A version of this story about “The Queen’s Gambit” first appeared in the December issue of TheWrap magazine.
Beth Harmon, the chess prodigy played by Anya Taylor-Joy in Netflix’s breakout hit “The Queen’s Gambit,” knows how to properly execute a perfect Fork Maneuver and beat any unsuspecting newcomer with a Scholar’s Mate. But before Taylor-Joy could feel comfortable doing either of those things, she had to take a crash course in all things chess from the hypercompetitive players around which the series is centered.
“I had never played chess before,” she said. “I knew that the chess community was a very passionate one, and I applaud that. It was really important to me that I understood the theory of chess really well.”
Taylor-Joy’s Harmon is a Cold War-era orphan who, after getting addicted to tranquilizer pills at a way-too-young age, takes up the game under the tutelage of Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), a janitor at the orphanage. After realizing she has an innate talent for the game (a talent at least partially due to her hallucinating chess boards on the ceiling thanks to those pills, which she uses to “practice” while she is in bed), Beth begins her quest to become the top-ranked chess player in the world, while battling drug and alcohol addiction.
Of course, without having played any of the centuries-old game, Taylor-Joy had to study with the experts, including Russian grandmaster and former world champion Garry Kasparov and veteran chess coach Bruce Pandolfini. Taylor-Joy said they had about three competitive players on set when they filmed those scenes. “Understanding the theory and being able to execute that in a real game are two very different things,” Taylor-Joy said. “There was no way that I was going to be able to keep a Rolodex of 350 unique chess sequences in my mind. I just had to learn it before the match, do it, execute it and then move on to the next one.”
The show has been heralded for its accuracy regarding competitive chess. It’s part of the reason that “The Queen’s Gambit” — named after Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel as well as an actual chess opening move, among the world’s oldest–has been a hit in that world. “At least for me, as a novice, it was so wonderful to have all of these details that I’ve never thought of,” Taylor-Joy said. “You know, what does the room smell like when there’s been a whole bunch of dudes sitting over boards and sweating for eight hours? What does it feel like to adjourn and then go back?”
Having played a 17th-century colonial Puritanin The Witch and a 19th-century wealthy English socialite in “Emma,” Taylor-Joy is used to portraying characters from a bygone era. But Beth Harmon was different. “I’ve never had an experience where I was so into a character,” she said. “Every day, her emotions would come up. And I was like, ‘Is this mine? Is this hers? How do I react to this?'”
In fact, she was passionate about the role from the moment she read Tevis’ book and heard that co-creator Scott Frank wanted to meet with her. “It’s really difficult to explain the compulsion that occurs when a character is meant for you,” she said. “I ended up running to the meeting. Like, I don’t run anywhere. And I ran to meet this man. And I didn’t even say hello, I just stormed into the restaurant and was like, ‘It’s not all about chess. And she has red hair. She has to have red hair.'”
“The Queen’s Gambit” was one of the fall’s biggest new hits — and one of the most surprising, considering you can count on one hand the movies and TV shows that center around competitive chess. The series debuted on Oct. 23, right before Halloween and in the middle of a chaotic news cycle between the continuing pandemic and the week-long election night. “It’s impossible to not recognize when something’s really hit a chord with people,” Taylor-Joy said. “It’s been a tough year. It makes me happy that people are excited about something and that art has brought some solace.”