Your burning questions about The Queen's Gambit, answered
Warning: This post contains spoilers about The Queen's Gambit.
Who knew chess could be so thrilling? Netflix's limited series The Queen's Gambit has been captivating even viewers who don't know a rook from a bishop since its debut last month, thanks to its addictive story line, impeccable design, and a powerhouse performance from Anya Taylor-Joy. The actress stars as Beth, a young orphan who discovers a prodigious skill for chess and begins to work her way up through the male-dominated world of competitive play.
Though self-contained by nature, The Queen's Gambit may still leave you with some lingering questions after you've binged it. But worry not; EW is here to help. Read on for our answers to your burning questions about the series.
Is The Queen's Gambit based on a true story?
Not exactly; the series is based on a fictional novel by Walter Tevis, first published in 1983. But The Queen's Gambit takes place against the historical backdrop of the Cold War during the 1950s and '60s, depicting the very real tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union at this time. And as in the show, the USSR dominated the top ranks of competitive chess during this period, taking the gold medal in every international Chess Olympiad between 1952 and 1974.
Also, while Beth is not explicitly based on a real person, chess expert Dylan Loeb McClain pointed out in The New York Times that she bears more than a passing resemblance to legendary chess prodigy Bobby Fischer. There are numerous parallels, down to their shared aggressive style of gameplay; as McClain notes, "when playing white and facing the Sicilian Defense, they both play the same system: the Fischer-Sozin Attack." And, like Beth, Fischer was crowned world champion after defeating the defending Russian grandmaster in the midst of the Cold War.
How accurate is The Queen’s Gambit's depiction of competitive chess?
Extremely. The creative team strove for authenticity in depicting chess, and master players Bruce Pandolfini and Garry Kasparov designed all the games to ensure every move would be accurate. "You can freeze frame anything, and it's a real chess setup," writer-director Scott Frank told EW. "There's even a whole sequence where you never see the board, but they're still actually moving the pieces where they're supposed to. The actors always knew exactly where every piece was supposed to go." Pandolfini also worked with the actors to teach them how to hold and move the pieces like experienced players.
The depiction of tournaments is very true to life as well, from the nitty-gritty details to the general atmosphere. The chess clocks, the recording of moves, the procedure for adjourning a game (writing down and sealing the next move) — all are in accordance with real chess competitions. Citing the scene depicting the 1967 U.S. Chess Championship taking place in a small auditorium, McClain wrote in the Times, "I can attest to the scene’s almost painful authenticity. Many tournaments of that era were played in odd and sometimes dingy locations. Even the U.S. championship was not immune; the 1964-65 competition was not even held."
McClain does point out a few inaccuracies; players are forbidden from speaking during games in actual tournaments, for instance. However, as Kasparov told the Times, the show's depiction of competitive chess is "as close as one can have it" on screen.
What are the green pills Beth takes?
Throughout The Queen's Gambit, Beth struggles with addiction to the green pills first given to her at the orphanage where she discovers chess. The orphanage touts them as "vitamins," but they're eventually revealed to be a tranquilizer called "xanzolam," which doesn't actually exist. However, the pills seem to be based on chlordiazepoxide, also known as Librium, a forerunner of Valium introduced in 1960. (Indeed, the bottle of pills Beth procures in Mexico later in the series is labeled as such.) Librium is a sedative, often packaged in green capsules like those seen in the show, that was widely prescribed to women in the early 1960s to help treat anxiety.
But did orphanages really give kids drugs like that? Unfortunately, yes: Many who grew up in Canadian orphanages in the 1950s have said they were given behavior-altering drugs as children. A 2018 BuzzFeed News story also reported on widespread historical abuses in U.S. and Canadian orphanages, including the use of intravenous sedatives. It's worth nothing, however, that Tevis drew inspiration for Beth's addiction not from history, but his own life.
"When I was young, I was diagnosed as having a rheumatic heart and given heavy drug doses in a hospital," the author told The New York Times in 1983. "That's where Beth's drug dependency comes from in the novel. Writing about her was purgative. There was some pain — I did a lot of dreaming while writing that part of the story."
What do I know that actor from?
The Queen's Gambit features several familiar faces who may not be household names. Allow us to refresh your memory a bit.
Anya Taylor-Joy (Beth)
Taylor-Joy has been on the rise since her breakthrough role in A24's 2015 horror film The Witch. She went on to star in M. Night Shyamalan's Split and its sequel Glass, as well as a smattering of acclaimed indie films including Thoroughbreds and this year's Emma. She's also appeared in The New Mutants (as Magik) and another Netflix series, Peaky Blinders. She's not slowing down, either; Taylor-Joy's upcoming projects include Edgar Wright's highly anticipated Last Night in Soho, a reunion with The Witch director Robert Eggers for his "Viking revenge saga" The Northman, and stepping into the role of Furiosa in George Miller's forthcoming Mad Max prequel.
Thomas Brodie-Sangster (Benny Watts)
You probably know Brodie-Sangster as "the kid from Love Actually" — at age 13, he played Liam Neeson's adorable stepson in the 2003 Christmas favorite — but his credits also include Game of Thrones (as Bran Stark's companion Jojen Reed), The Maze Runner trilogy, and Netflix's miniseries Godless, also created by Frank.
Marielle Heller (Alma)
You might know Marielle Heller more for her work behind the camera than in front of it; she directed Oscar contenders Can You Ever Forgive Me? and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But she also has a handful of acting credits, including MacGruber, Popstar, and Frank's A Walk Among the Tombstones.
Harry Melling (Harry Beltik)
Harry Melling is all but unrecognizable for his most famous role now: The British actor played Harry Potter's spoiled cousin Dudley in the iconic film series. Since then, he's moved into more nuanced character roles, popping up in The Lost City of Z, HBO's His Dark Materials, and the Coen brothers' Western anthology film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. And this year alone, he also appeared in Netflix's The Old Guard and The Devil All the Time, in roles very different from the warm-hearted Beltik. “I always enjoy playing roles that have an element of transformation to them. I enjoy the challenge of that,” Melling told EW. “Changing up genre and characters, and trying to transform yourself into qualities of yourself that aren't necessarily on display, I always knew were things I wanted to play with.”
Moses Ingram (Jolene)
Believe it or not, her Queen's Gambit role as Beth's witty childhood friend Jolene marks Moses Ingram's screen debut. You'll soon be seeing more of her, though; she's set to reunite with Melling in Joel Coen's upcoming Macbeth adaptation, in which Ingram will play Lady Macduff.