“The Queen’s Gambit” was well received by critics, audiences and most importantly, chess players all over the world. Non-chess players were able to enjoy the show without understanding the strange esoteric and cultural norms associated with chess society, but as a chess player myself, it was definitely fun to pick up on little references, behaviors and traditions that were common in the chess community.
It turns out that better chess players couldn’t agree more. Magnus Carlsen, the reigning world champion, praised the show for “highlighting Harmon’s chess playing abilities rather than her gender.” Despite personally enjoying the show, something about Carlsen’s quote just didn’t sit right with me.
When I was in elementary school, I was part of a chess club. In the club, most of my peers and mentors were women. Some of the best players I ever played against were women. But when I got into junior high, suddenly all of this changed. Not only were there no women at all, but many of the boys I played with scoffed at the idea that women had the same level of focus needed to beat them at the game.
Turns out, my experience wasn’t unique. The International Chess Federation estimated that of its active members, only 15.6% were female as of January 2020. Clearly, there are stark inequities in the sport that have yet to be fully addressed, which is why I was so excited to watch “The Queen’s Gambit,” a show supposedly about a female chess prodigy navigating the world of chess to become the greatest. But despite its fun and references, “The Queen’s Gambit” fails to spotlight the deep-rooted misogyny in the chess community. And I realized this only after reading Carlsen’s quote.
Carlsen is absolutely right. “The Queen’s Gambit” hardly dwells on Beth’s gender at all. Most conveniently, none of Beth’s male peers seem all that threatened or intimidated by a woman beating them at their own game. In fact, Beth seems to push back on being viewed as special simply because she’s a woman. It is only sleazy reporters looking for a story that ever seem to bring it up.
To be clear, this is an absurd portrayal of what the chess community actually looks like. Women are more likely to be underrated in international ranking despite having the same wins as men. Of all the grandmasters in the world, only a handful are women. Male leaders of chess have also looked down on women’s ability to play as well. The English grandmaster Nigel Short once said that “Girls just don’t have the brains to play chess.” The point is, if Beth Harmon existed in the real world, she never would have gotten the same support from her male counterparts that she did in the show. Probably the opposite.
So why would “The Queen’s Gambit” lean so heavily into this unrealistically optimistic view of what the chess community is like? The Carlsen quote explains it perfectly. Rather than make a realistic story, the writers of “The Queen’s Gambit” try to create a story about chess and women’s empowerment, while also not alienating the mostly male audience of chess players who would probably enjoy the show. If Beth was shunned by her male peers, if they refused to shake her hand after she beat them, it would send a message that the chess community, and the men who rule it, are less than perfect. However, this fantasy does more harm than good.
Ultimately, “The Queen’s Gambit” is a travesty. Despite being a well-made, entertaining show that brought chess back into the spotlight, it reflects a sort of male fantasy of what the chess community actually looks like, a fantasy that some of the greatest players, like Carlsen, have fallen prey to. We want to believe that chess culture is truly fair, and that someone with Harmon’s talent could succeed and be accepted wholeheartedly, when it’s just not true. But instead of challenging the systematic barriers women face in the world of chess, “The Queen’s Gambit” just pretends they don’t exist. And this fantasy doesn’t exist without consequence. The world of chess is also predominantly white, upper-class and straight. Without serious introspection within the community and a truly brave show that challenges this culture, this will not change.
Daily Arts Writer Joshua Thomas can be reached at email@example.com.