How ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ made all the right moves

“I am both delighted and dazed by the response,” announced Scott Frank this week, on the news that The Queen’s Gambit had become the most popular scripted limited series in Netflix history. In the four weeks since landing on the streaming service, the drama has been watched by 62m subscribers, ranked at number 1 in 63 countries, and come within the top 10 in 92. For all the pomp and ceremony that attended The Crown’s arrival earlier this month, the real hit of the autumn schedule has been a gentle adaptation of a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis about an orphaned chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, and her quest to become the world champion.

Even Frank, the showrunner, co-creator and director of the series, seems astonished that it has been so successful. A female-centred drama about a board game: are you kidding? Rather like Alexei Shirov’s “Jaw-Dropping Bishop Sacrifice” in 1998, unanimously voted by the staff at Chess.com as being the greatest chess move of all time, the show’s popularity has been dazzling. “Speaking for my fellow producers and the entire cast and crew of the show . . . we are most grateful,” continued Frank in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “And we all look forward to bringing you our Yahtzee limited series next.”

At least Yahtzee, with the rattle of its dice cups, its exclamations and its volume, would be pacy. Even Mahjong has a soothing aural click. Those are blockbuster actions compared to the long stare towards checkmate that the average chess game demands. Watching the lead actress Anya Taylor-Joy’s saucer eyes as she mentally surveys another billion manoeuvres, I’m still not certain if The Queen’s Gambit is a gripping drama, or the result of being so starved of cultural stimulation I’m now prepared to watch paint dry.

But, what the hey. The Queen’s Gambit ticks all sorts of themes that make it perfect 2020 viewing. It’s escapist: a blast of random foreign destinations — Kentucky, Cincinnati, Mexico City, Moscow — that transport us away to a succession of groovy spaces and mid-century hotels (in fact, the majority was shot in Berlin, which is exotic in itself). It’s ravishing: set in the 1950s and 1960s, and conceived by production designer Uli Hanisch, every wallpaper pattern, textile and carpet has been so fetishistically considered that each frame looks like a work of retro art. And it’s well-dressed: not since Mad Men have so many women eulogised a wardrobe like the one worn by Beth Harmon. The costume designer Gabriele Binder has used a blend of plaid checks, sweaters, Courrèges and Edie Sedgwick accents to create one of this year’s most influential styles.

And then there is the chess itself, of course. Even if you don’t understand a stroke of the game, The Queen’s Gambit still flatters our intelligence by allowing us insight into that world. Like boxing or horse riding, chess is one of those subjects that gets disproportionate attention. Benjamin Franklin described it as “not merely an idle amusement”, but “useful in the course of human life”. But he was just one of a troupe of chess snobs to promote the game as some sort of life-ennobling art. Albert Einstein said that “chess holds its master in its own bonds, shackling the mind and brain so that the inner freedom of the very strongest must suffer.” No one has ever said that about the Game of Life, or Cluedo. Even some proximity to chess makes us feel intelligent, sophisticated, and seductive: it’s the game of Bond villains, masterminds and The Thomas Crown Affair.

Now, everyone wants in on it: this week it was reported that year-on-year chess set sales have increased by more than 1,000 per cent at the toy company Goliath Games, and Google searches for “learn chess” have been spiking around the world. There are also plans to televise more upcoming matches owing to its new position as a sexy glamour sport; although, if the line-up for the Skilling Open currently playing until November 30 is anything to go by, you’ll have to be watching very, very hard.

The Queen’s Gambit is the perfect antidote to the grim and miserable coverage we’ve got used to. This week alone I have watched police brutality in Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, the squalid dealings of a bunch of ashen-faced City trainees in Industry, and a disturbing documentary about the NXIVM sex cult. The year’s most fashionable dramas have delighted in their examination of the filth of our existence. By contrast, The Queen’s Gambit offers a panacea for our problems — you just need to make the winning move. Yes, its heroine lost her mother as a small child, is mind-muddled with prescription drug use, single, slightly boozy and a tiny bit obsessive, but the drama rarely paints her as a victim.

And it’s unquestionably charming. The Queen’s Gambit has been a reminder that after the emotional suffering we’ve been exposed to, what audiences really want at this moment is an old-fashioned bedtime story with a happy outcome at the end. Didn’t they always? For all its intellectual premise, Beth Harmon is Cinderella with more guile and a great haircut. She may be a pawn star but she’s pure fairytale heroine.

Email Jo at jo.ellison@ft.com

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