Review

After binge watching Netflix’s mini-series QUEEN’S GAMBIT, which I enjoyed tremendously, I listened to a rare interview with the author, Walter Tevis, who also wrote The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man who Fell to Earth.

In the interview, Tevis only makes a passing reference to the main character’s addiction to tranquilizers and her drinking. His primary intention was the exploration of female intelligence through the story of a child chess prodigy. For those interested in the book and TV adaptation’s treatment of addiction, Queen’s Gambit presents a most upbeat and empowering finale.

Personally, I feared the mini-series’ final episode.  In fact, after watching every preceding episode, I delayed watching the ending as I was apprehensive – would this brilliant production end with the same bottomed out stereotypical “sponsor pulls near destroyed pathetic drunk/addict out of a dumpster (real or metaphorical) and drags the poor creature to a 12-Step meeting?” No. Thank God or whatever you deem to be a higher power. In this story, the higher power restoring her is within. 

After all, she is a true genius. She is full capable of outsmarting the greatest strategic minds in the world of chess.  She is 100% capable of making the strategic moves giving her victory over pills and alcohol, despite believing her “gift” of strategic visualization is only available if she pops a pill. She also has firm knowledge that if she drinks and drugs, she will assuredly lose.  Her odds of winning are vastly improved if she simply does not take that first drink or take that first pill.

You don’t have to be a prodigy, idiot savant, or intellectual giant to see the obvious: if she drinks, she is guaranteed to fail. If she doesn’t drink and doesn’t use, she may not be guaranteed to win, but her knowledge, volition and self-protective choices make it possible to emerge victorious.

Chess is about strategy, choices and discerning the proper modes of defense and victory. Chess, the author mentions in his interview, is also a game of avoidance for those not dealing with other real life issues. Excelling at this board game – or the even more complex card came of Bridge – may keep the player from developing in other important life areas, such as sexual intimacy. 

The author, whose career was cut short by cancer the year after the books publication, was contemplating a sequel in which the prodigy character, Beth, is much older and her private life, despite not drinking or drugging, is worse due to living primarily in “chess world” rather than the world of true diverse human interaction.  The sequel would show her becoming a human champion rather than only a chess champion. Tevis did this same exploration in the sequel to The Hustler, The Color of Money.

In an earlier draft of the original story, Beth leaves the world of chess to become an equally successful professional gambler. Thankfully, Tevis discarded that concept despite having been a successful professional gambler and pool player himself, plus having competed in numerous chess tournaments.

When asked to define Queen’s Gambit, and why he used it as the title of the book, Tevis admits he doesn’t really know much about Queen’s Gambit as a chess opening. He wanted a short title for the book that related to chess, and Queen’s Gambit worked.

When the interviewer expressed doubt that this story could become a movie, the author contradicts him and explains why you don’t need to understand chess or drug addiction to understand the movie. In fact, Heath Ledger acquired film rights, Ellen Page was cast as Beth with Ledger directing. Ledger’s death killed the project until Netflix’s recent production starring Anya Taylor-Joy.

So popular is this adaptation, and so empowering to those who wrestle with addiction or compulsive drinking, that viewers have begged for a second season.  That is highly doubtful as the TV series ends exactly where the original novel ends, but Taylor-Joy finds the idea of exploring Beth’s life post active addiction an intriguing concept.

“It hasn’t been talked about because I think the period is a time that we spend with Beth is such an intense period of growth,” she told POPSUGAR. “You see the sapling become the tree, if that makes sense, and the tree can definitely grow but that period of growth is complete. I certainly wouldn’t say no, it’s just never really been spoken about before.”

“I hope she continues to be happy with herself,” she said. “I think we finally leave Beth feeling a semblance of contentment, which is something that she has been running towards this entire show believed truly that she wasn’t going to attain it and that she wasn’t worthy of it, so I hope that that part can continue.” 

Freed from the anchor of addiction that dragged her down despite her perception of tranquilizers uplifting her abilities, Beth soars in the atmosphere of professional achievement and, as with anyone who has out strategized addiction, while the tests and trials seemed fire and vengeance, they were love and mercy because they revealed the reality of the situation and the clear path to safety and progress.

by Burl Barer

(Barer is an Edgar Award winner and New York Times Best Selling author. He is also on the Advisory Board of Writers in Treatment)


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