Best of 2020 (Behind the Scenes): How The Queen's Gambit changed the game for chess on screen
Consultant Bruce Pandolfini explains how the smash-hit Netflix series brought chess to the screen with unprecedented accuracy.
If The Queen’s Gambit writer-director Scott Frank’s goal was to “bring sexy back to chess,” we can declare that mission accomplished. The Netflix miniseries has spurred a huge surge of interest in the game with its surprisingly thrilling depiction of one of the most cerebral and theoretically un-cinematic activities in the world. Even more impressively, it’s done so while portraying chess with an unprecedented level of accuracy on screen. And that accuracy is largely thanks to one person: Bruce Pandolfini, the show’s resident chess expert and “sensei,” as star Anya Taylor-Joy dubbed him.
Thought to be the most experienced chess teacher in the U.S., Pandolfini has penned dozens of books on the game, taught multiple future grandmasters, and consulted on a number of film and TV projects (including 1993’s Searching for Bobby Fischer, in which he was played by Ben Kingsley). And fortuitously, he was also a consultant on the original novel The Queen’s Gambit, enlisted to advise author Walter Tevis on how to improve the book’s depiction of chess.
“Walter didn't accept any of my suggestions,” Pandolfini tells EW with a laugh almost 40 years later. “But they did like the title I suggested.”
So while it was more than destiny that landed him the gig as the TV series’ chief chess consultant — executive producer William Horberg had worked with Pandolfini before, on Bobby Fischer — it seems altogether fitting that he ended up doing so. And he embraced the role with enthusiasm, bringing his vast chess knowledge to bear on everything from the scripts to the sets.
“I could provide a lot of firsthand reinforcement, and I did,” Pandolfini says. “What it was like then, clocks, writing moves down, what the onlookers would be like, the dreariness of the tournament scene, the clubs, the male-dominated [field] — I had to reinforce that and think up various facts from the times, because I lived through all of that.”
But his largest and foremost tasks were to coach the Queen’s Gambit cast on how to play like professionals (or at least look like it), and to design all of the chess games seen on the show — and even many that aren’t.
“I devised 92 chess positions to conform to situations in the script, and we called that the Bible,” Pandolfini says. “All the chess ideas sprung from one of those 92 positions….We had about 350 positions overall, and most of them are never on camera. The crew would set up these full games with the extras that were not filmed, just to create the proper ambience and feeling.”
That anecdote epitomizes the show’s meticulous approach to chess, which manifested at every stage of production. Months before the cameras rolled, Pandolfini “very carefully” read through Frank’s teleplays to devise possible chessboard setups to match the dramatic action, sometimes changing the scripted dialogue if necessary.
“I would look at each scene, I’d see the moves that are actually described, and then I'd have to think of games or setups that corresponded to that, making sure that every line in the script was covered,” the chess master explains. “Sometimes the words have to be slightly modified, and that can't be helped at points. For example, instead of a bishop moving, it might be a rook, that kind of thing.”
However, he was careful never to disrupt the story, recognizing, as he puts it, “After all, this is entertainment. We want to get the chess right, but in the end, it had to be something you'd want to see.”
In fact, the chess designs add another rich layer to the storytelling, as Pandolfini developed distinct styles of play for different characters. Taylor-Joy’s Beth, for instance, “is a very intuitive player,” he explains. “She just kind of senses what's right. And so you want positions that reflect that. You see that creativity, that flair for tactics, and the attack; she loves to attack. I tried to think up and look for positions that indeed showed that, lots of aggressive positions.”
He also had help from one of the few people with an even greater chess pedigree: Garry Kasparov, the Russian grandmaster and former World Chess Champion. Kasparov “refined” a small handful of the 92 key setups (mainly those involving Russian characters), calling or Skyping with Pandolfini to discuss his suggestions.
“He came up with some intricate changes that were really neat,” Pandolfini says, adding with a laugh, “We would go over the moves together, but pretty much if Garry thought something was good, I went with it. I'm not going to question the greatest chess player of all time.”
With the moves laid out, the next step was to teach them to the actors, many of whom were coming onto the project with next to no knowledge of chess. Pandolfini used several different methods to make sure they would remember and perform the moves accurately, but also to put them at ease while doing so, so as not to disrupt their performances.
“You have to make the actors feel comfortable,” he notes. “That's so important, because they're worried that they're not going to look good, and that will really mess them up. So I think that's one of the chief aspects of my job, helping the actors feel comfortable and to do their job.”
To do so, Pandolfini broke the chess moves down into components — “Usually sequences of three are good,” he says — sometimes accompanied with “little visual cues and other mnemonic devices” to connect the moves “in some kind of linked narrative.”
“You might give a little rhyme, or some way of coding it, so they can just do it naturally,” Pandolfini explains. “But preparation is the key. Sometimes we'd give them this wonderful software, [with] the moves on their cell phones, so they can walk around and look at sequences.”
Not all the actors liked to be so prepared ahead of time, however. Taylor-Joy preferred to learn the moves just before filming, despite having far and away the most actions to perform. Luckily, “Anya is really brilliant,” Pandolfini says. “I thought it worked really quite nicely. She didn't have any screw-ups.”
Beyond learning where to move the pieces, the actors also had to learn how to move the pieces, beginning with how to hold them. As Pandolfini explains wryly, “If you were to see a baseball player grab the bat and hold it in the middle of the bat, you know that person's not a baseball player.” He showed the cast videos demonstrating how experienced players grab chess pieces, and also taught them how to conduct themselves at the board.
“We would go over deliberations at the board, how long you would perhaps think over a move,” Pandolfini says. Of course, “Things have to be done much more quickly on screen. You can't act as if you're in a library; people will turn it off. But you do see little nuances and subtleties come through. Facial expressions are important.”
In the end, of course, their hard work paid off handsomely. The Queen’s Gambit has drawn acclaim from critics and viewers alike, including that most fastidious of audiences, chess experts.
“Really, overwhelmingly, the series is loved in the chess community,” Pandolfini says. “I've never seen this kind of response from the chess world before to anything that reflected chess or showed chess moves. And it's a very critical audience. Every little thing that's wrong, they will jump on.”
Indeed: “Within one day of the series being released, every single position in the whole series had been analyzed online!” he adds. “It was remarkable. I'm thinking, ‘What do these guys do? Do they have a life?’”
Pandolfini is even more thrilled by the response outside of the chess world. “I think it's going to be great for the game,” he says. “Something like 10 million games a day are played online now. Think about that! Who knows where this is going to lead. I'm very excited about the future of the game.”
Ultimately, though, he knows chess isn't the only reason for the show's massive success. “What you have here is an extraordinary role model in Beth,” Pandolfini says. “Think of all the things she has to overcome in life: living in an orphanage, drugs, strange relationships, just a tough time. And she surmounts it all to become the best chess player in the world. That is an extraordinary character for our time. Not just for girls and women, but for boys and men, too. It's really someone we can look up to and identify with. I think that's what's moved the show and attracted so many people to it.”