by Niall Walker
"Watching the show as the walls close in, and the lights from the outside world dim, it is community, not victory, that I long for"
In 1996, the Chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov faced Deep Blue, an IBM-developed supercomputer, and lost.
As Kasparov’s king went down in the final game, it seemed as though a new future had been confirmed. A door had opened, through which the internet, job automation, driverless vehicles and self-service checkouts all inevitably seemed to flow. Across 64 squares a processor had defeated the human mind. Now the world was surely theirs. Deep Blue’s defeat of Kasparov - grandmaster at 17, world champion for 25 years - was the most defining moment in chess history.
Or maybe second. Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit has brought the fictionalised match between Vasily Borgov and Beth Harmon into quarantined living rooms across the world. Over 62 million have tuned in, leading to a resurgence in the board game’s popularity.
The series follows Harmon’s rags-to-riches rise from a Kentucky orphanage, along a trail of drug dependency, trauma and self-destruction, to the tables of Soviet grandmasters. The camera delights in juxtaposing the beige, bespectacled world of chess with the shimmering red hair of Harmon, played by Anya Taylor Joy, who strides into regional tournaments and hands people their arses with cool implacability.
The Meg Harmon in us
As a game of chess moves forward, we watch symbols of authority come crashing down. Knight. Bishop. Queen. King. Their power is surrendered to the intellect of the winning player: ungendered, analytical and flawed.
Harmon’s character balances obsessive immersion with a tendency for the maverick that frequently spills over the board and into her daily life. The drama of The Queen’s Gambit is in the spectacle of her individualism - which one moment defines her as a chess prodigy - veering in defeat to self-doubt, narcissism and spiralling addiction.
Sound familiar? It is tempting to conclude that the programme’s popularity lies as a parable for our own lives in lockdown. Like Harmon, we feel trapped in isolation, one move away from temptation, one from release.
Iron Curtain across the board
Yet the Netflix series isn’t a conventional tale of flawed genius’ ascent to immortality. The Queen’s Gambit is based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis, and is loosely based around the ‘match of the century’ 1972 World Championship bout between America’s Bobby Fischer and the USSR’s Boris Spassky.
Chess can symbolise many things. With its horses, knights and castles, one of these is war. Fischer’s victory - the first American to win the World Championship in nearly a century - was recognised as a moment of cultural significance in the midst of the Cold War. He spent the build up to the tournament accusing the Russians of unfair play, and was congratulated in person by Henry Kissinger after winning.
Like Fischer, Harmon’s match against Borgov pits East against West. Yet The Queen’s Gambit refuses to draw an iron curtain across its board. Harmon rejects funding from the Christian mission, who want her to publicly condemn the atheism of the Soviets, while in the series’ final scene, she leaves her car and CIA operative to integrate comradely with the chess-playing pensioners of a Moscow park.
Capitalism and collaboration
For Harmon, the temptation to indulge in the fast-fashion and prescription pills of American Capitalism is ever present. Yet those moments of solipsism lead to defeat and a loss of identity.
It is only when she peers across a hotel lobby to see the Russian players collaborating in an effort to improve their games that she understands that victory is never single-handed.
When Kasparov was defeated by Deep Blue, it felt inevitable that we would watch ourselves topple from the board as well. Yet artificial intelligence has instead made narcissism an industry, a world of social media, personalised marketing, and the Trillionaire race. We all now await the Hollywood ending to our script. Yet watching The Queen’s Gambit as the walls close in, and the lights from the outside world dim, it is community, not victory, that I long for.
Niall Walker is the founder and co-editor of the Radical Art Review.