'Queen's Gambit' on Netflix: What Actually is 'The Queen's Gambit' in Chess?

The Queen's Gambit on Netflix is in some ways a show about chess for those who know nothing about chess. However, for the players of the ancient game, there are plenty of chess references that help open up the story of Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy).

One of these is the title of the TV show. The Queen's Gambit is a real chess move that is one of the many openings possible in a game. In an early passage of the novel by Walter Tevis the Netflix series is based on, the author describes the move as it taught to Beth by Mr. Shaibel (played in the Netflix series by Bill Camp):

He pushed his queen's pawn forward, and she could see immediately that what he had just taught her was useless in this situa­tion. She glared at him across the board, feeling that if she had had a knife, she could have stabbed him with it. Then she looked back to the board and moved her own queen's pawn forward, determined to beat him.
He moved the pawn next to his queen's pawn, the one in front of the bishop. He often did this. "Is that one of those things? Like the Sicilian Defense?" she asked.
"Openings." He did not look at her; he was watching the board.
"Is it?"
He shrugged. "The Queen's Gambit."

Notably, her reaction to this move seems to set up the chaos of her later life as she succumbs to an addiction to pills and alcohol: "She decided not to take the offered pawn, to leave the tension on the board. She liked it like that," Tevis writes.

Queen's Gambit
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in "The Queens Gambit." Courtesy of Netflix

Though the Queen's Gambit move does allow black to take one of the white's pawns, it is a so-called "pawn sacrifice" move which aims to gain control of the center of the board.

Though the move is widely used in chess, in the novel and the book it becomes a metaphor for Beth's own life and the sacrifices she makes for chess. In the show, after all, she is both a queen of chess, but also, like the queen chess piece, often much more powerful than the "kings" of chess around her.

Apart from this first use of the Queen's Gambit, the move is mentioned four more times in the book.

The first time Beth uses it, for example, she, "felt with dismay that it had been a mistake. the Queen's Gambit could lead to complicated positions, and this one was Byzantine."

This seems to represent the complicated positions she finds herself in at the time, as she rises up the chess ranks while grappling with her addictions, her burgeoning womanhood and her status as an adopted child.

Later in the book, however, she starts to avoid the Queen's Gambit as she develops both as a player and as a woman who, to follow the metaphor, becomes tired of the sacrifices she has to make.

About two thirds of the way into the book, for example, we learn how, "she decided to avoid the Queen's Gambit and try to lead him into unfamiliar terri­tory with the Dutch Defense."

Though the series uses chess as a metaphor for Beth's life in subtler way than the book, the Queen's Gambit is still an opening she uses multiple times, providing a chess fans an Easter egg that opens up the character's state of mind across the series.

The Queen's Gambit is streaming now on Netflix.