I love the way a work of art can transport you and make you forget who you are. I sometimes feel emotions so raw I can’t believe someone was able to capture them in words or images. I lose myself, and my brain adapts the mannerisms of the main characters for the next few days. And the stories continue to stay with me and transform who I am and every aspect of my life. The Queen’s Gambit was one of those stories. After I finished it, I had the following conversation with a friend:
“I hated The Queen’s Gambit,” my friend said. “But I still watched it all in one night.”
“Yeah, it didn’t have much of a plot,” I agreed, “but I also binged it.”
We went on to talk about the misrepresented linear journey of success. There’s no way Beth would just win all the time and only struggle with the Russians. Yet, with an unrealistic plot (orphaned girl addicted to drugs turned chess prodigy, going from playing in the basement with a janitor to never losing) why did we still devour it?
I’m an amateur chess player at best, but after watching The Queen’s Gambit, I felt like I was Beth–an unrealized chess prodigy. I felt confident I would win when I challenged my brother to a match. Making daring moves, sacrificing my knight, then martyring my bishops for the noble attempt at sweeping his queen. Well, that is exactly what it was: an attempt. It was unsuccessful.
So, what made me think I could win? What created that smug smile to my face as I made terrible move after terrible move? The Queen’s Gambit projects an allure of grandness and makes the audience strongly associate with a person and feeling. It takes our insecurities and turns them around through a relatable character who embodies everything we fear about ourselves and also everything we wish we were. I, like Beth and many others, am a competitive person. I get addicted to things a little too easily. I’ve been the kid who never quite fits in. Yet Beth, despite her flaws and perhaps because of a faulty plot, is a winner. She makes hitting rock bottom look glamorous as can be. Cinema is a type of propaganda; you, the viewer, are destined for greatness as well! You could be a prodigy too, but you just don’t know it yet. The American dream is accessible to YOU! We viewers become obliviously susceptible to a false relatability.
But the magic for me in The Queen’s Gambit comes not from the glorious “main character” scenes of Beth’s victories as a chess prodigy but instead in the small moments that honor the ordinary person. What I also love about art and literature is that they bring out the humanity that unites us, flaws and all. I love the scenes with people doing things simply because they love them, even if it will never make them famous or they will never be the best. By including these, the series contradicts its grand characterizations and perhaps rescues itself.
Take Beth’s mom for example. As a sufferer of stage fright, she was never going to be what she longed for most: famous. The audience and Beth mourn this, yet she manages to touch people’s lives without fame. I got chills when Beth walked into the hotel lobby after a chess match and saw her mother effortlessly playing piano for a small crowd. Free from her husband’s judgment and her own self-consciousness, Beth’s mother’s moments of clarity amidst her drunken hazes that are present in many scenes speak volumes. She reclaims herself and moves countless strangers without a fancy venue or event but simply by doing something she loves for its own sake. Before dying, she finally has an opportunity to be alive and imbue life into the piano’s keys. She leaves a legacy, not through fame or money, but in a few piano notes for strangers and in her relationship with Beth.
While we are drawn to Beth’s contagious ambition and want to be her, perhaps characters such as Beth’s mother and other everyday people represent us as viewers more accurately. Yet, there is still beauty, if not more beauty, in the passions these characters pursue. The show juxtaposes a group of old Russian chess players in the park against Beth’s media-hyped final chess match, and although they both love the sport, only Beth is surrounded by cameras and fans. These men will never be on Beth’s level, and while I’m sure they have pressure to fulfill plenty of other responsibilities, they still choose to be bundled up in the cold playing chess. While this can be viewed as lazy or shirking duties, I appreciate this small rebellion against usefulness and productivity. In contrast to Beth, it is clear they would never reach her level of success, much less build a career on it. Yet they play anyway, simply for the love of the game and the community it creates. I’ve encountered these moments of small passions that make me rethink success in my own life, but only when I have taken the time to notice. When I was in Senegal, I tended to get impatient waiting in the heat for a bus that had no schedule, worrying I would miss lunch or language class. On my way home from work, I felt guilty if I wasn’t productive or particularly useful that day. Yet I always saw these old men playing checkers in the shade on their lunch break as I waited for my bus. While I experienced what I felt to be an irksome wait, these men purposefully took time to just be and do something they enjoyed with their friends. And that always made me smile. No glory in it but just doing something for joy. My dad, a 60-year-old man who always has countless piles of papers to grade and recommendations to write and God knows what else, wakes up early every Sunday to play soccer with his buddies and goes for runs throughout the week so he doesn’t get injured. There’s no fame in it, no audience cheering them on or ESPN coverage for these gray-haired men (many who are more motivated to show up for the post-game beer than the soccer) but they make time for it because they love the game and the camaraderie it brings.
I write this as Princeton’s campus sees its first snowfall. I watch classmates building snowmen (that will eventually melt) or sledding down the Whitman Hill like children, even though I’m sure they have plenty of homework. They are just doing it for the fun of it. It’s really easy to focus on the “successful” people in our lives and find ourselves falling short in comparison. And this is not to say there is not a place and time for ambition or goals or victories. But these scenes of everyday beauty in The Queen’s Gambit provide a necessary reminder to seek out simple beauty. Watching Beth follow her passions and ultimately achieve success made me feel like I could do anything. But also watching minor characters do what they loved reminded me that my passions that may never bring me success are just as important to pursue. When was the last time I loved something for the sake of loving love and not for any merit? It’s ok that I’m mediocre at chess, it’s ok my brother beats me. What makes this show more than a weak plot or enticing success story is the way it highlights raw passion that goes beyond success, sharing the spotlight, however slightly, with these individuals.