Netflix’s stylish drama The Queen’s Gambit might just be the surprise hit of the fall. As adapted by a 1983 Walter Tevis novel of the same name, the show’s storytelling is on point, its production design spectacular, and star Anya Taylor Joy’s outfits…truly staggering.
But the real key to The Queen’s Gambit appeal is its focus on one of the world’s oldest and most popular games: chess. Thanks to the show (and also probably the global pandemic), chess is having a bit of a moment right now. According to eBay, the retail site saw a remarkable 273% surge in sales of chess sets in the first 10 days of the Netflix series’ release.
This makes some sense given how The Queen’s Gambit is able to make the classic game feel fresh, kinetic, and damn near sensual. There’s no doubt that the series’ treatment of chess highlights the game’s excitement and intellectual rigor involved. But is that necessarily the most accurate representation of it? Well, according to Netflix’s production notes and Den of Geek’s interviews with several of the show’s stars, that answer is a resounding “yes.” It turns out you don’t spark a 273% sales surge in a game without treating the playing of said game rather seriously.
In a press release prior to The Queen’s Gambit’s release, Netflix assured critics that the show’s creative teams key objective with chess “was to ensure that if a chess pro sat down to watch the series, they wouldn’t be taken out of the story because of the inaccuracy of any moves.”
To that end, the series brought in two very notable chess experts: longtime chess coach and expert Bruce Pandolfini, and Russian chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov. Pandolfini is no stranger to advising creative enterprises on their chess skills as he served as an advisor on 1993 chess drama Searching for Bobby Fischer and even helped Tevis with the original Queen’s Gambit novel back in the ‘80s.
Per Netflix, every time someone moves a chess piece on screen, the move was architected by Pandolfini himself.
“We had to create the chess positions first, and we started with a base of about 100 positions,” Pandolfini said in a statement. “I think it mushroomed to close to 500 different chess positions by the end. That’s more than any other project that’s dealt with chess before.”
In the streaming era, where content exists indefinitely on servers (or at least until Al Gore blessedly pulls the plug on his infernal creation), it’s particularly important to get things right the first time. It would appear that that’s exactly what The Queen’s Gambit did with its approach to chess.
Of course, bringing in a chess expert to choreograph scenes is one thing. It’s another thing entirely to coach chess novice actors into playing with purpose. In interviews with Den of Geek, the cast revealed how they learned to project authority while playacting this most difficult game.
For Taylor-Joy, it was helpful to equate chess with something that she was already quite good at.
“I saw the whole thing as a dance,” Taylor-Joy says. “I used to be a dancer, and I saw learning the choreography as dance, but just with your fingers. That’s how I got through the whole thing, ‘cause I was not a great chess player when we first started doing this, and by the end of it, I had to pull up my bootstraps.”
Her co-star Thomas Brodie Sangster (who plays Benny Watts) adopts a similar metaphor.
“It seems silly but it’s kinda like riding a horse–it doesn’t really matter if you can ride a horse, it’s more about if you can get on the horse and get off the horse and look cool doing it,” he says.
Brodie-Sangster and other fellow co-star Harry Melling (Harry Beltik) say that showrunner Scott Frank encouraged them to choose a real-life chess pro to model their respective games after. Brodie-Sangster went with Bobby Fischer while Melling opted for current world champion Magnus Carlsen.
“That was really fascinating, starting from ground zero really, working out how these people operate, and what makes them tick,” Melling says.
According to Brodie-Singer, that dedication to matching real life chess experts extends into the games themselves.
“Every game in the show is based on a real game, if you’ve got a really keen eye you can probably recognize games from across the history of chess,” the actor says.
In fact, Pandolfini confirmed in an interview with Indiewire that many moves throughout the series were lifted from real life matches. That adds another level of authenticity that the online chess community is starting to pick up on, like Croatian chess expert and YouTuber Antonio Radić.
Of course, most viewers don’t need to know how Elizabeth Harmon’s match against Vasily Borgov stacks up to 1965’s Alexsandar Matanovic v. Leonid Stein. But some viewers do. And the key to making a good chess series is to make sure that both kinds of viewers are accommodated.
By the end of The Queen’s Gambit’s seven episodes, however, all the novices have certainly become experts. Now if you’d excuse us, we have some chess boards to buy.