To preface this article, The Queen’s Gambit is not a bad show to any extent. In fact, it is perhaps one of the most interesting series in 2020. Moreover, the fact that it can gauge a massive audience while being based on the game of chess makes its success much more fascinating. In general, this article will be very similar to Neil deGrasse Tyson complaining about the intricate fallacies in mainstream science fiction movies. So before we delve deep into the flaws of this near-perfect show, let’s talk about how the show builds its successful reputation.
The strengths of the show
At the time of making this article, IMDb rates The Queen’s Gambit show at 8.8, which is exceptionally high, especially with the domain of chess. Many factors contribute to this success.
Firstly, the show is brilliantly acted by all the cast. I think it goes without explanation that we clearly can see the growth and development of the character through the palpable emotions that emanate through them in the series.
Secondly, the environment of the show was built to almost near perfection. Even from the very first scene where Beth wakes up from her hotel room and rushes to the chessboard, we already see and feel the 50’s to 70’s theme shining in the show. The set, props, colour filter, and costumes used in this series create an astonishing effect that movies set on those timelines rarely get right.
The script is also brilliant. The fact that it gets most (but not all) of the chess jargons right in this series is astounding. Perhaps the significant contribution to the accuracy of the show is the help of Garry Kasparov as a consultant of the show. If you got one of the greatest chess players of all time to consult on the chess miniseries, there is no doubt that it will nail the theoretical aspects correctly. As a result, there were almost no significant loopholes in the series. However, when it comes to dramatization, sacrifices in the accuracy aspect will have to be made.
Again, as we can see from these reasons, The Queen’s Gambit is an amazing series that we probably will never again see in our lifetime. As a matter of fact, there are probably loads more strengths that I have not mentioned. However, that is not the primary focus of this article. If you want a more in-depth review of the amazingness of The Queen’s Gambit, you can find tons of that by yourself online.
The problems of the show
As you probably already guessed, the problems in the show mainly lie in the chess aspect of the show. In reality, this is not a big of a deal. After all, most of the audience of the show probably do not even play chess seriously. Moreover, Hollywood does this all the time with science movies, hacking scenes, or gunfights, so don’t expect them to perform better in chess. There are actually many of these small or intricate chess problems in the whole series, and covering them one by one would take too long. Additionally, I do not want to be more nit-picky than I already am going to be. With that said, I will be picking the ones that stand out the most in each episode.
Episode 1: “You resign now”
In this scene, Beth faces one of her many losses to Mr. Shaibel while playing in the basement. In this particular game, Beth blunders her queen by taking a bishop which is protected by a knight. Of course, this is a blunder because a queen is worth much more than a bishop in chess (9 points compared to 3 in fact) and is, therefore, a very bad trade to make. After Beth blunders her queen, Mr. Shaibel prevented her from making her next move and says, “you resign now,” even though the game is not yet over. In reality, the game is only over when the king is checkmated, but Mr. Shaibel mentions that he stopped the game for the sake of sportsmanship.
Instead of the queen blunder, it would be better if they show that Beth was trapped in a mating net or sequence (where there will be a forced checkmate in a couple of moves). Another situation is a losing endgame where one side is close to promoting a pawn to a queen. All these scenarios would make more sense to say Beth has to resign as a sign of respect and sportsmanship to the opponent.
Seeing that this is one of the most important scenes in later episodes, it is unfortunate that it was based on a flawed perspective of chess. Moreover, we may never know if Beth was simply being a genius and gambiting her queen (pun intended).
Episode 2: “Draw?”
Perhaps one of the worst moments in the whole series was when Cullen blunders his queen (or else mate in 2) and immediately asks for a draw. Imagine getting beat up by Mike Tyson in a boxing match up to the point where you lose a tooth, and you ask Mike if he wants to draw with you. That is the scenario that is happening in this scene. If episode 1 teaches you how to show sportsmanship to your opponent, episode 2 showcases the ultimate disrespect. To understand the situation better, take a look at the board position.
Here Cullen takes the knight
But will lose after rook to d1
If you move the queen you will eventually get checkmated,
so you have to sacrifice the queen, prompting a bad trade.
Instead of taking the knight, Cullen can make moves such as pawn to a3 so the king can escape if the rook checks him in the back rank.
Still, the position is very bad for Cullen, but at least the game will still go on.
The blunder that Cullen makes is perfectly fine. After all, he is already in a losing position which can cause further frustration and mistakes. In reality, all chess players ranging from beginners to grandmasters can blunder due to back rank problems.
However, anyone who accepts Cullen’s draw offer should not be in the tournament in the first place. Beltik, on the other hand, is a state champion who knows his stuff. So it does not make sense at all why Cullen would ever ask for a draw offer to Beltik. That is also probably why Beltik was mildly confused and angry when he heard the draw offer. Again, this would never happen in a tournament chess game, especially against a state champion.
Episode 3: Insane moves by Beth
The errors in this scene are not as outstanding as in the previous episode. In fact, it took me a couple of watches to even realize the problem due to its intricacy.
In this scene, Beth is analyzing and studying in her mini chess board that she carries on the airplane. However, the sequence of moves she makes seems pretty absurd by her standards. Maybe she is drunk? Maybe she took the wrong pills? Either way, the moves that she makes here makes absolutely no sense. Let’s take a look at one of these moves.
Here you can see the initial position of the board with the knight on d4
She then captures the a piece (not really sure what piece) on c5 with the knight
This is impossible since knights move like an L shape not diagonally like so:
This is just one of the many absurd moves that Beth makes on that plane scene. I am guessing that Kasparov did not consult them at this particular time of shooting the series. But again, this problem is not as substantial compared to the previous two, so even if the producer realized it would’ve not been worth it to do a re-shoot.
Episode 4: The Announcer
So the commentator or caster of the game makes several statements that do add up. I am not quite sure if it is a fault in the translation of the subtitles or the original script. Either way, let us dissect this scene.
At the scene, the commentator establishes that Beth always plays the Sicilian defense against pawn to e4 and that Borgov is the “Master of the Sicilian”. Therefore, both their main repertoire is the Sicilian opening. In the game, Borgov started with e4. Beth replied with c5 or “Pawn to queen’s bishop four”, which is the Sicilian defense. However, the commentator’s reaction to c5 is “hoping to play him (Borgov) on ground that is fresh for both of them,”. Clearly, this does not make any sense because the commentator just established the fact that both the players use the Sicilian as their main opening of choice.
The commentator further continued with “that won’t give him the advantage of his superior knowledge,” which, again, makes no sense because Borgov is the “Master of the Sicilian”.
The error in this scene is presumably caused by a fault in the script. However, it is very minor and does not cause any plot holes in the overall arc of the series.
Episode 5: Take the rook
In this scene, Beth is duelling what seems to be a computerized version of Benny Watts himself. Yes, what he is able to do in this scene with the limited time is virtually impossible.
In this particular shot, Benny has already forked Beth’s queen and rook with his knight (the piece that he is holding), which is an already stunning feat. Here is the exact position of the game:
After that, after Beth moves her queen to get out of the fork. Almost 99% of chess players would be happy to settle and take the rook. This is because a knight is worth 3 points, and a rook is worth 5 points. Benny, however, skips the trade and instead finds the sequence that will lead him to a family fork in less than 3 seconds. He does not even take a split second of a break to calculate the sequence.
In the context of a classical game, where games go on for hours, the situation here will make sense because you have the time to calculate the moves for as long as you want. But in a bullet game or speed chess, no one will be doing the stuff Benny just did. Unless your brain is integrated with a supercomputer, doing what Benny did is impossible. Most players would settle with the good trade of a knight and a rook and move on into the game.
Episode 6: Beth does the impossible
If you think that what Benny shows his supercomputer skills in the previous episode, then Beth has superseded Benny into the realm of quantum computers.
In this scene, Beth was playing a blitz simul with Benny, Hilton Wexler, and Grandmaster Arthur Levertov. We already know that Benny is the ex-US champion and a supercomputer combined, so we can gloss over the fact that he is impossible to beat. The show did not give us any information about Hilton Wexler, so let’s give Beth the benefit of the doubt that she can beat him.
GM Arthur, similar to Benny, is also impossible to beat. Being a Grandmaster in the ’60s or ’70s implies that you are a really strong player. The scarcity of the GM title in that time period shows that a Grandmaster is a player who far exceeds others in strength is not a joke at all. Moreover, there is no way that a Grandmaster can lose a blitz simul with the help of an ex-US champion. Therefore, we can safely say that the dramatization in this scene is a little bit too overboard.
GM Daniel Naroditsky also has a similar opinion regarding this scene.
Episode 7: “Never offers draws”
After a long-fought battle between Borgov and Beth, Borgov finally offered a draw. The commentator mentioned that “Borgov never offers draws”. This is absolutely misleading as most games of chess, at the top level at least, are drawn. In fact, about half of the games in top-level chess are drawn. Yes, chess is pretty boring in reality. The logic is not that complicated: if you have 2 strong players who are not likely to make mistakes, then the game is most likely always going to end up equally. So the fact that Borgov never offers his opponent a draw is outrageous.
Those are my picks for the most dramatized and faulty moments in The Queen’s Gambit series. As you may have seen, the errors are not a big of a deal and are mostly related to the chess aspect of the show. Perhaps this is the price that the producers have to pay if they want to focus a lot on the game itself.
As an audience, I would not mind if they brush off a lot of the chess stuff. We can take the movie “Pawn Sacrifice” as an example. The movie covers the life of Bobby Fischer and the 1972 World Chess Championship. It mostly tackles the mental aspect of the protagonist and does not go too overboard with the game. In the end, the movie tells the story very well and does not end up sacrificing too much chess errors.
However, there is still no doubt that The Queen’s Gambit is probably one of the best shows out there in 2020. Although it is likely not going to happen, I really hope the producers will make a second season covering Beth Harmon’s life after her rise to the top. It is a one-of-a-kind show that we will never probably again see in our lifetime.
Featured Image from IMDb