaibel — working out how the pieces move herself and visualising strategies on the ceiling while others sleep.
Fashion forward: Taylor-Joy, as Beth Harmon, leaves the board for other pursuits
Beth gets taken to a local school, and plays a simultaneous game against a room of teenage chess enthusiasts, easily defeating them all.
At 13, she is adopted by Alma and Allston Wheatley and starts to play in tournaments across America, and later the world.
She becomes close to her adoptive mother, who is depressed and a drinker, and falls into a lifestyle of drink and drug abuse herself after a tragedy and romantic disappointments.
Critics fell in love with Taylor-Joy and the cinematic quality of the show.
One wrote: ‘The Queen’s Gambit is a work of art — riveting, radiant, and simply spellbinding. Like Beth, it triumphs through its devotion to a love of the game.’
HOW KINGS OF THE GAME GOT ON BOARD
You don’t need to play or even understand chess to enjoy the show, but care has been taken over the authenticity of the games.
The chess sequences in the film were put together by coach Bruce Pandolfini, who consulted on the original novel. There was also advice from Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov.
They matched scenarios from the book and generated a list of the strongest moves.
It’s his move: Adviser and former chess world champion Garry Kasparov
Some plays were drawn from real games — the match in the finale of the drama is based on a game between Ukrainian Vasyl Ivanchuk and American Patrick Wolff at the Biel Interzonal chess tournament in Switzerland in 1993.
However, that game ended in a draw, this one ends with a win (we won’t say whose).
There are also echoes of Bobby Fischer’s famous 1972 win against defending Russian champion Boris Spassky — Spassky notably applauded his winning opponent.
SO WHAT IS A QUEEN’S GAMBIT?
The Queen’s Gambit is one of the oldest known chess openings.
It was mentioned in the Göttingen manuscript of 1490 and was later analysed by masters such as Gioachino Greco in the 17th century.
It’s an opening move in which a pawn is sacrificed in order to gain control of the centre of the board.
In the show, Beth Harmon uses it in her final match against the Russian world champion Vasily Borgov.
KEEPING THE DRESS CODE IN CHECK
If the chess doesn’t blow you away, the clothes will!
Costume designer Gabriele Binder was influenced by designers such as Pierre Cardin and Andres Courreges, and by actresses Jean Seberg and Edie Sedgwick.
She often puts Taylor-Joy in black or white and checks. She tells Vogue: ‘I always try to mirror what is happening inside a character with what they are wearing on the outside, and the checks are something that I thought would be immediately interesting to Anya’s character, as she would intuitively choose to wear pieces that are connected to chess.’
Costume designer Gabriele Binder was influenced by designers such as Pierre Cardin and Andres Courreges, and by actresses Jean Seberg and Edie Sedgwick
The checked coat she wears to leave the tournament in Moscow is a vintage Courreges coat. Binder adds: ‘The dress Beth wears for the Paris tournament was a favourite of mine. It’s almost like a Cardin dress and has a kind of elegance that doesn’t exist any more.’
Taylor-Joy wears a variety of bobbed ginger wigs. Daniel Parker, the hair and make-up designer for The Queen’s Gambit, says his key muse was actress Natalie Wood.
‘You’re dealing with the time from the Forties all the way till the mid-late Sixties, so it really is a period piece that spans several decades in its look. There was a lot of research and a lot of hunting around to get the look,’ he says.
Make-up is true to the period with winged eyeliner, red lips and rosy cheeks.
Parker says: ‘The whole point about the character is that she is very feminine and very glamorous.’
CHIC RETREAT IN BERLIN
The series was mostly filmed in Berlin, with the orphanage for girls the Schloss Schulzendorf outside Berlin. The grand hotel lobby in Cincinnati is Berlin’s city hall. The gloriously Sixties interior of the Hotel Mariposa in Las Vegas is the Palais am Funkturm building of the Messe Berlin, an exhibition complex. The baroque interiors of the Paris hotel were filmed in the Bode Museum. The exception was the Wheatley family home in Kentucky, which was filmed in Ontario, Canada.
Anya Taylor-Joy as chess prodigy Beth Harmon in The Queen’s Gambit
AND THE REAL BETH HARMON?
Hungarian chess prodigy Judit Polgar may have been an inspiration for Beth Harmon (right).
A formidable player, described by British Grandmaster David Norwood as ‘a cute little auburn haired monster who destroyed you’, she played competitively from the age of six and was widely feared for her quick-fire tactical blitzes.
Her father Laszlo trained Judit and her sisters in chess and they refused to play in women-only tournaments.
Obsessive about the game, Judit would practise for six hours a day. She first defeated an International Master aged ten, and a grandmaster at age 11. She became a grand-master at 15 after winning the Hungarian National Championship.
In 1993, aged 22, she played an exhibition match against former World Champion, Boris Spassky and won. She retired from top-level chess in 2014. She also beat Garry Kasparov, who remarked ‘if to ‘play like a girl’ meant anything in chess, it would mean relentless aggression’, judging by Polgar.
TORTURED AUTHOR’S INSPIRATION
The book was written by novelist Walter Tevis in 1983 — the year before he died.
He wrote six books. First came The Hustler in 1959 (later a film with Paul Newman) and then The Man Who Fell To Earth in 1963 (later a film with David Bowie).
He then published nothing for almost 20 years, due to alcoholism.
Born in 1928, he spent some of his childhood in Lexington, Kentucky, hanging out in pool halls and becoming hooked on chess.
He said: ‘I think that most people take up the game of chess in a very serious way if they have personality problems … I was afraid of girls, I was afraid of a lot of things, and chess was a way of … getting rid of some of that anxiety.’
He worked as a teacher in Kentucky and tried to also earn money through writing. The Hustler was a success, followed by The Man Who Fell To Earth, in which the lonely, depressed alien becomes an alcoholic. He said it was a ‘disguised autobiography’ based on his own feelings of dislocation which he had tried to ‘negate’ with booze.
He got a job teaching creative writing, but drank, which prevented him from writing himself.
His wife said: ‘He could drink and teach, but he couldn’t drink and write. One drink and the typewriter was completely out of the question.’
Tevis moved to New York and gave up alcohol, his job, his friends and his family in order to start writing again.
First came Mockingbird (1980) and then The Steps Of The Sun (1983), The Queen’s Gambit (also 1983) and finally The Color of Money (1984).
Tevis based chess scenes in the Queen’s Gambit on his own experience as a class-C player and his study of the game.
IS IT LOVE ACTUALLY FOR DASHING KNIGHT?
Two of Harmon’s romantic interests — and chess foes — are played by actors who became famous as children. Thomas Brodie-Sangster was adorable Sam in Love Actually.
In The Queen’s Gambit he is Benny Watts, a dangerous-looking chess player who favours a bare chest and Stetson. Harry Melling (right), the beastly Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films, has a much more sympathetic part, as Harry Beltik. Now 31, he plays one of Beth’s early ‘kills’ on the board, who goes on to develop a life-long crush on her.
Thomas Brodie-Sangster was adorable Sam in Love Actually
Harry Melling, the beastly Dudley Dursley in the Harry Potter films, has a much more sympathetic part
Now 31, he plays one of Beth’s early ‘kills’ on the board, who goes on to develop a life-long crush on her
SUPERSTAR WITH THE BAMBI EYES
She was the star of an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma which was released this spring, but is certain to be catapulted on to the A-list by The Queen’s Gambit.
Anya Taylor-Joy’s intense, fawn-like gaze seems to carry the drama for the entire seven-plus hours of running time.
Director M Night Shyamalan who has worked with her previously says: ‘Her visage is like a silent movie star’s from the Thirties. She is so atypical, physically, and emotionally.’
She was the star of an adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma which was released this spring, but is certain to be catapulted on to the A-list by The Queen’s Gambit
Born in Miami, Florida, Anya is the youngest of six children and was raised in Argentina. Her father is a banker who races speedboats and her mother is a photographer.
Aged six, the family moved to London’s Knightsbridge and she went to Hill House prep school and then Queen’s Gate School. She said: ‘Argentina is all green and I had horses and animals everywhere. All of a sudden I was in big city and I didn’t speak the language.’
She says that she is now a ‘mash up’ of identities, with a British sense of humour combined with ‘Argentine warmth… I hug everybody. I’m very effusive.’
Anya was scouted to be a model and left school at 16 to pursue acting. Before Emma, she had various small parts, including one in the X-Men spin-off film The New Mutants. At present, she is filming a lead role in The Northman opposite Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgard.
She has a photographic memory, which is surely handy for scripts and also describes herself as ‘an empath’ — someone who feels other’s emotions to an intense degree.
She says of Beth Harmon: ‘By the time I got to playing her I didn’t have the energy to create a wall between me and her. So, if she was having a bad day, I was having a bad day.’