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Addiction and sexism in “The Queen’s Gambit”

The world of 1950s professional chess comes to life in the 2020 Netflix release “The Queen’s Gambit.” Following the rise to fame of young chess prodigy Beth Harmon, the viewer watches her navigate the male-dominated sport while battling addiction. It is the story of an orphaned girl’s rise to greatness against all odds. Based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, the phrase “The Queen’s Gambit” refers to an old and well-respected chess opening. It is a tense, focused and inspiring seven-episode series. 

Harmon’s original exposure to chess occurs at her orphanage through an unsuspecting party—the janitor. The young girl is enamored by the game; by the intricacy of the pieces, their limited movements and its naturally competitive nature. It is through chess that Harmon escapes the drudgery of life in the orphanage, as well as the trauma from losing her mother. Her true escape from these pains, however, are the sedative pills which the orphanage requires its residents to take. Harmon quickly becomes addicted to them, a habit which will stick with her and grow larger in years to come. 

The adoption of Harmon by a woman named Alma Wheatley changes everything. She enters chess tournaments and wins each one, stunning her components and onlookers. However, Harmon quickly realizes that her talent for chess is not what many are preoccupied by, but rather, her gender. She voices her frustrations readily, determined to prove her talent. This sexism within the chess industry is, unfortunately, something that Harmon will deal with for the duration of her career. 

Although chess is the focal point of “The Queen’s Gambit,” there are more facets to Beth Harmon’s character and life. There is an emphasis placed on her addiction to both drugs and alcohol. The trauma from the loss of her biological mother, the later loss of her adopted mother, and various chess losses repeatedly trigger her addiction. 

The series ends with Harmon’s heavily anticipated and heavily feared match against the Russian world champion, Borgov. The match is extended to two days after Borgov proposes an adjournment during the first half. During this halfway period, Harmon’s friends call her and help her study the board and, ultimately, win the match. It is an extremely important moment of victory for Harmon, especially after a difficult bout with her addiction. Her peers display great camaraderie and friendship, something which she had little of while growing up. 

It is no wonder that “The Queen’s Gambit” gained such popularity. All facets of production—including acting, set design and cinematography are unique and executed nicely. Humorous dialogue is placed strategically so as not to overly burden the show with serious content. The viewer also often gets to see parts of the matches in detail, including what specific moves Harmon uses to beat opponents or even when she finds herself stuck. The viewer knows

that Harmon has won when she rests her head on her hands and stares confidently at her opponent. It’s a signature move of Harmon’s which makes her character so popular.


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