Welcome to my series of articles on the chess aesthetics and culture in the Netflix seven episode miniseries, The Queens Gambit. I will also share some of my own perspectives on the world of chess the show has prompted.
I’d recommend seeing the series before reading. I’m not always going to have spoilers, but I’d say, watch it without my judgments, then come back to see what I was struck by.
For the most part, don’t expect me to cover the very well done on-board technicals, this is covered well elsewhere.
In every way, this series pays a lot of attention to detail and shines for that.
When you start watching a show for the third time, one thing you start to really notice is the chess aesthetic throughout with the sets and costumes.
The show opens with a preview forward, 1967 Paris.
The adult version of Elizabeth (Beth) Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) appears at the chess board wearing a white dress with a black collar and the dress includes a bow with hints of black.
These costuming choices are no accident.
Other things of importance get the black and white treatment as well.
The benzodiazepines are green and white, common colours found on cheap vinyl tournament chess boards, a perfect metaphor for the orphanage’s cheap trick in behavior control.
In the second episode there is background dialog where Beth’s brown shoes with brown laces are made fun of, and we get a shot of the shoes that are trending at Beth’s high school, all of them with the same black and white design.
Beth and her adoptive mother go for shopping the first time and end up pairing a black dress with her white shirt. It’s a black and white bus that gets them there.
When we meet Townes on day one of the Kentucky State Championship, he’s wearing a white shirt, no jacket, dark pants and a black tie.
Day 2, where he is facing harder games, Townes brings the seriousness of a suit jacket. Yet, the contrast of a white shirt is avoided, instead his shirt has some colour and subtle plaid/checkerboard pattern. This is fitting as he he as become more familiar and comfortable to both Beth and us by day two.
(As an aside, it was nice the see the jacket come off during his end game, something I’ve personally done to keep my arms limber and ready for a time scramble)
We see this in several other places, and I assume the intention is draw our eyes to characters and settings, but in less striking ways. The plaid people and places are softer.
Starting with Beth, she has a checkered orphanage blanket and an orphanage supplied dress pattern worn at some point.
She yearns for two of the dresses in the department store that are not on sale, one with striking black and white contrasts and the other with a checkered pattern which seems to be her favorite.
Charles Levy, the high school simul board #1 stands out from the others with his flannel shirt. The teacher’s chair rocks this same aesthetic.
Returning to the second episode, Annette Parker, Beth’s first tournament pairing and day two bathroom angel has a skirt patterned this way too.
Long before Beth has the chance to redecorate her adoptive parents house, there’s already a checker pattern in the wallpaper.
Even the janitor’s chess dungeon basement has tiled walls going on.
These are all very interesting, but I’m saving for last the following appearance of the plaid from the first episode: a fence separates the orphanage from some other institution, perhaps a high school or middle school. Beth, age 9 stares at an older boy over the fence and he waves back. Does she perhaps notice him because of his checkered jacket?
We return to the boy outside during a montage sequence where Beth is upping her game and also showing a curiosity about male anatomy. On his second appearance, the boy is having an animated conversation and smoke with a girl his age. This is all a set up for the third appearance, the boy and the other girl are kissing passionately and Beth is disappointed.
Forgive the stretched analogy, but this is like a bad game of chess, an okay opening, bad signs in the mid game, and devastation in the end game.
The writers may not have intended to land a 3 phase analogy, but the function of these scenes is clear: as Beth’s chess obsession grows we see there are other sides to her, including the infatuations and disappointment experienced by most children.
In this way, the show establishes from the 1st episode that Beth is going to be more multidimensional character than just a chess prodigy and substance abuser. She is attracted to boys and men, able to have her heart broken, concerned with her appearance and surrounded by a chess aesthetic.
— Mark Jenkins