The Queen’s Gambit is the story of an artist, one as talented and troubled as so many of the artists we idolize and mythologize. Her art is an intrinsic part of who she is. Like the painter, she creates both at the canvas and away from it; like the poet who cannot help but fashion verse in all situations, her art follows her, forever taunting.
I’ve been writing for most of my adult life—mostly fiction, mostly unpublished. How Beth sees chess in her mind is how I see storytelling. I have lain sleepless at night, moving characters around like sacrificial pawns. I have lost myself in studying my craft, poring over a word here, a comma there, a darling to kill. I have shared similar delusions of grandeur as Beth, as well as the absolute dread of failure. And, like plenty of other artists and writers, she and I have both shut ourselves off from others and partaken of substances which we deceive ourselves into believing heighten our minds but only diminish our souls, ones we think make us sociable but in the long run push people away.
To have a strong imagination is both a wondrous gift and, at times, a torturous burden. It is both a freedom and a responsibility, one impossible to escape because it is literally part of us. Our relation to our art is occasionally codependent; I have often judged the quality of my life in relation to my artistic ambitions. A day of poor writing can sour me to life’s pleasures. But even a great day can throw me off-kilter, imbuing me with a manic positivity that blinds me to anything outside my little bubble of egotism. A codependency that manifests itself as either self-pity or narcissism is not healthy, not just for any writer but for any human. I cannot be a fully realized person without first balancing the writer part of myself with all the other aspects that I sometimes keep hidden.
Similarly, Beth needs to accept and empower parts of her identity that have nothing to do with chess. One of those facets is friendship, and in embracing this part of herself she can become not just a better person, but a better chess player, as well.
* * *
Beth Harmon is broken from the first moment we see her as a little girl, orphaned and traumatized, fed tranquilizers to make her minders’ lives easier, already showing signs of both brilliance and rage. Her awkward friendship with the custodian, Mr. Shaibal, is never warm, no matter how much each may desire a deeper emotional connection with the other. None of this—not her anger, her self-centeredness, her attempted theft of the pill jar—are meant to portray her as a bad person, just one burdened by trauma. Even with others who care about her, she often sees herself alone in the world. The only true joy she gets is from chess—not just from the game itself, but from being better at it than everyone else.
There is satisfaction in watching Beth travel the learning curve of chess in record time. She is the young writer who discovers that not only can she read and watch stories, but that she can make them as well; the young composer who hears music differently than others do. As such, like many artists, Beth becomes an outsider. Not only does she not fit into the role society made for her, but even in the role she chooses, she is an oddity: the rare girl chess player.
Alma lets her play chess, and Beth soothes her adopted mother’s loneliness and cuts her in for a percentage of the profits. It’s a relationship more like drinking buddies than mother-daughter, more transactional than familial, with alcohol the glue that binds the two women together. Alma’s mix of hope and pain is heartbreaking, and Beth clearly has compassion for her, but she is incapable of helping Alma with her problems: the child is not meant to fix what is wrong with the parent, and it is unfair to burden Beth with this responsibility. Alma’s death interrupts Beth’s chance of connecting with someone on a deeper, more emotional level; what growth she may have experienced buries itself under such duties as burying her mother and dealing with a home she has inexplicably come into possession of.
When Harry wishes to tutor her, he is secretly—to Beth, not so much to the audience—in love with her. When he tells her how he feels she accepts him in yet another transactional manner: you teach me chess, I let you into my bed. But Harry recognizes the truth, and this—along with his discovery of the pills—ignites a moral crisis within him which could only be solved by leaving her. When Jolene loans Beth the money she needs to go to Russia, Beth calls her a guardian angel. Jolene corrects her and says they are family, and that’s what family does for one another.
Family is something Beth never had. She had two mothers who killed themselves—one quickly, one slowly—and two fathers absent from her life. Her family will have to be nontraditional. Her love for Alma exists, but is complicated by the toxicity of their relationship. She is attracted to Townes but is stymied by his inability to reciprocate as a lover. Others she sees more as competitors than friends.
Her inability to maintain a normal, safe relationship further isolates Beth. She is resolutely stubborn about her game: how can those she has beaten criticize her? If relationships are transactional and chess—outside of the occasional draw—has a clear winner and a clear loser, is all of life a zero-sum game? And by losing, does that make her not just a worse chess player but a worse person as well, since chess is so inexorably tied to who she is?
* * *
As a much younger writer, what I wanted most was acclaim. I wanted to write something brilliant and have people tell me so. I wanted to succeed, to prove wrong all those who said I couldn’t. I wanted to be better than my peers, to win. But all of that is dependent upon others, not myself. My view of writing had to change the same way Beth’s view of chess had to. I had to understand that my writing was not a definition, but a reflection of my values, my beliefs, my cares and compassion. It was a tool for me to speak to the world, and hopefully change it. But it would take a long time—longer than I would have liked—to understand that my viewpoint was askew.
The only way for Beth’s viewpoint to change is for her to lose, and lose badly. After she beats Harry in her first tournament, I was looking forward to her first loss; she needed to be knocked off her pedestal, needed to have her ego punctured. The failure would hurt; it must. Before she could learn to be a good winner, she needed to be a good loser, and before even that, she had to lose in the worst possible way. She had to learn that her relationship with the game was not sustainable. One can only pop so many pills, chug so many bottles of beer, and furiously attack, attack, attack on the chess board before someone more clever than you—and there is always someone—leads you into a trap.
Artists can similarly refuse to listen to a single word of criticism. Maybe that is why so many young creatives end up having drawers filled with half-completed manuscripts, or garages with paintings no one will ever see, or songs played forever in the mind but never for others. It is easier to fail through inaction than to work yourself half crazy with the knowledge that all your efforts and sacrifices may come to naught. Knowledge of potential criticism can be all one needs to leave the manuscript in the “Maybe sometime” folder. It would be so easy for me to finish this essay, declare it not good enough, and let the deadline slip by. It is harder to live with the knowledge that someone I do not know is reading it, judging it, and, by extension, judging me.
* * *
The idea of losing in The Queen’s Gambit is repeated with the words of Mr. Shaibal: “You resign now.” Resignation is the civilized manner of accepting loss, not dissimilar to the handshake at the end of a hockey game or the concession speech to finalize (most) presidential elections. Herein lies good sportsmanship, something Beth cannot understand right away because all she does is win. When she finally does lose, she cannot even resign with humility, but must do so in a huff.
Such is the artist as the failure. Artists often maintain an adolescent, even infantile, view of the world and their place in it. This is part of the palette that contains such things as innocence, wonder, and the purest form of imagination. But it is also the place to which creatives can go to sulk and brood and hide. Artists are ego driven—we need to be, otherwise we wouldn’t have just the right amount of moxie to say, “Yeah, I can write that opera.” But it can be difficult for many of us to reign in that ego and not make every situation about ourselves. It is easier to escape into fantasies: of the future, of stardom, of money, of accolades. Often, what eases us into those fantasies is booze.
* * *
There are plenty of reasons why artists have a tendency toward substance abuse: art often is done alone and a bottle is an easy substitute for companionship; our minds lose their inhibitions while under the influence, letting aspects of creativity flow that are normally cordoned off; creativity can be an emotionally raw process and sometimes we just need to shut everything down and go numb. This, coupled with a possible link between mood disorders and creativity, can often lead to a reliance upon self-medication. Soon, instead of merely scabbing over emotional wounds, drinking becomes inexorably linked to our talents, and it becomes increasingly difficult to write without a drink, to sing while sober, to paint while not under the influence, or to play chess without a few pills. The drinking is our new craft, the bars our salons, the blank pages and canvases just another thing we think of in terms of someday and maybe.
Librium is essential to Beth’s early education. If the chess board is her canvas, the pills ease her into seeing the myriad of possibilities it can contain. It is no wonder she continues to use as her career flourishes. Her introduction to alcohol is not one of a teenager illicitly experimenting but rather as a potential drinking partner for her adopted mother. Alma drinks out of loneliness and boredom. One reason Beth starts drinking is the social aspect: It brings her closer to her Alma. But no matter how much affection they may have for one another, the glue that binds them cannot hold forever, and Alma’s death does little to dissuade Beth from continuing to drink. It is her loss to Borgov in Paris, raggedly hungover and no doubt stinking of the night before, that is her first low point. Her true nadir, however, is back in Kentucky as she is holed up in what is now her house, binge drinking and letting the phone ring unanswered. When she goes to play at a local tournament, obviously hungover, she is approached by Annette, the girl against whom she won her first match (and who later gave her that crucial first tampon). There is an indifference and cruelty to Beth’s reaction to Annette:
“I was your first official win,” Annette says. “You cleaned my clock. The whole thing lasted about 15 minutes.”
“Don’t be. It’s an honor.” And later: “I knew you were going places, and that meant something to me, y’know? That it was possible. For us.”
None of Annette’s admiration or gratitude registers with Beth. There is no honor in losing. Losing is failure. Beth seems even more confused by the concept of “us.” Others may see Beth as a role model, but that is not how Beth sees herself. She is not an ally or an inspiration, those concepts being foreign when life is a series of transactions and exchanges of pieces.
If imagination is both a gift and a burden, alcohol is a means to trick ourselves into thinking we can lighten the weight of a devastating side-effect of the creative process: loneliness. To create, you must live a good portion of your life inside your own mind. A bottle is an easy substitute, a friend, a brother, a muse. Perhaps the pills freed Beth’s mind in the beginning, but she cannot fathom that her continued success is not reliant on what she uses to prime the pump. The first step in changing is for her to recognize that the pills have little to do with her game. As someone who has written drunk, sober, and plenty of places in between, not only is my writing better on nothing stronger than caffeine, but I am prouder of myself when I know there are no filters between my ideas and the page except my own doubts, and those doubts—no matter how much I wish to wash them away—are what push me to be better.
Beth’s transformation is two-fold. It is not enough to give up the crutch of Librium and alcohol. She must also be able to accept that while she may sit solitary at the chess board, she is not truly alone. She is loved by others, but she must also allow herself to be loved, to not shut out those who wish to help her. When she picks up the phone to hear all her chess buddies on the other line, all of them supporting her, rooting for her, and asking nothing in return, the pure joy on Beth’s face—unadulterated by booze or pills—is a moment of grace and revelation. Here are her friends, asking nothing in return, just willing to help. No transactions, no future debts to be paid off. After that, beating Borgov was easy.
* * *
The Queen’s Gambit is the story of Beth becoming Beth, both the artist and the woman. It is not so much her overcoming exterior obstacles—though there are many—but escaping the interior traps that have been set for her and into which she blindly walks. Hers is the journey toward self-actualization, unlocking her true authentic self. It is the adjusting of her world view to see that relationships do not need to be transactional, that she can be both in the world and of the world. That she is more than the pills and the bottles.
Beth Harmon and I are vastly different people (besides the fact that only one of us is real), but we share a deep desire to explore: her on a chess board, me on the page. We have the imagination to see a thousand moves ahead, but imagination needs to be tempered and tamed by craft, hard work, and a head screwed on the right way. She is not perfect at the end of The Queen’s Gambit, and I sure as hell am far from it, but we are on the right road, the path mostly clear of obstacles, our minds buttressed solely by a healthy, if at times ornery, ego.
All of our stories are coming of age stories, no matter how old we are, and the beauty of a great coming of age story is that by the last act our hero has done that which we all desire: become their whole selves. We need not be chess prodigies, computer whizzes, artists, soldiers, Jedi knights, the loved, the unloved, the fortunate or not, the rich or the poor to understand becoming. We seek to find our place in the world, no longer shying away from the image reflected in the mirror of our soul. Sometimes we forget this and fall into the maws of self-centeredness, turning away those who love us, believing perhaps that we are not worthy of love and kindness, friendship, and family. Creation is thrown aside and self-destruction becomes our final resort. This road has become more alluring as loneliness has become a shadow plague all over the world, which is why a single phone call from half a world away in a show about a fictional chess prodigy was a gift—not just to Beth, but to the rest of us who need to be reminded of the world outside ourselves.