Spoiler AlertPlease be aware that this post contains spoilers, please do not read if you plan on watching this series some time in the future!
The story begins in Lexington, Kentucky, where a nine-year-old Beth, having lost her mother in a car crash, is taken to an orphanage. In a later flashback, it is revealed that her mother deliberately ran head on into a truck. In the orphanage, the children are given tranquilizing pills to make them compliant. While cleaning erasers in the basement, Beth discovers the custodian, Mr Shaibel, studying chess on his own. After repeated requests he reluctantly agrees to teach her the game; she has already worked out how the pieces move by observing him. She becomes obsessed and improves quickly, thanks to her spatial intelligence and abuse of mind-altering tranquilizers that allow her to focus and visualize chess games on the ceiling above her bed.
When she can beat him regularly, Shaibel introduces her to the local high school chess club teacher, Mr Ganz, whom she also beats. Ganz invites her to play a simultaneous exhibition against his entire club. She beats all of them easily, later commenting to Shaibel on their poor chess skills and how invigorating it is to win. After the state passes a law outlawing the use of tranquilizers on children, Beth begins to suffer from withdrawal. She is caught stealing a jar of the medication and passes out after overdosing by swallowing several mouthfuls of pills.
After her overdose, Beth is forbidden to play chess. Time passes and Beth is adopted as a teenager by suburban couple Alma and Allston Wheatley. Allston is emotionally distant and frequently leaves for “business trips”; it soon becomes clear that their marriage is not a happy one. At her new high school, Beth is bullied by the popular girls from the “Apple Pi Club” for her drab clothes. Beth discovers her adoptive mother is taking the same tranquilizer pills that she was given at the orphanage and secretly steals some for herself, allowing her to play mental chess again. She also steals a chess magazine and learns about the upcoming Kentucky State Championship. She writes to Mr Shaibel, who sends her the money for the entrance fee. As she cruises through her games, she develops a crush on one of her opponents, a young man named Townes. After the second day of the tournament, during which her periods start, Beth comes home to find that Allston has deserted them. Beth fears that she will be sent back to the orphanage, but Alma tells her they will lie so she can stay.
During her final game of the tournament against Harry Beltik, the highest-ranked player, Beth becomes flustered and runs to the restroom, where she takes a tranquilizer pill, then wins the game. Upon learning of the prize money on offer in a tournament in Cincinnati, Alma hatches a plan for the two women to support themselves.
Beth wins the tournament in Cincinnati, giving Alma 15% of the prize money. Beth continues to skip school while traveling to tournaments, and she quickly gains national recognition for her achievements. She also begins dressing more stylishly as her winnings increase. At school, Beth is invited to a meeting of the “Apple Pi Club” by the girls who had initially shunned her. She soon realizes she has nothing in common with them and, stealing a bottle of gin, escapes back home. In 1966, Beth heads to Las Vegas for the US Open where she is reunited with Townes, now a journalist who is covering the event. They return to his hotel room where Townes takes pictures of her. They play chess together and share a brief, intimate moment before being interrupted by Townes’s roommate, whom Beth suspects is also his boyfriend. Beth abruptly leaves before Townes can explain the situation. Beth runs into the current US National Champion, Benny Watts, who points out an error in her game against Beltik. Beth is taken aback and suddenly loses confidence. She experiences her first professional loss against Watts the next day; they finish the tournament as co-champions.
Beth takes night classes in Russian at a local college. She attends a party where she smokes marijuana and loses her virginity to one of the students. Left alone in his empty apartment for the weekend, Beth indulges herself with more alcohol and drugs. After graduating high school, Beth travels to an international tournament in Mexico City with Alma. Alma spends most of her time with Manuel, a long-time pen pal, and begins a sexual relationship with him. Beth competes against several international players including thirteen-year old Soviet prodigy Georgi Girev, whom she defeats in a tough game that lasts two days. In a crowded elevator, Beth uses her growing knowledge of Russian to eavesdrop on Soviet world champion Vasily Borgov and two associates. While they point out her weaknesses as a player, Borgov merely comments that she is an orphan and a survivor like them.
Manuel soon abandons Alma, saying he needs to make a business trip to Oaxaca. The following day, Beth plays Borgov and loses to him in an intense game after he surprises her with an off-beat opening. Back in the hotel room, Beth discovers Alma has died of suspected hepatitis, likely worsened by her excessive drinking. Beth manages to get Allston on the telephone in Denver, but aside from telling her where Alma’s family plot is, he wants nothing to do with her. However, he agrees to let Beth keep the house. She flies home with Alma’s coffin to arrange her burial.
Beth returns home to Kentucky and reconnects with Harry Beltik, who is attending college and has romantic feelings for her. At Beth’s suggestion, he moves into Alma’s house to accompany the now lonely Beth. The two spend time training and sleep together a few times until Beltik realizes Beth’s obsession with chess will always supersede any relationship they may have. The two part ways, as Beltik admits that his passion for the game has waned. Beth meets her former high school tormentor Margaret in town; she married soon after leaving school, has a baby daughter, and is fast becoming an alcoholic.
Beth travels to the 1967 US Championship in Ohio, where she reunites with Benny Watts. The evening before they are scheduled to face each other in the final game, Benny challenges Beth to several rounds of speed chess for five dollars each in a public café. An experienced speed chess hustler, he beats her consistently and cleans her out of all her cash. The next day, however, Beth defeats Benny to become the US Champion. The two discuss Beth’s future in international competition. Benny, recognizing that Beth needs both a role model and a trainer, invites Beth to train for the Paris Invitational with him in New York City.
On their journey to New York, Beth and Benny entertain themselves by playing chess without a board and practicing Russian. In New York, Benny has Beth sober up and begins an intense and disciplined training regime to prepare her for the big tournament in Paris. He brings in two strong players, Hilton Wexler and Arthur Levertov to assist, along with a mutual friend, a French model named Cleo who previously had a brief affair with Benny. Beth repeatedly beats Benny, Wexler and Levertov in a speed chess simultaneous and wins back much more than Benny took from her in Ohio. Beth bonds with Cleo. Eventually, Beth and Benny give in to the sexual tension between them and sleep together, but Benny ruins the mood by talking about chess afterwards.
Beth goes to the Paris Invitational and works her way up to the final game with Borgov. Cleo reveals that she’s also in Paris and invites Beth for drinks, causing her to relapse. Beth is woken by the hotel management after oversleeping and rushes downstairs to the tournament. Hungover and unable to focus, she loses once more to Borgov. Devastated, Beth declines Benny’s offer to continue staying with him in New York and instead goes back home to Kentucky. Allston goes back on his word and bullies Beth into paying an excessive price for his equity in the house. Beth plunges into a days-long drug and alcohol binge, culminating with her passing out after hitting her head on a table. Beltik confronts her in public and tells her that she needs treatment for her alcoholism. Beth angrily tells him to leave her alone and storms off. The next day, she is shocked to find her old friend Jolene from the orphanage at her door.
Jolene informs Beth that Mr Shaibel has died. They both attend the funeral, and Beth revisits the orphanage. She is moved to tears when she finds newspaper clippings on Mr Shaibel’s basement wall revealing that he had followed her career up until his death, as well as a photograph of the pair together during her time at the orphanage. Beth gives up her funding from the Christian Crusade after refusing to publicly endorse their conservative Christian, anti-communist beliefs. Benny is furious when she calls to tell him what she’s done, and refuses to help her.
After getting a loan from Jolene, Beth travels to Moscow to play in the Moscow Invitational, accompanied by Booth, a minder from the State Department who gives her strict instructions not to fraternize with the Soviets. “Liza” becomes popular with the Soviet public and is mobbed for autographs every time she exits the playing venue. She defeats several tough opponents, including ex-World Champion Luchenko. In the final game with Borgov, Beth plays the Queen’s Gambit; the game is adjourned after forty moves.
That evening, Beth reconnects with Townes, who is covering the tournament. The next day, Beth receives a phone call from Benny, who has assembled a team including Harry, Matt, Mike, Wexler and Levertov to analyze the adjourned position of her game with Borgov. Beth expresses gratitude and takes detailed notes of their analysis. When play resumes that evening, Beth beats Borgov after refusing a draw he offers her. On the way to the airport, Booth tells her the President wants to receive her at the White House for a photo opportunity.
Beth doesn’t seem impressed and exits the car, heading for a park where she had previously seen elderly local men playing chess. They recognize her and greet her warmly, and invite her to play.
Netflix released The Queen’s Gambit on 23rd October 2020. After four weeks it had become Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries. It has received critical acclaim for Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as Beth Harmon as well as for the cinematography and production values. It has also received a positive response from the chess community and is claimed to have increased public interest in the game.
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