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The Queen's Gambit: Netflix vs. Novel

Like many of you, I watched The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. Overall, I found it very entertaining but was bothered by a few of the details, so I decided to investigate, i.e., I read the novel The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, first published in 1983. As is usually the case, there were differences between the book and the film version, although, for the most part, the series was faithful to the book. Some of the events which I predicted would be different in the novel had indeed been changed or added in the series. Other events, to my surprise, were presented in the film as written.

The filming of The Queen’s Gambit was smartly done, with appealing visuals. As a writer, I appreciated the film editing, as there wasn’t any superfluous footage in the series.

The book was shorter than I expected, at 243 pages. The writing struck me as skillful, without wasted words. I noted increased artful descriptions as the story progressed.

For those of you who have not seen the Netflix series but plan to do so, I issue this warning:

Spoilers Ahead

Rather than rehash the story here, I will mention only those areas of the Netflix series I found worth delving into.

1. In the series, I found the indifference of Beth’s biological father disturbing and wanted to learn more about her mother’s suicide by traffic accident. While watching the film, I expected more information about Beth’s mother, while anticipating her estranged father would re-surface into Beth’s life after she achieved fame. Surely, if he hadn’t been able to find her before, he could have later.

In the book, Beth’s father had died from poor health several years before Beth was orphaned. Her parents were not estranged at the time. While Beth’s mother died in a car accident, Beth was not in the car. Her mother may have been intoxicated, but it wasn’t clear at all that she committed suicide.

2. I was bothered throughout the series that Beth never paid back the ten-dollar loan from Mr. Shaibel, the janitor who first played chess with her. The loan allowed Beth to enter her first tournament. I figured that in the book, she would have paid him back.

I was wrong about that, although Beth had plenty of time to repay him. In the book, after she attained fame, Beth spoke with the orphanage administrator, Mrs. Dearborn, and learned that Mr. Shaibel was still working there. Even then, she wasn’t interested in reconnecting with him. Only later, when she attended Mr. Shaibel’s funeral, did she mention regret for not paying him back. I wish the author had given the reader an explanation. Better yet, I wish Beth had repaid the ten dollars.

3. In the Netflix series, when Beth showed up to defend her title at the Kentucky state championship, she was hungover and left before playing, seemingly on a whim after Harry Beltik, her former trainer and lover, told her she needed help. If she played a game before leaving, it wasn’t shown.

In the novel, although she hadn’t had alcohol for a day, she was so mentally dulled by her drinking that she lost her first game and left immediately afterward, humiliated. That struck me as being sadly realistic.

4. The Netflix series opened in Paris, where Beth was hungover from partying the night before with Cleo, a woman she had met in New York. She overslept and rushed to a chess tournament game where, due to her altered mental state, she was beaten by the world champion and, as she saw it, her chief rival, Vasily Borgov. I was very uncomfortable with the depiction of Cleo leading Beth astray so easily at such a crucial moment. Was Cleo the worst person in the world, and was Beth the weakest?

I was glad that in the book, that never happened. Cleo and Beth did not meet in Paris, Beth had not used drugs or alcohol before the match, and she didn’t oversleep. Beth was simply outplayed by Borgov, as she should have been. He was the world champion, after all. That takes some work, more work than Beth had put in so far. Realistic. I like that better.

5. In the series, Beth’s friend from the orphanage, Jolene, showed up at her door just as she was hitting rock bottom from alcohol. I wondered how Jolene knew Beth was in need of support at that time. Her alcoholism hadn’t been publicized in the news as far as I could tell.

In the book, Beth realized on her own that she needed help but couldn’t think of anyone to ask. She decided to find Jolene, whom she hadn’t spoken to since she was adopted. Not finding her phone number easily, she called Mrs. Dearborn (the call mentioned above when Beth learned Mr. Shaibel was still working at the orphanage), who gave her Jolene’s number. Beth called Jolene, who was an immense help getting Beth physically fit and off alcohol and drugs.

6. In the series, Beth’s government escort in Russia, Mr. Booth, asked Beth to let him know if a Russian chess player gave her an indication he might want to defect. That kept me looking for Borgov to send her a message. Neither he nor any of the other Russians ever did.

In the book, Mr. Booth never mentioned any such thing. Adding it to the series subtracted from the experience, in my opinion.

7. In Russia, the Netflix series showed Beth reconnect with Townes, the object of her crush from years earlier. She was helped by a phone call from her old chess buddies Benny Watts, Harry Beltik, Matt, Mike, Hilton Wexler, and Arthur Levertov.

In the book, Townes did not show up in Russia. He didn’t reappear after they parted ways in Las Vegas (and, by the way, there wasn’t any hint that Townes was gay in the book). We never found out if Townes was interested in Beth romantically, and if not, why not. The phone call Benny made to Beth when she needed help in Russia did happen but involved only Benny, Arthur Levertov, and Hilton Wexler.

8. In the series, Beth was an ugly duckling who grew into an attractive woman and fashionista.

In the book, Beth no longer perceived herself as ugly as a grown woman, although there was no indication that she was beautiful. Her clothes were rarely mentioned. Although she seemed to admire the look of Parisian women and may have aspired to have fine clothes, the novel didn’t describe any shopping sprees to high-end stores or striking fashions on Beth’s part. Beth’s focus was on chess.

9. While the Netflix series was able to capture the tension of chess matches and showed some of the moves, I didn’t gain much of an appreciation for the thought processes of serious chess players. Neither did I learn much about Beth’s thoughts from watching her play.

The novel gave a better depiction of strategy, although I didn’t make an effort to follow all the moves described. Many specific moves were mentioned, something that might be of particular interest to chess aficionados.

10. I was disappointed that neither the series nor the book enlightened us as to the behavior of Beth’s adoptive father, Mr. Wheatley. He remained a bit of an enigma, inexplicably sleazy.

Overall, as to be expected, the book did a better job than the film when it came to describing Beth’s thoughts. For example, before she became a full-blown binge drinker, the author wrote: “She flirted with alcohol for years. It was time to consummate the relationship.”

In the novel, as she was losing the Kentucky state championship, Beth became fearful that she may already have irreversibly harmed her brain. “She hadn’t had a drink for a day and two nights. What was wrong? In the pit of her stomach she was beginning to feel terrified. If she had somehow damaged her talent…”

After she lost the game, she worried, “What if she had already done it to herself? What if she had shaved away from the surface of her brain whatever synaptic interlacings had formed her gift?. . . She imagined the surface of her own brain with the talent for chess wiped away.” She thought of a pop artist who had purchased a Michelangelo drawing and erased it, analogous to erasing her talent.

The Netflix version did a good job describing Beth’s final game with Borgov, using the announcers to reflect a lot of what the author described in the book. In the end, however, the words of the author give more insight. “She steeled herself…and played the best chess she knew, developing her pieces, defending everywhere, watching every opportunity for an opened file, a clear diagonal, a doubled pawn, a potential fork or pin or hurdle or skewer…she saw the whole board in her mind and caught every change of balance in the power that shifted over its surface. Each particle of it was neutralized by its counter-particle, but each was ready to discharge itself if allowed and break the structure open. If she let his rook out, it would tear her apart. If he allowed her queen to move to the bishop file, his king’s protection would topple.”

In the novel, after Beth turned down Borgov’s offer for a draw, the reader is privy to her thoughts and how she reasoned through iterations until she finally came up with the solution—with mate in nineteen moves. “If she made an error, there would be no time for a new strategy. She reached forward and moved . . . ” Alas, she had made no error.

If I could change two elements of the series, I would eliminate the suicide of Beth’s mother and the drunken night before the Paris tournament. That said, I found the series entertaining and exciting, well-paced, visually rich, and well-done. I would recommend reading the book over watching the series only for serious chess devotees.

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1 Comment

Jim Hasse
Jim Hasse
Mar 10, 2021

My wife and I enjoyed the series on Netflix. Thanks for providing an excellent summary of the book in comparison to the series. Being a chess novice, I am satisfied with your summary of the book. Thanks!

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