16 things you probably didn’t know about ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

16 things you probably didn’t know about ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

  • November 28, 2020
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Netflix’s “The Queen’s Gambit” premiered on October 23, 2020. Netflix
  • The Netflix series is based on the 1983 novel by the same name, which was written by Walter Tevis.

  • Chess experts overall have praised the show as more believable than other on-screen adaptations of the sport.

  • Although much of the show takes place in Kentucky, it wasn’t shot in the US.

  • Anya Taylor-Joy, Harry Melling, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster all starred in popular films that are also book adaptations. 

  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Since its debut on Netflix, “The Queen’s Gambit” has taken audiences around the world by storm.

From its distinct visual style to its compelling storytelling, there are careful details that capture your interest as handily as Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) captures pieces on the chessboard. 

But even die-hard fans of the show and chess enthusiasts may not know everything about the series.

Read on for 16 behind-the-scenes facts about “The Queen’s Gambit.”

The Netflix series is based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 book by the same name.

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Walter Tevis wrote “The Queen’s Gambit.” Netflix

Born in San Francisco in 1928, Tevis was older by the time he wrote “The Queen’s Gambit,” and as a result, some aspects of the protagonist’s story were drawn directly from his own experiences.

According to David Hill’s reporting for The Ringer, Tevis learned to play chess at 7 years old, but he wasn’t a prodigy and didn’t go on to compete professionally until he was an adult. Although he never ascended to Beth’s level, he still appreciated the intricacies of the game.

Tevis also spent time in a convalescent home as a child due to medical complications, during which time his parents effectively abandoned him. 

Carers at that facility regularly drugged him with phenobarbital three times a day, and Tevis credited this early experience with drugs as a precursor to the alcoholism he developed as an adult — a parallel that is clear in the book.

Tevis has written other novels that have been adapted into movies, but none are about chess.

The Color of Money
“The Color of Money” is about a different sport — pool. Sunset Boulevard/Getty Images

Like Beth, Tevis spent much of his childhood in Lexington, Kentucky. As Hill reported for The Ringer, before Tevis became seriously interested in chess, he was obsessed with pool — he watched hustlers compete for big money and learned to play the game himself. 

He eventually wrote a short story that he later expanded into a novel, which inspired the namesake film, “The Hustler” (1961). 

Other books Tevis later wrote were adapted into movies including “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “The Color of Money,” which was a sequel to “The Hustler.”

 

The show’s creators consulted chess experts, including former world chess champion and grand master Garry Kasparov.

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World chess champion Gary Kasparov in London, United Kingdom. Howard Boylan/Getty Images

Much of the book relied on the advice of noted chess instructor Bruce Pandolfini, so creator Scott Frank brought both Pandolfini and Kasparov on board as consultants. At one point, Kasparov was even invited to play the character Vasily Borgov. 

In a November interview with Slate, Kasparov said that several of Tevis’ game descriptions were a bit “amateurish,” so he made sure they were properly translated to the screen. 

“So I said, ‘I will talk to Bruce, we’ll pick up the key games,” he said. “I will collect some games and I will basically slightly upgrade them — change them to make sure that those are real games that will look exactly as described in the book.'” 

On top of facilitating those adjustments, he also provided invaluable insights into Soviet chess culture that further added to the realism of the series.

Beth’s story is similar to that of a real-life American grand master.

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Anya Taylor-Joy on “The Queen’s Gambit.” Netflix

In the same Slate interview, grand master Kasparov likened Beth’s story to a “female version” of the real-life American grand master Bobby Fischer’s life. 

Fischer died in 2008 at the age of 64. In his obituary, The New York Times described his playing style with words that could also fit Beth’s particular flair: “volatile,” “dramatic,” “difficult,” and “brilliant.”

 

 

The actors played all of the chess games on “The Queen’s Gambit.”

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Thomas Brodie-Sangster and Anya Taylor-Joy on “The Queen’s Gambit.” Netflix

In October, Frank told Entertainment Weekly that although chess consultants created each game you see on screen, the actors memorized and played every match — even the speed rounds.

“You can freeze-frame anything, and it’s a real chess setup,” Frank said. “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.”

Although Lexington, Kentucky is the backdrop for most of “The Queen’s Gambit,” much of the series was shot in Berlin, Germany and Ontario, Canada.

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Beth’s house on “The Queen’s Gambit” is actually in Canada. Netflix

According to Atlas of Wonders, several of the show’s iconic settings were filmed in Berlin, Germany, from the Methuen Home Orphanage to the beautiful French hotel. 

Additionally, the pivotal bridge, the Ohio US Championship campus, and Beth’s house were all locations in Ontario, Canada. 

Actress Taylor-Joy was so excited about playing Beth that she literally ran to meet with the show’s creator to discuss the role.

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Anya Taylor-Joy played Beth Harmon on “The Queen’s Gambit.” Netflix

Taylor-Joy told NPR in 2020 that she’s not a runner, not for any reason. 

Nevertheless, she said that she finished reading “The Queen’s Gambit” book in about an hour and was so thrilled about the role that she ran to meet with Frank to talk about it. 

“It’s still the only job that I’ve ever physically run to,” she said. “I was so excited.” 

Taylor-Joy has appeared in several famous films and on an iconic TV series.

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Anya Taylor-Joy also starred in “Emma.” Universal

The actress gained massive acclaim for her role in the 2015 horror movie “The Witch.” 

She has also appeared in “Split” (2016), “Glass” (2019), and “Emma.” (2020) as well as on the series “Peaky Blinders.”

You may recognize chess champion Harry Beltik from another famous book adaptation.

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Harry Melling on “The Queen’s Gambit.” Netflix

Actor Harry Melling, who plays Harry on “The Queen’s Gambit,” also portrayed Dudley Dursley in five of the eight Harry Potter movies. 

You may also recognize him from his more recent roles on the BBC One series “His Dark Materials” based on the books by Philip Pullman and in the 2020 Netflix films “The Old Guard” and “Devil All the Time.”

The actor who plays Benny Watts also appeared in “Love, Actually” (2003).

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Thomas Brodie-Sangster on “The Queen’s Gambit.” Netflix

Actor Thomas Brodie-Sangster played Newt in the “Maze Runner” film series and Jojen Reed on “Game of Thrones,” both adaptations of books by James Dashner and George R. R. Martin, respectively. 

But way back in 2003, he also played Sam in the instant holiday classic “Love, Actually,” a role he reprised in 2017 for the UK’s charity short called “Red Nose Day Actually.” 

Even though the show was set mainly in the 1960s, women weren’t allowed to compete in the World Chess Championship until the 1980s.

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Beth Harmon was often the only woman or one of few women at chess tournaments on “The Queen’s Gambit.” Netflix

According to reporting by Jennifer Bisset for CNET, Hungarian player Judit Polgár became the youngest chess grand master in history at just 15 years old in 1991. She refused to play in women’s tournaments, instead going up against and beating the best male chess players of her time. 

Before she ascended to those heights, her older sister, Susan Polgár, fought for the right for women to qualify in the World Chess Championship in 1986.

Until that point, the word “men’s” had been in the name of the event, but she worked to replace that title with “open” and base the tournament’s eligibility on skill rather than gender.

The scenes where Beth looks to the ceiling to visualize moves on the chessboard aren’t completely unrealistic.

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Chess players regularly look away to visualize plays in their heads. Netflix

Chess players might not have the handy visual aid of a dedicated special-effects team, but current world champion Magnus Carlsen told Chess24 that professionals looking away from the board to remember moves is “pretty normal.” 

Carlsen became a grand master at 13 years old, was going up against the best players in the world by 16, and gained his first world championship title at 22.

In 2020, he is the current reigning world champion, having defended his title three times. 

Editor Michelle Tesoro was a key part of keeping the chess games interesting to a broad audience.

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The chess games were also a narrative device. Netflix

Although expert chess consultants trained the actors and kept the moves realistic, it was Tesoro’s job to keep telling Beth’s story through the games. 

She told Vulture in October that she kept switching the camera’s focus to varying things during different matches, like the ticking clocks or the player’s hands, to fit the games into the overall arc of Beth’s story. 

During the Paris tournament where Beth is clearly hungover, the pieces move around the board in a way that Tesoro described as being like a “Gumby” effect, a reference to the famous green clay character.

Heath Ledger was working on adapting “The Queen’s Gambit” from the page to the screen over a decade ago.

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Heath Ledger was set to direct and star in his own adaptation of “The Queen’s Gambit.” Chris Weeks/Online USA/Getty Images

The Independent reported that prior to his death in 2008, Ledger had been working on a film adaptation of “The Queen’s Gambit,” which he was planning to direct and star in alongside Ellen Page, who would’ve played Beth. 

Screenwriter Allan Shiach, who writes under the pen name Allan Scott, had been working with Ledger on this adaptation, and he said Ledger resonated with Tevis’ novel and was also an incredibly gifted chess champion who was close to becoming a grand master. 

Costume designer Gabriele Binder deliberately chose Beth’s wardrobe to convey certain things about her character.

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Beth Harmon’s final outfit was symbolic of her groundbreaking win. Netflix

Binder specifically chose to use plenty of checkered patterns throughout the series, which marries Beth’s passions for chess and fashion. She told Vogue UK in November that there are also various homages to designers of the era, such as André Courrèges. 

According to Binder, Beth’s all-white final outfit on the finale unmistakably shows Beth in control as the white queen.

“At the end, Beth wears the white coat with the white pants and cap,” Binder said. “The idea, of course, is to convey that she is now the queen on the chessboard and the chessboard itself is the world.”

As of November 23, 2020, “The Queen’s Gambit” is officially Netflix’s most-watched scripted limited series to date.

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Along with the show’s popularity, interest in chess has also increased. Netflix

According to Deadline, 62 million households had watched the seven-episode series in its entirety. It ranked in Netflix’s top 10 in 92 countries and reached number one in 63. 

Deadline also reported the show seemed to make the game more popular.

They reported a spike in eBay searches for chess sets, a doubled number of Google searches on the topic, and a five-fold increase of players on Chess.com.

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