The Queen’s Gambit tells the story of Beth Harmon, an orphan who develops an obsession with the game of chess at a young age. Harmon enters the male-dominated world of competitive chess, eventually defeating the reigning Russian chess grandmaster to become the world champion. The series’ title of The Queen’s Gambit refers to the opening move Harmon uses in the game that makes her the world champion, but it also refers to all of Harmon’s story. Beth Harmon is the queen, and the show is the story of her gambit, in which she risks everything to prove herself as the greatest chess player in the world.
The Queen’s Gambit
Harmon’s story takes us through some dark places. As a young girl, she loses her mother first to mental illness and finally to suicide. Relegated to an orphanage for an indeterminate period, the young Harmon discovers chess and learns to play from the taciturn-yet-kind janitor. But she also develops an addiction to sedatives, which haunts her throughout her young life. As a teenager, she is adopted by a couple, the Wheatleys, but the Wheatleys’ marriage is unhappy, and Mr. Wheatley leaves soon after Harmon is adopted. She is left with her alcoholic mother figure, Mrs. Wheatley. As Harmon begins to make a name for herself in the world of competitive chess, we see her life spiraling out of control: continued drug abuse, alcohol abuse, mental instability, sexual promiscuity, and a trail of discarded romantic relationships. In the chess world, she sets her sights on higher and higher goals, eventually aiming for the world championship in Russia.
Chess is nothing less than an obsession for Harmon. Every significant relationship in her life revolves around the game, and she is willing to sacrifice anything to become the world champion. Her gambit is to sacrifice everything in her life to gain the perceived greater good of being the best chess player in the world. And she succeeds. In the end, she not only becomes the world champion, but she is shown to break free of addiction and mental illness, and even reconciles her broken relationships. At the end of the series, we see Harmon smiling, finally free of the obsessive need to be the best. The Queen’s Gambit has paid off.
The King’s Gambit
Beth Harmon gives up nearly everything she has, from her closest relationships to her own health and sanity, to prove herself as the greatest chess player alive. But was it all worth it? The way director Scott Frank tells the story, it was worth the sacrifice. But some viewers may find the series’ ending dissatisfying. When Harmon becomes the world champion, it is as if all of her other problems fade away. In the glory of Harmon’s chess victory, we almost forget that her life is otherwise in shambles. The series does a half-hearted job of suggesting that Harmon has, somehow, overcome the struggles in her life. But what if, after her victory, we saw Harmon still struggling with addiction, still dealing with mental illness, still estranged from her closest friends?
The suggestion given by The Queen’s Gambit is that if we try hard enough and risk enough, we can overcome our struggles. Take the gambit and things will work out. While this may be true in some cases, it does not hold true for all of life. Even when someone takes a risk to achieve a major goal, it does not solve all of their personal struggles. The Queen’s Gambit fails to be true to life when it suggests that success in chess equates to success in life for Harmon.
Moreover, it is not any gambit on our part that will change our lives the most profoundly. God took the greatest gambit of all: to love. Love is God’s opening move in all of creation, because it is the nature of love to create.1 And the crowning glory of creation was made in God’s own image. When man made his countermove to usurp God’s authority in his (man’s) own life, a whole series of moves continued into history. The ultimate act of God’s love was to step into the story with us, clothed in human flesh and human struggles. From the opening move, God knew that his first risk was going to lead to a great sacrifice…and a great victory. One day, the Kingdom of God will come fully and brokenness will be healed, what has been separated will be made whole, and our struggles will be resolved. It is both a now-and-not-yet process. But always it is a process of love from God to us.
By its nature as a miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit must tell a story within a certain amount of time and then conclude. Perhaps if it had continued (or if Netflix decides to make a second season), we would have seen that Harmon did continue to struggle with the dark parts of her life. This would have been appropriate, as even subsequent to Christ’s victory in the Resurrection, we find that in some ways the struggle continues for us. The greatest victory is won. The Russian grandmaster is in checkmate. Death is defeated. Our lives as Christians should be a testament to this reality: we know that the greatest victory has been won. The King’s Gambit has paid off and our souls are ransomed by God. No, all of our problems do not miraculously disappear, but we know that the most important victory has been won and eventually the old will pass away, and the new will come (Revelation 21:4).
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