A psychological review of “The Queen’s Gambit”: a disturbing yet deeply stirring drama

Things left unspoken spoke volumes!

[contains spoilers]

When a series opens with a clothed soaked woman suddenly emerging out of a bathtub in the dark, you expect some disturbing undercurrents to manifest themselves along the way. The Queen’s Gambit does not disappoint. In fact, it so much did not disappoint that this was the first show in almost two years that I binge-watched in a day (yes, Stranger Things 3 was the last thing I did that with, like millions of other people probably).

The theme of a troubled yet genius individual is one of the most familiar in modern (and vintage) cinema. Yet, somehow this series packed that old wine in a new bottle so effortlessly that unrecognized flavors of the old wine wafted up and mesmerized my senses. Warning: spoilers ahead, as I try to make sense of the 7-odd feverish hours that was The Queen’s Gambit (TQG).

Little Beth had seen enough
Let’s talk about the little girl that emerged out of a horrific car crash that made her an orphan without shedding a single tear, during or ever after. Already, it seemed like the nine-year-old Beth Harmon was hardened to emotional and physical isolation. We learn with abrupt shock later on that her biological mother (Alice Harmon, who had a Ph.D. in mathematics from Cornell University) intentionally collided with a van in order to resolve the “rounding error” that she considered her daughter to be. Beth literally saw her mother kill herself. Then, whether or not her mother intended it, Beth herself emerged from the charred morass of the collision physically unscathed, but with deep psychological scars that contributed to her proclivity to addiction and substance abuse, mental illness, and rejection of any tenderness in personal relationships.

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The young child is then thrust into the regimented and gloomy world of a 1960s orphanage for girls. The veneer of discipline in this new ethos is the opposite of the chaotic life with her mother that Beth knew. Beneath the routine imposed by the forebodingly caring head Helen Deardorff and enforced by the staff lay a very dark underbelly. The children in the orphanage are mandated to take the drug Librium, approved by the FDA in 1960 as a treatment for anxiety disorders. We never find a definitive answer to the shocking question of why little girls had access to Librium; presumably it is to preemptively obviate the boisterous, regime-defying facets of their genetic dispositions from manifesting themselves and upending their metrics of respectability and adoptability. One of the many insidious attempts at forcing nurture to command nature.

The custodian was left very far behind
The quick commencement of little Beth’s substance abuse with the pills is not as surprising as her enchantment with chess at first glance and her consequent chess-friendship with the janitor, Mr. William Shaibel. Many scenes in the series made me sad, but none were as utterly heartbreaking as the scene where the now famous, adult Beth Harmon revisits the orphanage and finds Mr. Shaibel’s homage to her — the wall full of newspaper reports about every step in Beth’s career, including their one and only picture together. Beth’s sobs are mirrored in the viewer’s tears as we realize how criminally undervalued Mr. Shaibel’s contribution to Beth’s success has been. Mr. Shaibel is never made a part of the elite, glamorous, shutterbugs-filled, international travel-riddled, expensive, branded clothing-laden world that the chess prodigy fame bestows on Beth Harmon. Mr. Shaibel remains the janitor that introduced her to chess in a different era of her life, but he is never given the honor he deserved for being the first bearer of providence in little Beth’s disconsolate existence.

Celebrally-gifted women should not good models make
The backdrop of the series makes it clear that the male-dominated world of chess is not yet used to genius women. The confident, gazelle-like teenager Beth Harmon breaks both norms and hearts along the way. Two thoughts struck me forcefully as I studied the arcs of her career and her physical transformation. In an alternate reality, where the female chess savant is not considered attractive by the standards of feminine beauty in the 1960s, would she still have found the mass appeal that propelled her to covers of magazines and the consequent doors that those interviews opened up? How harsh is the glare of the spotlight on cerebrally-gifted women who do not conform to approved metrics of femininity? Perhaps unsurprisingly, this is a double-edged sword. Don’t you dare be a cerebrally-gifted woman who is too glamorous. Beth Harmon is asked by a reporter (Ep. 6, “Adjournment”) before her match with the legendary grandmaster Vasily Borgov, “Miss Harmon, what do you say to those in the Chess Federation who accuse you of being too glamorous to be a serious chess player?”, to which Beth unsmilingly responds, “I would say that it is much easier to play chess without the burden of an Adam’s apple”. As a woman in academia, I feel the import of such a question deeply — the mindset behind it is all-pervasive even today. An extremely well-groomed, sophisticated female professor/scientist/researcher is often not taken too seriously for her research — if she had so much time to refine the details of her appearance, she most definitely must not have devoted enough time to the mastery of her craft. No such correlations exist between the perceived research prowess of male professors/researchers/scientists and their appearance. The details of the latter, no matter how refined, are just quirky delightful facets of an obviously brilliant man. In graduate school, a male peer had confidently told me, “You want to be taken seriously in academia? Dress frumpily.”

The trajectory of her outward transformations is eclipsed by Beth Harmon’s internal turbulence. We are provided with a window into just how deeply the downward spiral of her substance abuse is interwoven with traumatic memories of her biological mother. I couldn’t help but conclude that her biological mother’s rejection of Beth instilled in her the seeds of crippling isolation. The teenager and adult Beth Harmon initially frequently rejects and insults people who care for her, including her adoptive mother Alma, her opponent-turned-friend Harry Beltik. The only relationship that breaks through to her softer side seems to be with the sharp-witted Jolene. Yet, at the end of the series I’m struck by how all of these people — whose overtures of affection she undervalued and disrespected — are solidly in her corner. The arc of Beth Harmon’s internal transformation is complete at the end of the series: when she hugs Townes the moment she sees him and even asks for his forgiveness (a display of warmth and introspection formerly not seen in Beth Harmon), when she modestly appreciates chess advice from her friends Benny Watts, Harry Beltik and others over a phone call before her match, when she touches her mother Alma reassuringly (almost providing a spot of comfort in her heart to an adult for the first time). The intimidating, self-assured, resolutely self-centered, gifted young woman is almost a normal person at the end of the series — she has learnt to make room for others in her life. Alice Harmon had told the young Beth, “The strongest person is the person who isn’t scared to be alone” (Ep. 5, “Fork”). By the end, we see that the more mature Beth has learnt that one of life’s most beautiful things lies in the weakness of caring about others.

Reingold et. al (2001), Visual Span in Expert Chess Players: Evidence From Eye Movements. Psychological Science.

The science behind it all
As a linguist and cognitive scientist, I also found the scientifically much-studied aspects of chess-master skills fairly well-represented (for a tv drama). Research in experimental psychology has long revealed that the extraordinary mastery of chess is represented in the brain of chess-masters in the form of often partial but structured configurations of chess positions, i.e. chunks of chessboards are stored as templates in long term memory (LTM). Experiments testing retrieval from LTM crossed with experience in chess have found that chess-masters have much larger visual spans than less skilled players, which directly translates to an advantage in perceptual encoding (Chase and Simon 1973, Gobet and Simon 1996, de Groot and Gobet 1996, Reingold et. al 2001, among others) — showing that quick eye-gazes of chess-masters across the chessboard is correlated with them being able to extract large amounts of information from memory about plausible moves extremely accurately. These fascinating neural connections between finite stored chess templates in the brains of human grandmasters and excellent chess moves is distinctly shown in TQG. The gift of a prodigal chess player is markedly tied to exactly these encoding and retrieval skills in the series. Beth Harmon as a child becomes adept at memorising such templates by visualizing chess pieces on the ceiling (these scenes might look slightly gimmicky but I guess they are meant to highlight and dramatize the scientific findings), growing up she voraciously consumes chess books and constantly practices specific configurations, her eyes dart across the board in both tense and confident moments before making winning moves, the fast generation of plausible moves in her mind is often unmatched by her opponents. However, the plot-line makes clear that such accurate retrieval of information from LTM is neurally entwined with the abuse of the Librium drug and alcohol for Beth; she tells Townes before her most difficult game, “Well, what I need are the pills..the booze.. I need my mind cloudy to win. I can’t visualize the games without them.” (Ep. 7, “End Game”).

But at the end of the series we see her untethering herself from all threads of such dependence. A sober Beth Harmon emerges victorious over a legendary grandmaster, emerges victorious over her inner demons of staggering isolation, insecurities, past trauma. She is able to walk into the orphanage again and reclaim the once-oppressive spaces with the knowledge that she is loved and wanted; even at the peak of fame, she is able to embrace and not disown her humble roots by walking the streets of Moscow and joyously mingling with local Russian chess players. The very young Beth was taught at the orphanage that “choices have consequences” (Ep. 7, “End Game”). The adult Beth is now shown to break free from the consequences of other people’s wrong choices that had pushed her on a path of self-destruction, from which only she can pull herself back. We, the viewers, and Beth Harmon, together learn to take responsibility for the consequences of our own failures, choices, and victories.

Bibliography
Chase, W. G., & Simon, H. A. (1973). Perception in chess. Cognitive Psychology, 4, 55- 81.
Gobet, F. & Simon, H. A. (1996). Templates in chess memory: A mechanism for recalling several boards. Cognitive Psychology, 31, 1–40.
de Groot, A.D., & Gobet, F. (1996). Perception and memory in chess. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum.
Reingold, E. M., Charness, N., Pomplun, M., & Stampe, D. M. (2001). Visual span in expert chess players: Evidence from eye movements. Psychological Science, 12(1), 48–55.

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Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the University of Minnesota, Ph.D., researcher, dancer, forever student of learning to deal with freezing temperatures.