Checkmate against female discrimination in Queen’s Gambit

By: Berta Carricarte Melgarez

Queen's Gambit
Queen's Gambit

It’s the 1960s and Elizabeth Harmon, an orphan from Kentucky, is running for the local chess championship. He has previously had to overcome a suicidal mother, brilliant Dr. in Mathematics, but emotionally unstable; to the roughness and depersonalization of life in an orphanage; and to cohabitation with a surrogate, alcoholic and narcotics-addicted mother. Elizabeth is a tough girl, who we’ll see empowered throughout the seven episodes of the Netflix miniseries Queen’s Gambit (Scott Frank & Allan Scott, 2020).

Inspired by Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, the new series quickly ranked among the most watched at the end of the year, and has driven a renewed interest in the game of the sixty-four squares, and for the very story of a sport capitalized by men since its mythical origin. The “lady gambit effect” has multiplied online sales of chess boards. And it is to be an increase, above all, of very young people driven towards the practice of a sport that rubs shoulders with art and science with equal power.

The protagonist has been played by Anya Taylor-Joy, whose performance has earned her the Best Actress in a Miniseries Award at the Golden Globe Awards. In this case, the young woman defends with veteran a volcanic character inside, and rather phlegmatic in its projection towards a sometimes very lesttic context. We will never see her shed a tear, or express a complaint, and she also refuses to ask for help or confess a weakness. With diplomatic coldness he accepts as a gift a doll that with perfect parsimony throws into the trash minutes later. Her introverted personality pushes her to abuse narcotics to escape a mediocre life and dive into the board that is her true refuge. Beth, like any other human being, is wrong, fails, falls and gets back on his feet.

This is not the story of a savant, nor of a genius, but of an intelligent girl who found in the game science an incentive to develop her innate abilities and took advantage of it. Learn quickly, devour books on tactics and openings; practices stubbornly. Her appetite for victories does not blind her or make her an arrogant being, but humbly studies her opponents.

Screenwriter and director Scott Frank was advised by International Grandmaster Garry Kasparov and coach Bruce Pandolfini, so that the setting of tournaments, boards and games that appear on screen would show the necessary plausibility, since the series advocates a biopic realism.

The team of art directors and set designers, posed a more convincing than reliable visuality of the sixties, supported by visual effects that are the ultra non plus of the final treatment of the image, in any audiovisual product of our day. The costume design, by the experienced Gabriele Binder, in the figure of the main character establishes a code where she not only mixes epocal references, but finds inspiration in iconic models and actresses such as the French Jean Seberg and the American Edie Sedgwick. The phenomenal trebejista wears dress or saya, provided she presents herself to a match as a challenger, because something that defends the series is Harmon’s natural femininity, very limited in her childhood by the strict rules of the orphanage.

The young woman’s wardrobe is also an expression of her mental states. When confronted in Paris with Russian champion Vasily Borgov, he wears a pale dress, with simple lines, with a bow that seems to be snevering at the neckline, as a symptom of his physical and mood. However, in New York, at the home of her friend Benny Watts, she manages to remain sober and focused on the study and practice of science play; therefore, in the scene in which he defeats his opponents in quick games, he wears tight dark trousers and a cream-colored blouse, with a black trim that divides the piece into two symmetrical halves; Beth is in perfect balance for her next tournament. Her wardrobe is also gaining style and sophistication as she gains confidence, meets her goals and increases her income.

As if that weren’t right, Gambit… it is accompanied by a superb soundtrack that at the musical level was resolved in the appreciable original scores of Carlos Rafael Rivera. It also includes songs by Quincy Jones, The Monkees, Dimitri Shostakovich and Erik Satie.

One aspect noted in the serial is the Cold War, which at the time was projected in the shadow of fragile diplomacy, in international corridors, between KGB and CIA agents, with the same nervous tics and conspiracy syndromes themselves. The topic is presented every time Harmon challenges his toughest rival, Borgov. This fictional character must be inspired by Soviet chess patriarch Mikhail Botvinnik, who, by the way, had beaten José Raúl Capablanca in a simultaneous game session as almost a child.

It is said that it was the priest Ruy López, the Spanish theorist of the sixteenth century, who first used the term gambit, which in Italian means stilt. In its Lady Gambit variant, it refers to an opening where white pieces sacrifice a pawn to gain mobility advantage in the center of the board. You don’t even need to know how to play chess to enjoy everything about tournaments and games in which Beth appears involved in each of the episodes; In addition, the uniqueness of everything that moves in the highly competitive chess environment excites the imagination and invites us to know about the universe of the goddess Caissa.

Therefore, re-remembering what the shepherd checkmate is or the much-lied Sicilian defense, moving pieces on a board, reading and recreating games of ancient and current great masters, and discovering the spectacularity of any of those virtuous and virtuous, is a privilege that is practically available to all, thanks to technology and the internet. Although in essence, for me the most weightable thing about Queen’s Gambit is her fundamental thesis, which the protagonist represents for herself within a historically masculine universe: a woman competing against men to the pinnacle of chess.

Of course there are mixed championships a long time ago, however, women only account for 11% in those tournaments. On the other hand, the highest FIDE categories are disputed by sex, which indicates in the first instance the conditioning of the contests. The chess outlook in general is well controversial in these terms. The discrimination faced by women extends to the narratives of the history of chess, where their achievements are often unvisitable and their conquests erased.

As a Cuban I am proud that in the serial Capablanca is mentioned as a genius she was, and recommends one of her books as essential literature for the protagonist. The same thing I experienced when reading an excellent chess manual published in Spain, where they are mentioned, in a busy history of this sport, not only capablanca, but the Cuban International Grandmasters Leinier Domínguez and Lázaro Bruzón. However, there is almost no space for female names. The Grand International Teacher Judit Polgar is reluctantly mentioned, and not even any of the great Soviet teachers such as Elizabeth Bykoka and Maia Chiburdanitze.

The first woman to win the scepter as FIDE Grand Master, Nona Gaprindashvili, appears somewhat overshadowed in the serial, while claiming that she “has never faced male opponents”, which is an unnecessary twist of truth. Before being Grand Master she crossed chips with the cream and manly cream of the former USSR, and by the date the miniseries points out, 1968, four years ago she had won the Hastings Challengers.

Precisely one of the failed moments in Lady Gambit, within the episode of the Moscovite tournament, is the scene that presents Beth as a Hollywood diva, acclaimed by a frivolous crowd. It was not necessary to show this exaltation of the Russian public in support of the American girl, as if it were a veneration of the West. Nevertheen, at the time the Soviets, as Benny Watts tells Beth, “are the best chess players in the world, because they play as a team. We Americans are very individualistic.”

Performers Scott Frank and Allan Scott noted other aspects of the controversial 1960s, which was the scene of a strong feminist surge in the United States, and the development of the Civil Rights Movement. However, they did not go into overwhelming descriptions, nor did they go into angry approaches to the social inequalities and racial and sexual prejudices that abounded at the time. The serial stands out for the careful and elegant handling of these topics, which, kept in a second seat, allowed to focus attention on the gradual rise of a woman in the patriarchal reign of the sixty-four squares.

The serial is also not lost creating romanticoid situations. Beth’s love-sexual relationships are a sharpness according to his personality, sensitive but anchored in a goal from which he is rarely distracted. The series leaves ample spaces for reflection for Beth’s treatment of each of the men who go through his life looking for more than just a lady’s gambit. In particular, I celebrate the actress’ equanimity, her mettle not to overreach in moments of euphoria and offer that elegant and mysterious look that defines very well the quiet but indocil temperament of the young woman.

The most important thing in the approach of this miniseries is that it proposes to match the talent and female intelligence to that of men, given that there is a noticeable disparity of opportunities between chess players. These differences are long dated and should be studied as part of patriarchal practices that have perpetuated inequality between females and males in society.

The International Chess Federation (FIDE), which since 1924 has grouped the world’s greatest players, does not admit mixed championships for the highest titles it awards: Grandmaster, International Master, FIDE Master and Candidate Master; although it maintains its equivalence for the female category.

However, much remains to be done in the visibility of the females within chess. A pleasant surprise was to find an article by journalist Alexis Schlachter, which appeared a few years ago on the CUBADEBATE portal under the title “Is there sex discrimination in chess?” where the FIDE regulation is called into question, which does not explain the reasons for sexist division within that sports discipline.

On the contrary, in a text published in 2015 in Cuba, I have stumbled upon the absolute and most scandalous ninguneo I could imagine of the female subject in chess, being scientific research in the middle of the 21st century. Beyond the author’s objective of historian the adog game, and since it includes a sub-heading entitled “Brief History of Chess”, among its more than 280 pages, it could have devoted a quartet to mention in unobjection some names of female chess players. Imagine where other headings in the book of marras are oriented: “Chess as a value-former”; “Chess before the individual of society”; “Need for furtherification”; “Theoretical-methodological foundations of chess masification”, etc. The text is wrecked in ideological-partisan selectivity and therefore discriminatory; sad practice that has blurred more than one passage of national history. Therefore, the Cubans Leinier and Bruzón are left out. But above all, the book is an insurmountable model of lexical sexism maintained from start to finish, where every reference to women has been obstructed with marked impudence.

As can be seen, misogyny is a shadow that looms over the chess world. The spectacular Hungarian Judit Polgar, occupier of eighth place in the world rankings in 2005, comes from a family based on the intellectual development of her and her two older sisters, also outstanding players. In 2002 she beat Gary Kasparov, considered the greatest player of all time, who, referring to her, had expressed years earlier: “She has a fantastic talent for chess, but, after all, she is a woman. No woman can sustain a protracted battle.”

Even so, already withdrawn from competitions, European players such as Sabrina Vega and Angels Cucarella claim that there are currently no shortage of anecdotes and degrading situations that humiliate women because of their status as such; but that, in general, is a fairly healthy world, in which they feel according to the motto of the FIDE: Gens una sumus (We are a family).

However, the World Cup in Iran in 2017 suffered the boycott of those chess players who refused to participate because they did not accept the imposition of the use of the Muslim hijab or veil. More recent is the scandal starring number one among women, China’s Hou Yifan, who was won in five moves to denounce the pareo system that in a mixed tournament only paired it with women. The Chinese woman has ended up claiming she doesn’t want to participate in women’s championships. That same decision held by Judit Polgar from the age of fifteen until her retirement, because for her, exclusive sex events limit the potential and aspirations of the players. The controversy around this issue becomes long and complex.

Better attitude towards women’s participation in the chess universe has shown the several-time world champion Viswanathan Anand, who by referring to Judit Polgar said, “Well, nothing, she’s just one of the competitors, she’s one of us.” setting aside whether or not she is a woman, as Beth Harmon claims by discovering that a magazine “only talks about me being a girl. It shouldn’t be that important. They didn’t publish anything I said. They didn’t say anything about how I play Sicilian defense.”

While in a sympathetic gesture, super-ranked Magnus Calrsen, the true prodigy of today’s chess, posted on his Instagram account a photo montage in which he appears playing against Queen’s Gambit’s heroine, with the following comment: “I think it would be an even shock.” Ω

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