THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT
NOTE: This spoiler was submitted by Evan B
Episode 1: Openings
It’s 1967, Paris. A knock on a hotel door awakens Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). Her hotel is a mess and she is running late. Beth swallows two green pills and hurriedly dresses, glancing at a person sleeping in her bed. She runs downstairs and is greeted by the press. Beth walks over to a chessboard to begin a highly anticipated match.
The episode flashes back to when Beth is 9 years old (played by Isla Johnson), living in Kentucky. She stands at the scene of a car crash. Although she is unharmed, her mother died in the collision.
Beth is sent to a girl’s orphanage. The head of the orphanage, Helen Deardorff, welcomes her in. She is given new clothes and a haircut before being introduced to the other children. An older girl named Jolene (Moses Ingram) asks Beth what her mom’s last words were. Although Beth remembers her mother’s last words were “close your eyes” (implying that the mother crashed her car on purpose), she says she doesn’t remember. The orphanage dispenses pills to the girls – including the green ones Beth took in the opening.
That night, Beth has a dream about her parents. Her father Paul pleads to come inside, but her mother Alice (Chloe Pirrie) has locked him out. Alice throws pills on the ground and starts a bonfire, burning her possessions including a book she wrote as a PhD. Paul leaves after noting that this is the last time he will come after the pair.
One day, a teacher sends Beth to the basement to clean the school erasers. There, she sees the custodian Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp) playing chess by himself. Beth is immediately intrigued and dreams of the game. Eventually, she starts demanding that Shaibel teach her how to play. Although he initially declines, Shaibel relents when Beth reveals she learned how the pieces move simply by observing his solo games. Shaibel quickly defeats her using a strategy called the “scholar’s mate.”
That night, it’s revealed that Beth is hoarding her green pills. She ingests multiple pills and is able to envision a chess board on the ceiling of her dormitory. Through her visions, she is able to improve her strategy.
While playing a game with Shaibel, Beth immediately loses her queen. The custodian insists that she resign the game out of sportsmanship (losing the queen so early essentially dooms her). Beth gets angry and calls him a “cocksucker.” Shaibel then locks her out of the basement. Being forced to clean erasers outside, Beth sees local teens making out just beyond the orphanage gate. This clearly interests her. Beth later asks Jolene what a cocksucker is and reads through a book of human anatomy.
Shaibel eventually lets her back in and they begin playing in earnest. He teaches her chess strategies and the finer points of the game (such as the names of each square on the board and opening moves like the Queen’s Gambit). As she improves, Shaibel admits that she is astounding at chess.
One day, Beth goes to the basement to find that Shaibel invited a man named Mr Ganz to watch her play. Ganz is the head of a local chess club and also teaches chess at the local high school. She easily defeats him, even forcing him to concede the loss. When he asks how she got so good, she explains she visualizes the game on the ceiling. Treating her like a young girl, Ganz gifts her a doll as a present. Beth, feigning interest in the present, later throws away the doll. After Beth convincingly beats Ganz and Shaibel while playing them both at the same time (on two boards), Ganz gets permission from Deardorff to bring Elizabeth to the high school chess club to play all twelve members at once.
Before her big match, the orphanage is reported for violating state law. The green pills are revealed to be tranquilizers, which are illegal to give to children. Recognizing Beth is suffering withdrawal, Jolene smuggles Beth some tranquilizers just before her match at the chess club. Beth ends up beating all twelve boys in an hour and a half (and later tells Shaibel she really enjoyed doing it).
Clearly addicted, Beth breaks into the office where the green tranquilizers are kept. She ingests a fistful of tranquilizers and stuffs her pockets with more. As she exits, Deardorff and the rest of the school catch Beth in the act. The episode ends as Beth passes out and collapses in front of them….
Episode 2: Exchanges
The episode opens with Beth telling Jolene she intends to memorize the “Sicilian defense” strategy. Jolene asks how complex it is. Beth responds that it takes up 57 pages of her chess book.
Jumping forward in time, Beth is now a fifteen-year-old girl (played again by Anya Taylor-Joy). A couple come to the orphanage looking to adopt a teenage girl. Mrs. Deardorff introduces Beth to the couple – Alma (Marielle Heller) and Allston Wheatley (Patrick Kennedy). To Beth’s surprise, the Wheatleys adopt her. Jolene tells her to simply be obedient, and Beth expresses regret that Jolene has never been adopted. As Beth leaves, she waves to Shaibel.
She arrives at her new home. Allston is largely dismissive of her (although Alma claims it was his idea to adopt Beth). Alma is polite, but distant. Beth also learns that the Wheatleys had a child who died. Allston, a traveling salesman, departs for a work trip. Alma largely ignores Beth and sinks into a depression.
Beth is not welcomed at school and most of the other girls make fun of her for being smart. The school lacks a chess club, and Beth is told the school only offers invite-only social clubs for girls. Things are made worse after Alma buys her ill-fitting, unfashionable clothing. Alma also refuses to buy Beth a chess set.
Beth goes to the library to find books on chess. While in the stacks, she spies on a popular classmate making out with a boy. The girl catches Alma and insults her. Beth checks out a book written by a grandmaster.
Alma sends Beth to the local general store to fill a prescription for her. It turns out that Alma’s subscription is for the green tranquilizers. Beth immediately begins stealing Alma’s pills and getting refills from the pharmacist for herself under Alma’s prescription. She is again able to envision playing chess on the ceiling of her bedroom. Beth also shoplifts a chess magazine. She discovers that there are chess tournaments with cash prizes, including the multi-day state tournament taking place at a local high school. The entry fee is $5.00.
Alma tells Beth they are having money troubles as Allston is sending a minimal amount of cash home. Beth offers to get a job (hoping to use the money she earns to enter the chess tournament) and Alma responds with a racist comment (saying only minorities get jobs). Alma writes to Shaibel to ask for the money and promises to pay him back double if she wins any money. He sends the cash. Although Alma criticizes her interest in chess, she doesn’t stop Beth from entering the tournament.
At the tournament, the registrars scoff at Beth entering as an unranked competitor. They note that Harry Beltik (Harry Belling), the state champion, is participating and has a high ranking. Beth is taken aback when sees a handsome young man, D.L. Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd) at the tournament. Many observers smoke and watch the matches.
Beth learns quite a bit at the tournament, such as the purpose of the chess clock (requiring each player finish the game in 90 minutes), the “touch move” rule (you can only touch the piece that you move), how to gain an official ranking in the competitive chess world, that you must defeat a grandmaster to become a grandmaster, and the purpose of the notepad (for recording your moves). Despite not knowing the tournament formalities, she easily wins all her matches on her first day. Beth is also thrilled as she watches Beltik cockily defeat his opponents.
On the second day, she is paired against Townes. He is enrolled at the local university and came in fifth place at the US Open chess tournament in Las Vegas. The match is hard-fought, but Townes eventually is forced to concede. He compliments Beth. Immediately afterwards, Beth gets her first period.
After returning home, Beth finds the home in disarray. Alma reveals that Allston has essentially abandoned them as he is never returning home. This change could result in Beth being sent back to the orphanage. Alma offers to lie about the family status to keep Beth, and Beth agrees. Alma commits to being an actual mother. That night, Beth remembers Alice.
At the final day of the tournament, Beth is set to play Beltik in the finals. Beltik taunts Beth by arriving late for the match and fake yawning at her moves. His tactics work, frustrating Beth and causing her to lose focus. She takes a bathroom break. In the bathroom, Beth takes a tranquilizer and envisions their match on the bathroom ceiling. When she returns, she is calm and focused. She eventually forces Beltik to concede the match. The crowd, and Beltik, applaud Beth’s victory.
Alma reads about Beth’s victory and more importantly, the prize money ($100), in the paper. Beth opens a bank account and goes shopping, purchasing chess books, a chess set, and new clothes.
The episode ends with Alma having planned a trip for the pair to Cincinnati so that Beth can play in another tournament. Alma calculated the expenses of attending and says that they can profit if Beth finishes at least in third place. Beth promises that she will win…
Episode 3: Doubled Pawns
As a young girl, Beth goes to a lake with her mother, Alice. She watches as Alice dives in and goes underwater. Beth begins to get nervous when her mom doesn’t surface, but soon sees her mom managed to swim out to a dock. They have fun the rest of the day.
We jump to Cincinnati 1963
Beth and Alma arrive at a hotel, and enjoy the luxurious accommodations. Clearly Beth’s winnings allow them to travel in style.
After signing into the tournament and seeing her friends (the registrars from the earlier Kentucky State tournament), she walks around. She overhears a young man named Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) discussing the Caro-Kann defense with other chess players. Watts is the best chess player in the US. He dresses like an adventurer (think Indiana Jones). She approaches the group and Watts notes that he is familiar with her due to her success. Watts isn’t playing the tournament, noting he has little to gain from overexposure.
Alma drinks and watches TV as Beth replays her old games against herself in her hotel room. When Alma asks what she’s doing, Beth responds that she’s checking for weaknesses in her game. Beth then cockily says there aren’t any. She goes down to the lobby where various chess players are replaying their old games against themselves too.
After she wins a game, Beth is surprised to see Alma watching. Beth introduces Alma to her friends and they go to dinner together. Her friends note that Watts has an international title and plays in Europe. Alma is excited to hear that there are bigger prizes offered at foreign competitions. They also discuss the fact that the Soviets are the best players in the world and haven’t been beaten by an American in decades.
Beth wins the tournament, beating a master on her way to victory. She nets $300 after expenses. Alma asks Beth if she can receive a 10% commission. Beth decides to give her 15%.
Jumping ahead, Beth beats a grandmaster at another tournament. Alma proposes they go to Houston (where a tournament is being played) for the holidays. Alma wants to treat the trip as a vacation, not just another work trip. The two bond on the plane flight and Alma gives Beth a sip of her alcoholic drink. Beth then proposes learning Russian at the local college (so she can be better equipped to face Soviet players).
Beth gets interviewed for Life magazine. She explains she views the chess board as a world that she can control, unlike life. Beth says that if she gets hurt in a game, only she is to blame. Beth also states that she finds the game beautiful. The interviewer begins making derogatory comments about Beth, and Alma jumps to her defense. When they finally read the article, Beth is unhappy that it focuses so much on her being a girl.
Beth confronts Alma about her drinking, but Alma shrugs off Beth’s concerns.
Thanks to the article, Beth is invited to a social club by one of her schoolmates. Beth arrives at her schoolmate’s house, finding it is a huge mansion. At the club, the other girls are polite but distant (and a few are blatantly rude). Beth quickly realizes she has nothing in common with them. She sneaks out of the house, but not before stealing a bottle of alcohol. Once Beth returns home, she takes a tranquilizer with the alcohol and envisions a chess game on the ceiling.
We jump ahead to Las Vegas, 1966, at the US Open. Beth is older and attractive. As she walks through the hotel, she sees Townes. He is now a chess journalist. After the pair trade some insults, Townes asks her to come to his hotel room for an interview and to play some chess. They go to his hotel room and he begins photographing Beth while flirting with her. Townes eventually caresses her face. But before anything more happens, Townes’ roommate enters the room and inadvertently breaks up the encounter.
When Beth returns to her room, she finds Alma drinking beer. Alma lets Beth join her in drinking. Beth discusses the tournament. She mentions that Watts is there (and that he was also a child prodigy). She also says she is unnerved by a Soviet player named Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski)
Watts formally introduces himself to Beth and says he read about her game with Beltik. He points out that Beltik could have beaten her. When she balks at his claim, he tells her to replay the game (which she is able to do from memory). Beth realizes Watts is right and is frustrated that Watts was able to figure this out based only on a write up of her match. This shakes Beth’s confidence.
Watts and Beth are finally matched up. Beth gets to move first and envisions dozens of opening moves before playing. Although a draw would allow Beth to win the tournament, she desperately wants to beat Watts. She employs a different strategy than she usually uses, but is countered. Remembering Shaibel’s lessons, she resigns. Watts tells her it was a “tough game.”
After the game, Alma focuses on the prize money, to Beth’s anger. Beth rudely insults Alma about being too familiar with loss to care. Alma responds that now Beth knows about loss too.
As she leaves the tournament, Townes approaches Beth but is blown off. As Alma and Beth drive off, Beth reaches out for her hand for comfort. Alma reciprocates Beth’s affection. . . .
Episode 4: Middle Game
We open in a college classroom where Beth is learning Russian. A male student invites her over to smoke pot with some of his fellow hippies. She calls Alma, who allows her to stay at the party and even correctly deduces she is smoking pot. That night, Beth has very unsatisfying sex with her classmate. Afterward, Beth begins engaging in hard-partying and sleeping over at men’s homes. Although Alma is concerned, she lets Beth do as she pleases.
Beth graduates high school and reveals to Alma she got invited to play chess in Europe later in the year. The pair celebrate.
They first head to a tournament in Mexico City. Alma reveals she is meeting a long time pen-pal named Manuel at the airport. In fact, Alma arranged for them to arrive early just so she could meet him. Alma and Manuel quickly begin having sex.
Alma forces Beth to leave the hotel and try to enjoy life beyond chess. As Beth walks through Mexico City, she remembers a conversation she had with Shaibel where he warns her that her talent will come with downsides and that he’s worried about the anger she keeps inside. The memory causes Beth to start drinking heavily. While at the zoo, Beth sees Borgov, meaning he is playing at the tournament.
Beth advances through the tournament (that her friends, the Kentucky registrars, are also attending). She even prevails against international grandmasters. But Beth is still intimidated by Borgov.
Beth faces a young Soviet boy, another prodigy. Their match lasts for five hours before the boy asks to postpone it to the following day. Beth agrees (and has to write down what her next move will be when play resumes so that she can’t change tactics during the break). It is apparent that Beth is struggling to win the match and spends a lot of time at night thinking strategy. When play resumes the next day, Beth engages in tactics to distract her opponent (such as wandering around the playing area after her turn and loudly tapping her toe). Her tactics work. The boy is distracted and loses the match. After she wins, they talk. He confides to her that his goal is to become world champion someday. She asks what he’ll do if he achieves this dream, and he responds that he doesn’t understand the question. Beth leaves, but not before telling the boy that he was the best opponent she’s ever faced. The boy mutters that she only thinks that because she’s never played Borgov.
Beth is standing in the back of an elevator when Borgov and two other Soviets walk in. They are clearly talking about her in Russian, which Beth can understand due to her Russian classes. The Soviets clearly consider her a threat to their chess dominance and have been looking into her, noting that she may be an alcoholic. One thinks Borgov should beat her here or in a future European tournament to crush her spirit. The other thinks he should wait to defeat her until she comes to the Soviet Union where they will be on their turf and she will be isolated. Borgov shows respect for her, saying that as an orphan, Beth plays like Soviets – with nothing to lose. Beth’s friends later tell her that other Soviet men are KGB agents assigned to keep an eye on Borgov so that he doesn’t defect.
Borgov and Beth are paired up. Alma promises to attend the match. We learn that Borgov is the “Master of the Sicilian” strategy and hopes to induce Beth into using it with his opening move. We also learn that the player who moves first (in this match, Borgov) always has the advantage in chess. Beth soon realizes that she has been outplayed. Though she tries to resist, she angrily concedes defeat. Beth looks for Alma in the audience, only to find she is not there.
Beth returns to her hotel room where she sees Alma is lying in bed. Beth immediately recaps the game while changing her clothes. She explains that Borgov used a rare chess strategy to defeat her. She felt that she foresaw that she couldn’t defeat him. And she only became more depressed when she realized Borgov was never worried about the outcome of the match.
After she finishes talking, Beth realizes Alma is non-responsive. Beth looks closer and realizes Alma is dead. The hotel offers to compensate Beth and help her in any way. It is implied that the tequila in Alma’s hotel room poisoned her after she consumed too much of it.
Beth calls Allston and tells him of Alma’s death. She asks for his help, but he is reluctant to get involved. Allston tells Beth to bury Alma in her family’s plot. He also offers to give Beth the house, subject to the mortgage. Allston has no sympathy for Alma or Beth.
Beth’s departure from Mexico is intercut with her visiting a Mexican pharmacy before she leaves. On the plane, Beth orders Alma’s favorite alcohol and begins to cry. In the pharmacy, she orders tranquilizers (after learning that a prescription for them is not needed in Mexico). When the pharmacist hands her one bottle, Beth looks at him and says “mas” (“more” in Spanish). . . .