Day 6

Why The Queen's Gambit may be the one of the greatest sports stories ever told

To the surprise of some, The Queen's Gambit is viewed in some circles as one of the greatest sports TV shows or films of all time. Journalists Evan Romano and Matthew DeBord say the coming-of-age series starring Anya Taylor-Joy is the underdog story of a table-top athlete.

The Netflix miniseries has helped reiginite interest in chess

Anya Taylor-Joy stars as Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy, in the Netflix miniseries The Queen's Gambit. (Phil Bray/Netflix)

Warning: This article contains spoilers for The Queen's Gambit.

With The Queen's Gambit, the world of competitive chess is making waves in the world of sports television — and some fans believe it could steal a trophy from a beloved show about football.

"There are two contenders for best sports show ever, and that's Friday Night Lights and The Queen's Gambit," said Evan Romano, an associate editor for Men's Health, who wrote about the show for the magazine.

"The fact that The Queen's Gambit is only seven episodes and you can get the whole picture within those seven episodes, gives it the title over Friday Night Lights."

According to numbers released by Netflix, more than 62 million households have watched the show since its premiere last month, making it the streaming platform's most-watched scripted limited series. 

Chess was already seeing a resurgence in interest with the board game selling out and online platforms gaining millions of players thanks to the pandemic, and The Queen's Gambit has pushed it further. 

"The Queen's Gambit is going to set off probably one of the biggest chess booms in the history of the game, and it's already started to do that," said Matthew DeBord, senior correspondent for Business Insider.

The Queen's Gambit follows Harmon as she strives to become a chess champion. Business Insider correspondent Matthew DeBord says the show is notable for centering the story on a woman chess champion. (Phil Bray/Netflix)

The show tells the story of an orphaned girl named Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) who strives to become the world's greatest chess player. Based on Walter Tevis's 1983 novel of the same name, the miniseries is set in the 1950s and '60s.

"We know the structure of the typical sports [story]," said Romano who describes himself as a chess novice.

"We know it's going to be an underdog who faces a couple of road bumps and eventually [is] going to become the champion."

Indeed, Beth faces ups and downs throughout the series, including heavy drinking and an addiction to tranquillizers she relies on while playing.

Chess is a sport

Some may bristle at the suggestion that a TV show about chess could fall under the sports genre, but Matthew DeBord argues that it fits the bill.

"Chess is a sport. The type of chess that the top grandmasters play can have them at the board for hours and hours and hours on end, so you need to be in pretty good shape to be able to concentrate for that period of time," said DeBord, who typically writes about the car industry, but also keeps tabs on the world of competitive chess.

"Most of the top players now put a lot of time and energy into physical fitness, nutrition, staying in the best possible shape they can. And this is completely similar to the type of training the top athletes go through."

Men's Health associate editor Evan Romano says The Queen's Gambit is a typical sports story, with Beth Harmon going facing trials and tribulations as an underdog. (Ken Woroner/Netflix © 2020)

Aside from its underdog story arc, DeBord praises The Queen's Gambit for its portrayal of chess as a group, rather than solo, game.

"At the highest levels, chess is a team sport that starts out as a one-man army, [or] one-woman army. And as the series evolves, eventually Beth puts together a team, and she's female and the supporting players are all male, but she's better than all of them," said DeBord.

It's a bonus that the film also focuses on a female chess player, he adds.

"It is in my view, the best thing to happen to chess, probably ever."

Already, The Queen's Gambit has driven interest in both men's and women's chess championships, according to DeBord.

'We're going to remember Queen's Gambit'

Romano says that the world of competitive chess has been "underserved" by film and television, and understands why The Queen's Gambit is reigniting interest in the game.

Both Romano and DeBord believe that The Queen's Gambit will be remembered as one of the greatest sports series of all time. (Phil Bray/Netflix)

He likens it to the 2011 Brad Pitt vehicle Moneyball, "one of the best sports movies out there," which tells the story of Oakland Athletics' 2002 baseball season.

"People who aren't versed in chess don't have any idea what these advanced moves that are happening on the board are, just like people who are watching Moneyball don't have any idea what these advanced statistical metrics are," said Romano.

"It's just sort of a MacGuffin, to use an old movie term, that pushes our characters into positions where we're happy and excited to see what they do next and how they react and what sort of relationships they form."

DeBord believes that the show will take its place among the greatest sports films and television series of all time.

Romano agrees. "Whenever somebody brings up chess, we're going to remember Queen's Gambit as far as fiction goes," he said.


Written by Jason Vermes. Produced by Laurie Allan.

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