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If you’ve known me for a long time—or five minutes—you already know that the type of plot I like most in a movie or TV show is one that climaxes at a prom. Or wait—maybe it’s one that features an “impossible” heist. Uhhh, no, maybe it’s a “secret princess” plot. Yes, THAT’S my favorite: a “secret princess” plot. 

One thing’s for sure, though: my favorite type of plot is almost never a sports movie. Sports movies almost always have only a couple of plot outcomes: so-and-so wins The Big Game or so-and-so loses the Big Game, so unless there’s some nutty setup like, oh, Jamaican bobsledding or, say, Ice Castles, I’m not usually particularly engaged. Until now.

Which brings me to The Queen’s Gambit, the absolutely smashing seven-episode limited series from Netflix about a chess prodigy’s rise through the ranks to the top of the chess world.  I might have known there actually is a high-stakes chess world, but I wasn’t really up on the details (and there’s a plethora of them here). But it got its hooks in me quickly: somewhere in the middle of the third episode, I was hip to the lingo at least and was basically hollering things like KNIGHT’S BISHOP TO QUEEN FIVE! ROOK TO PAWN SEVEN! (or WHATEVER) while doing nothing more than moving Brussels sprouts around on my dinner plate, so you can just imagine the tension over here. Fraught, I tell you. FRAUGHT.

Look! I’m on paragraph four before I’ve mentioned that the chess prodigy in question is female. That the protagonist is a girl (and later, woman; there’s a several-years-long timespan involved) named Beth Harmon is just one of a panoply of surprises that The Queen’s Gambit offers up. Though there are a lot of common sports movie tropes on display (it’s a rags-to-riches story, it’s a childhood trauma story, it’s an addiction story, it’s an “I can do it!” story), I can’t think of another recent narrative that mixes them all up in such an unexpected way. There’s a good argument that Beth is both the hero and the villain of her own story for a good chunk of the plot, and both are recognizably human. It’s a refreshing change of pace from the onslaught of superhero stories we’ve had for a while. 

The Queen’s Gambit is impeccably cast, led by Anya Taylor-Joy (she’s in almost every scene; between this and this year’s earlier macaron-ish Emma, she’s surely the only person on earth having a good 2020). But everyone in it is aces, and Marielle Heller comes perilously close to stealing the entire thing as Beth’s adoptive mother Alma. Alma is a role (and performance) tinged with both sweet and sour, and the show gives you time to taste both before revealing if Alma is friend or foe. A chessboard is black and white; the characters in The Queen’s Gambit are not. 

And just when you think you’re prepared for the story to play out a certain way (like a chess match!), you get the little kid from Love, Actually (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) as a chess svengali in a leather duster and cowboy hat (with, inexplicably, a knife on his belt; it’s kind of a Chekhov’s gun that never goes off). If you can get your head around that, you’ll have no trouble with the chess parts.

The whole shebang is wrapped up in mid-century production design that makes Mad Men look like it was shot in someone’s dingy basement (there’s definitely a prize for Best Wallpaper in its future), and the music’s just out of this world. It’ll be a little while before I stop warbling Gillian Hills’s “Tut Tut Tut Tut,” It’s in French (which I do not speak), so fair warning if you’re anywhere near me in the next few days.

In the end, yes, it’s a sports movie, and yes, the entire plot heads towards “will so and so win The Big Game or will so-and-so lose the Big Game?” But how The Queen’s Gambit gets there is as zig-zaggy as the way the little horsey moves across a chessboard.

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Knitting that makes you look smart. From the brilliant Cecelia Campochiaro. Thanks for your purchases. They support everything we do here at MDK.
By Kay Gardiner and Ann Shayne and Cecelia Campochiaro

About The Author

DG Strong took up knitting in 2014. He lives in Nashville with his sister, her rat terrier and a hound dog named Opal. He has a blog of drawings and faintly ridiculous rambling called The Psychopedia—there are worse ways to spend your afternoon.


  • Well this review now has me intrigued, I will be giving this a try. Thanks.

  • My husband and I have been watching “The Queen’s Gambit” this week. We have one or two episodes to go, but I will second everything you have said. There are complex characters and unknown outcomes in this series.

  • What a fab review. Both enjoyable to read and full of enough hooks on it’s own to make me run to my TV.

  • DG you are a delight. I’m so glad you’ve joined this merry band of knitters. Looks like I have a new binge to start!

    • Second this. DJ is a great writer.

  • I stumbled across the Queen’s Gambit and have found it to be like that book that you don’t want to put down or end. It is the whole package for me – from the characters to the plot twists. A bright spot in a dreary year.

  • The Queen’s Gambit had me from the first episode. Since I am old enough to remember the pride when Bobby Fischer became the youngest US champion in the ’50s and when he beat Boris Spassky in’72, I thoroughly enjoyed the tension, banter, and prep for the matches. Casting could not have been better and the depth of character development – flaws, triumphs, emotions, and failures – was believable. I do not play chess, but I sweated through every move and I will admit, at some points, had to put my knitting away!

  • Began watching this as soon as it dropped. It was wonderful. And I know nothing about chess, and still don’t. But what a series!

  • Wonderful review. Thank you.

  • I am half way through the series and fully agree with your review! The fact that a large part of the series is based in Kentucky yet, there are no Kentucky accents to be found is a bit odd. That being said, I would rather it be that way than be distracted by bad Kentucky accents.

    Thanks for giving such a spot on review. I have shared it with friends and asked them to subscribe and support your efforts.

    • The accentless thing IS intriguing, but I finally decided that I was okay with it as long as NO ONE affected a fake cornpone deal and everyone in the Kentucky parts at least sounded alike. Like the way old movies set in Paris were full of British-accented actors.

  • Great series

  • My husband and I finished it last night and immediately started suggesting it to friends and family. The details – clothes, decor, cars (my husband made me write that),chess, are all on point. It was wonderful!

  • Well I loathed the latest Emma movie, but I’m willing to give Anya Taylor-Joy another shot based on this review. I’ve always found chess fascinating, even though I don’t play.
    And a moment of silence, please, for Sir Sean Connery. May he have many cool cars to drive in Eternity,

    • Yes, the Aston Martin DB5 will forever be the coolest car ever committed to film.

  • It sounds like a great show but I’m tired of childhood trauma/ addiction/ own worst enemy plus in movies the same way I’m these of coming-of-age plots in books.

    • But you get them ALL AT ONCE in this! It’s like a seven course meal all whirled up in a blender into a single smoothie!

  • Both my husband and I can’t stop talking about this series – I’m just on my 1st cup of coffee to come up proper adjectives for how fabulous this show is! The scenes! The clothes! The filming! All the actors! Etc……

    It’s truly amazing how interesting and gripping they portray chess (which I know nada about).

  • I am passionately in love with the book this series is based on (by Walter Tevis) so was worried about watching the series. But I’ve been sneaking in episodes during what’s been a very busy week for me. The tv version takes broad liberties, but it is *beautiful* and it retains the book’s focus on both female autonomy and the quirky passion of high level chess.

    I don’t play chess. But I looooove the book and I might love the series, too!

    • I watched the series and loved it, and now am waiting for the book at my library. I usually have to watch, then read in order to enjoy both— I can count on one hand the adaptations I liked of books I loved, alas.

      • It’s one of the most beautifully written novels I’ve ever read (and I read a lot). I hope you love it, too!

  • This may be the most entertaining film/movie/television review ever. Thank you for starting my day with a laugh.

  • My husband an I really enjoyed it and have been recommending.

  • In the early 70s, I was the only girl in my high school chess club and heard many – are you going to let a girl beat you – comments. So I was totally into this from the very beginning. A great show with believable characters and design. Definitely worth watching again.

  • My significant other has been saying for the past week that he wants to watch this. I’ve been hesitant for unknown reasons, but this review has me looking forward to getting it started today. ‘If DG Strong liked this, I must watch!’ Really, the line about how it makes Mad Men look like it was shot in someone’s dingy basement- that’s what sold me.

    • That MIGHT be a little hyperbolic, but it IS gorgeous to look at.

      • We’ve watched the first 2 episodes, and swooning. Not hyperbolic at all. She started chess in a dinghy basement looking like one I’d expect in a 1950s orphanage where they’re giving the girls tranqs. The mid century production seems spot on – the clothes, the shoes, the wallpaper. Beats Mad Men, hands down.

  • Wonderful series, excellent review! Thank you. I wish everyone would watch “Queen’s Gambit” instead of election news, we’d be so much better as a nation.

  • Watching with my 32 y.o. daughter and each episode is as exciting as or exceeds the previous one. Even the seemingly less important characters are fleshed out and well played. We love it!

  • Loved every minute of this delicious series. Characters were outstanding down to walk-on parts. Spot on critique! Hope others read your piece and decide to give this a try. Will not be disappointed.

  • My husband and I are loving this show. Neither of us knows anything about chess. The acting, the story, everything is really exciting. And yes, we are rooting for Beth to win it all.

  • Binge watched the entire series with my husband. Fanfreakingtastic! Fabulous cinematography, costuming, music and the cast was amazing. Will definitely watch again!

  • OMG, I watched the last episode this afternoon and my heart was beating like crazy! It’s an excellent series and I don’t even play chess.

  • You might also like “I, Tonya” which is also not exactly like any other sports movie. 🙂

    • Since I am a fully grown man who for Halloween dressed as Tonya That Wonderful Wonderful Year, you can be assured I was in the front row the day the movie came out.

  • We finished this series two nights ago. Fabulous!!!! May watch it all over again!

  • Yaaaaas! I just finished watching it when I was supposed to be helping several kids do several different things on this busy Sunday. Don’t tell. The cinematography was unreal, the acting amazing and I loved the story, the wardrobe, hairstyles, everything. I haven’t enjoyed any tv or film so much in a long time.

  • Okay, I’m in! Now I have to see this.

    Reminds me of a funny (to me) story. Back in the 1980s I worked for the American Psychological Association for a division that published abstracts from psych journals. One of my coworkers was the wife of chess grandmaster Lubomir Kavalek. They adopted a child during that time, and I remember her recounting their initial interview at the adoption agency. When asked what they did for a living, she responded “I index psychological abstracts” and he responded “I’m a chess grandmaster.”

    • Wendy, those career descriptions… I’m in a phase of life of trying to help expand the horizons of young people and one thing I always say is “how can they know what they want to be, they don’t even know what there IS to be…” But this takes the cake.

  • My favorite film from this year’s online-only Sarajevo Film Festival was a lovely film from Azerbaijan called “The Island Within” about a world champion chess player and his domineering father/manager (fiction). So, I’m intrigued by this one. I love sports films as long as surfing or Jason Clarke (Everest) are in involved.

  • Loved this series especially the fashions and those TWINS!

  • Excellent review! Especially the wallpaper comment.

  • thank you. a proper platform for your wonderful

  • LOL, that ‘tut tut tut’ ROMP of a video ! Le Yé-Yé! Le Le Car! Ooooh I will be watching the Queen’s Gambit if it’s on Canadian Netflix for sure !

  • Looking forward to watching The Queen’s Gambit.

  • Wonderful show and wonderful review. And a shout out to Joelene, one of the great support cast.

  • My husband and I binged-watched “The Queen’s Gambit” and enjoyed it tremendously. Parts of it made us uncomfortable, as it is sometimes to watch human drama play out. When I was young, chess was very popular as international names made the news. I never learned how to play, but still love the drama of watching a good chess game. Thanks for the review!

  • Binged ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and loved it. Wasn’t too sure it would capture my attention (Enola Holmes-meh) but this did by the start of the 2nd episode. The intrigue was very well done. I cannot believe that Thomas Brodie-Sangster is the kid from ‘Love Actually’, one of my favs, so now I need to rewatch the episode he figures in prominently.

  • I’m in the middle of this right now after having it recommended to me by several friends. My spouse and I watch a couple episodes at a time together, bc we’re currently oceans apart- thanks Covid!
    Loved your review.

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