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The Terminator with a Chess Clock

A creature arrives in America. It appears human but acts so emotionless it hints at an alien origin. Without parents and with a clipped way of speaking, the entity quickly integrates itself into society. With a single-minded focus it sets about its mission: destroy anyone opposing its goal of world domination.

The above paragraph describes two films: The Terminator, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 1984 science fiction classic, and The Queen’s Gambit, a new series on Netflix. Both deal with an icy character who travels into the past to try and prevent things that will happen in the future. In The Terminator, Arnold, a robot called the T-1000, lands in 1980s America from the future to prevent the birth of John Connor, the man who would successfully wage battle on the approaching dystopia of rule by machines. In The Queen’s Gambit, the producers have created a fictitious mid-century America where a robot-like female chess prodigy named Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) annihilates the male opposition. The Queen’s Gambit is a feminist fantasy, with Beth a woman who forces Cold War America to become woke sooner than it is ready. An orphan who often seems more cyborg than human, Beth arrives in Mad Men America to decimate the patriarchy. She’s Arnold with a chess clock instead of a blaster.

Adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, The Queen’s Gambit is directed by Scott Frank and written by Scott Frank and Allan Scott. The story is a bildungsroman as it might be imagined by Betty Friedan, or if Ana Marie Cox was a chess freak and had a time machine. Beth is orphaned after her mother dies in a car crash in the 1950s, and is sent to a Christian orphanage where all the kids are sedated with tranquilizers. Through the school’s janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), Beth learns chess. She is soon obliterating the competition and winning tournaments in her native Kentucky, with her alcoholic adoptive mother Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller) becoming her agent. Told by a character that “the strongest person is someone not afraid to be alone,” Beth has to learn how to make friends, have boyfriends, get drunk, and make mistakes—live life.

Ultimately in the 1970s, as a grown woman, she plays the greatest chess players in the world, the Soviets, whose greatest weapon is the master Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). There is not much time spent on larger geopolitical questions or on the evil of the Soviet system, but this is actually an understandable dramatic choice. The Queen’s Gambit is like a sports movie where the emphasis is on the athlete’s single-minded focus on victory against the closest opponent, and eventually facing the best of the best. In the 1970s the top-tier chess players were Russians, and diverting to broader political themes would make Beth’s story flag and even be unrealistic. Championship athletes tend to be obsessed with strategy, not politics.

When Russian giant Luchenko is mowed down by Beth, he bows and smiles, enjoying his defeat as if he knows, even from the vantage point of a Russian chess master in the 1970s, that he is on the official Right Side of History.

Anya Taylor-Joy is a gifted young actress who is exceptional at conveying dry, self-confident contempt. Trained in ballet, she holds herself with a powerful, haughty posture that is also elegant and sensual. Her putative guides through chess and life are the men she has faced off with, friends and lovers who are defeated former opponents. There’s the sly, arrogant Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), the handsome D.L. Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), and the quiet, insecure Harry Beltik (Harry Melling). Most of them spend their screen time ricocheting off Beth’s preternatural ability and astringent criticism.

The film critic Arthur Taussig once described The Terminator as an example of “animus integration,” i.e., the story of a character extracting male energy in order to defeat foes. In that film, the protagonist Sarah Connor goes from a hapless waitress to a warrior, in part by being stabbed in the thigh by a strong male opponent. In The Queen’s Gambit, the totem of animus is Beth herself, with the men around her absorbing some of her power, which allows them to reach a new level of maturity even as it sends them sprawling. Harry can only handle living with Beth for a couple weeks before he decides not to be “a chess bum” and instead go and study engineering. Beth whips Benny so badly he looks like he’s going to cry at a bar afterward as he downs several beers. When Russian giant Luchenko (Marcus Loges) is mowed down by Beth, he bows and smiles, enjoying his defeat as if he knows, even from the vantage point of a Russian chess master in the 1970s, that he is on the official and liberal Right Side of History.

However, a hero who is indestructible is a boring hero. It’s true that Beth loses a match or two on her way to the top, and struggles with addiction, but these things are never really treated as serious obstacles. For most of the series, drugs and booze allow Beth to visualize a chess game, the pieces gracefully moving in her hallucinations, presenting different situations and battle plans. Then, as she’s about to face her hardest opponent, Beth just decides she doesn’t need a chemical boost anymore. No withdrawal, no tremors, no panic attacks or freak-outs. As critic Lilly Dancyger put it, “The next day, at the final match, we see her do her visualization trick while sober for the first time. Problem solved, addiction beat, just like that. But that’s hardly how it works in real life.”

In other words, The Queen’s Gambit has a Mary Sue problem. A Mary Sue, the dictionary reminds us, is “a type of female character who is depicted as unrealistically lacking in flaws or weaknesses.” Rey, the young female hero of the recent Star Wars movies, is so marvelous at everything she tries that all tension evaporates from the story. Beth Harmon is the Rey of the alternate universe of The Queen’s Gambit. The film reflects this perfection, with immaculate sets, self-assured direction, and a great score by Carlos Rafael Rivera. It looks magnificent. Yet there is an aridity to the series, as well as an inevitability.

In the Star Wars saga, Luke Skywalker himself lost a hand in a bloody battle he loses, something that would never happen to Beth. One recalls that in the classic original Rocky film, the final fight was a draw. Even Rachel Syme in the New Yorker had to pause: “And it is true that there is a tinge of Mary Sue fantasy to Beth, as her boys show up for her like a bevy of tuxedoed dancers escorting Liza Minnelli from the stage. But I found it moving to see Beth, who has spent so many hours and evenings studying the chess moves of dead men in books, discover that she has support among the living.” As if it is an indictment, Syme then compares the great American chess player Bobby Fischer unfavorably to Beth: “Fischer was seen as the great hope of American chess during the Cold War, but he was also often erratic, antisocial, and prone to long disappearances and angry rants about the game.”

In other words, Fischer was fully human, including the flaws that make for sympathetic characters. When Sarah Connor in The Terminator is shown blowing orders and dropping plates as a waitress, we instantly like her, because we’ve all been there before. We want to see how she evolves. Beth Harmon, a fully-formed genius, has no such difficult path. The Queen’s Gambit has been a massive success, with 62 million households streaming the series in its first month. With those kinds of numbers, and with no less than the self-affirmation queen Oprah herself cheerleading for Beth, there will no doubt be a season two. As the Terminator so memorably put it, “I’ll be back.”

Reader Discussion

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on December 18, 2020 at 12:35:06 pm

I agree with the sentiments expressed, mostly, but I loved the ending when she went out in the cold to play chess with old men in the park. The story began and ended with her love of the game. Like a good sports story.

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Martin F Sorensen
on December 18, 2020 at 12:46:22 pm

Original Rocky film ended in a split decision win for Apollo, not a draw. None of Rocky's fights ever ended in a draw, which would defeat the entire purpose of the Rocky character.

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md
on December 18, 2020 at 12:58:23 pm

Arnie played the T-800. The T-1000 was the enemy in the second movie.

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Greg
on December 18, 2020 at 13:04:27 pm

Arnold was a T-800 the “liquid” terminator in T2 was a T-1000

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Robert Petruic
on December 18, 2020 at 13:12:11 pm

In the original Rocky movie Rocky lost the fight. A split decision, not a draw.

He met his goal of finishing the fight and got the girl though.

Otherwise good take.

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Pep
on December 18, 2020 at 13:13:34 pm

The first Balboa vs. Creed fight ended in a split decision with Rocky losing.

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Nunya
on December 18, 2020 at 13:24:19 pm

[SPOILER ALERT] If "The Queen's Gambit" was intended to be a feminist fantasy, it's strange that Beth's victory at the end comes about as a result of last-minute help she receives from all of her male friends. (For some reason, the term "white knight" springs to mind.)

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Scrape
on December 18, 2020 at 14:08:55 pm

It's a wokester's fantasy as much as a feminist's. Men can become woke, men can be feminists of varying stripes as well.

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Michael Bond
on December 19, 2020 at 07:24:44 am

Not chess players. Especially high rated chess players. She only got ‘help’ from those cads because she Somehow went from Ugly duckling to super hot chick and they were horny dudes. Although, the less cynical take I had that relates more to real chess rather than fantasy is that they helped her as Americans (and friends) since she, unlike the Russians, and even unlike Bobby had no team, or even single second, to assist her as all top gm’s would have when preparing for a match.

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Chess freak
on December 23, 2020 at 12:26:08 pm

An interesting and telling comment. Taking it a step further and just a bit into the abstract, as metaphor Rocky illuminates while The Queen's Gambit pretends to be supraluminous - faster and better than light - reflecting the hyperbole and hyper-activity in general of the ideologue in his histrionic and narcissistic mode, his all too typical mode. In fact, The Queen's Gambit is merely pretentious and superficial, silliness and absurdist fantasy. Yet, it attracts.

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Michael Bond
on December 23, 2020 at 17:36:44 pm

Oops, my comment here was intended to be a reply to CHESSY's comment below.

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Michael Bond
on December 18, 2020 at 14:39:34 pm

Btw, that's a primary purpose of the show, to instruct you that you - you too!! - can "mature," can become woke. As bildungsroman, Beth's maturation/spiritual journey is intended as a paradigm for others to emulate and submit to, a paradigm for becoming woke. You, you too can walk in the knowing path of the true and the good - a cheapjack gnosticism for one and all!

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Michael Bond
on December 19, 2020 at 07:32:05 am

It’s too bad it wasn’t a realistic ending based on her slip by getting plastered the night before. I totally thought she would have the willpower to resist the peer pressure to social for the night before a big match. That would then at least make some sense that she won. But in no universe does she skip preparation and sleep, party, oversleep and then come out beating her addictions and afflictions and dominate a well rested, and prepared top GM.

She should have lost.

Setting up a rocky like comeback next season.

(Not that rocky lost because the hot French chick enticed him, he just took too many punches and apollo was better. And the Rocky series was more realistic that the queen’s farce. In no universe do drugs and alchohol assist in top level chess.

It’s 100% Empirical fact that drugs, drinking and all nighters are the #1,2 and 3 reasons chess players lose games and tournaments. Women and jobs would round out the top five if they could get and hold either. Just saying

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Chessy
on March 02, 2021 at 02:06:22 am

Not entirely true! Beth's male friends plans only helped her in the first half of the game - but halfway through Borgov completely changed tactics and this was unforeseen by her male friends. Townes even says "shit, he wasn't supposed to do that". Beth has to use her own skills (her chessboard on the ceiling) to defeat him in the end

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lily
on December 18, 2020 at 13:31:49 pm

The fight in Rocky didn't end in a draw. Creed won.

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TomJB
on December 18, 2020 at 13:36:36 pm

“drugs and booze allow Beth to visualize a chess game, the pieces gracefully moving in her hallucinations,”

Maybe. But I doubt it. Many if not most chess masters have a mysterious, innate ability to “see” the chessboard with all the pieces in their positions even when they aren’t looking at it. That’s real, not a hallucination. How else have many masters played blindfold matches involving multiple opponents at the same time? That ability was illustrated in the movie. My opinion? Drugs or alcohol would have hampered that ability not enabled it. I think it detracts from the character to suggest her abilities come from a bottle.

Chess masters also have the ability to “see” combinations a dozen or more moves ahead. That’s not an ability that comes from a bottle, either.

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John Fembup
on December 18, 2020 at 15:11:07 pm

After flooding the airwaves & internet with hundreds of 105 lb women kicking the crap out of 250 lb men, creating female dominance in intellectual pursuits was inevitable for the woke folks.
But it's still just fiction.

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Dan Steele
on December 19, 2020 at 11:21:14 am

I agree about the ridiculous fights where some female defeats Male bodyguards twice her weight. Another thing that is stated incorrectly, besides not knowing how Rocky ended, is that a chess match is a series of games, either a predetermined number of games or predetermined number of wins. A single game is just a game, it's almost never referred to as a match except by non chess players. I hope to enjoy the series soon, especially the reality of the actual tournament chess with Kasparov and Pandolfini being advisors, but I don't see the need to take the Bobby Fischer story & add drugs to alcohol to it. There's a famous quote about Bobby Fischer putting a lie to the combined Grandmasters at the time, 1/3 of whom resided in the Soviet Union, and defeating them and their country where individual is simply regarded as a cipher. There's also an irritating interview with clueless Christiana Amanpour where she keeps reminding Gary he lost to Judith Polgar, who is definitely the strongest woman of all time (& she got that way by not playing in female only tournaments). Gary was actually 5 wins and 2 draws and NO losses against her in real tournament chess. He lost in Rapid chess which is another quick variant like Blitz. As Bobby Fischer used to say, when you play like that it's almost not chess at all. The Russians took that as a sign of Bobby's weakness & invited him to a Blitz tournament where you played each player twice. Bobby decimated them & won the tournament by 4 Points even though they had included 3 of their players who were supposed experts at Blitz chess. The way Bobby Fischer was playing starting with the interzonal in 1970 is otherworldly. Winning 20 games in a row & not in some average tournament, but in the interzonal which determines who will play for the world championship, then defeating the first Russian Challenger 6-0, then defeating the next strongest Western player after him 6-0, and then winning his first game against previous Will Champion Petrosian. Bobby either got overconfident or was getting a cold because he drew the next three games, but after he got well, he won 4 in a row against Petrosian which I doubt has ever happened in Petrosian's entire career!

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Paul
on December 18, 2020 at 16:27:27 pm

Oh my!
What about Browning's "God and the companionship of good books” for the friendless?
The Waste Land (1922) and The Hollow Men (1925) preceded TV (1928), so Eliot did not have it in mind, and had he not preceded it by over 600 years, Dante might have assigned an infernal circle (perhaps the Third) for TV acedia.

But, post-TV's advent, we find this empirically-based advice for embodied souls lost in its thrall:
"When television is good, nothing — not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers — nothing is better.
But when television is bad, nothing is worse. I invite each of you to sit down in front of your own television set when your station goes on the air and stay there, for a day, without a book, without a magazine, without a newspaper, without a profit and loss sheet or a rating book to distract you. Keep your eyes glued to that set until the station signs off. I can assure you that what you will observe is a vast wasteland.
You will see a procession of game shows, formula comedies about totally unbelievable families, blood and thunder, mayhem, violence, sadism, murder, western bad men, western good men, private eyes, gangsters, more violence, and cartoons. And endlessly commercials — many screaming, cajoling, and offending. And most of all, boredom. True, you'll see a few things you will enjoy. But they will be very, very few. And if you think I exaggerate, I only ask you to try it."
-Newton Minow 1961

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paladin
on December 18, 2020 at 21:09:28 pm

Think ‘ASPERGER’ not ‘TERMINATOR’..it explains everything.

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Kara
on December 19, 2020 at 03:28:16 am

A big problem for writing teams nowadays is navigating the *intersectional stack* and the impossibility of doing that successfully, given the contradictory dictates and demands of wokism. That's why so many female leads are written as Mary Sue today - it's what results from the combination of risk aversion and eat-your-peas! 'messaging'.

*I.S. is the hierarchy of contemporary 'identities' ordered by their competing claims to victimization.

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Tyro
on December 19, 2020 at 07:55:37 am

There have been a few articles attempting to explain why all the top chess players are men and why women don’t excel in chess.

They have come up with all the nature and nurture explanations but I don’t think any of them are written by actual chess players.

The main reason probably is that chess players tend to have bad B.O. and generally all around poor hygiene. And women, although just as driven to be as successful as men, Their egos aren’t as big as their male counterparts so they choose less odoriferous pursuits.

Also when they decide to dedicate their lives to worthy causes the causes are usually Actually worthwhile. Like becoming doctors or lawyers or writers or artists or mothers or any other of the multitude of pursuits that either help humanity or are financially or otherwise rewarding commensurate with the amount of time, energy and effort becoming a GM takes.

Most of the articles discussing the divide are really moot anyway.

It’s quite a known fact among chess players that the ability to play chess well has absolutely nothing to do with IQ, other than being a fairly accurate indicator of Actually an Inability to do anything else, including manage ones life or be proficient at most anything else.

I give the current best player a lot of credit for many things as he breaks many molds, but one big one is not having a huge ego and readily admitting that chess is the ONLY thing he does well. He has publicly said that you name it, and he can’t do it. That’s something that makes Magnus Carlson not only maybe the best chess player ever, but also maybe the most well adjusted and decent world champion we’ve ever seen. A true humble world champion chess player with most of his marbles in tact. That’s unusual

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Chesster
on March 02, 2021 at 02:10:26 am

I'm not actually too certain if Beth actually qualifies as a Mary Sue. Mary Sues are supposed to be "unrealistically lacking in flaws or weaknesses". But Beth certainly has a serious alcohol and drug problem that resulted in many major failures and screwups in her life. The time where she was hungover during her match with Borgov and lost horribly in front of everyone. Or the time where Watts embarassed her during his speed chess challenge.

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lily
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