Thomas Griffin 12/18/20
Beth Harmon has become a household name with the blockbuster Netflix series entitled “Queen’s Gambit.” The series is actually based on the true story of a boy prodigy of chess named Bobby Fischer who gained fame in the 1960s. The fictional nature of the series does not impede the countless truths which flow from its scenes of tragedy, trials, redemption and relationship. This renown series is not so much about chess; it is a story of the human need for relationship and the friction which arises in so many hearts and families because of addiction.
Beth is orphaned at a young age after her mother appears to commit suicide by driving her car into oncoming traffic on a bridge. Her father is never spoken of and one flashback alludes to the fact that her father abandoned her and her mother. Each episode begins with a similar flashback of Beth with her mom which is often heartbreaking and gut wrenching. Their love and broken relationship is the bedrock for Beth’s future flaws and poor self-image which morph into cries for her desire to be connected with her mother or anyone for that matter. The entire message of her existence is that she doesn’t know love, that she is all alone because of it.
Harmon is placed in an all-girl orphanage after her mother’s death which highlights the challenges and depression found in these “homes” around the globe. The girls are always nervous that no one will choose them for their family, and as Beth and her friend Cleo grow older the likelihood that a family chooses them inevitably diminishes. “Families want younger girls,” Cleo explains to Beth in one scene. “We’ll be stuck here, just you and me.”
Throughout the period of time that this haunts Beth she stumbles upon the janitor, Mr. Shaibel, playing chess in the basement. Harmon is struck by the board and the pieces as well as the intense focus of the janitor as he studies the game. She is afraid to approach him at first and returns to her class. The coming days involve several more interactions with Shaibel until she works up the courage to ask him to teach her how to play. Beth understands the movement of the pieces as if she was learning to walk again: a friendship and prodigy is born.
At night Beth dreams of chess, but she also is reliant upon a certain pill given to all of the children each day at the orphanage. Viewers later learn this is some form of hallucinogenic/pain killer which provides the children to have numbed senses and become more obligatory. At first, Beth feels better when she does not take them but the high she received when consuming them at night allows her to play chess in her head and master the game. She becomes an addict from early adolescence.
Shaibel knows he has an amazing mind in front of him and arranges for Harmon to play the entire local chess team, at the same time. Beth crushes the competition and solidifies, in the janitor’s mind, that she will become one of the greats. As a teenager, a husband and wife come to the orphanage and decide to adopt Beth. Cleo pretends to be fine, but she is destroyed by the loss of her best friend. Beth cannot believe that she has her own room and freedom in her new home. However, she soon realizes that the marriage between her stepfather and stepmother is heavily fractured. Her stepdad abandons them and Beth begins playing chess for money in competitions throughout her state of Kentucky. In their travels, Beth sees that her mom, Alma, is also addicted to alcohol and the same pills she craves.
This true mother-daughter bond ends when Alma dies in her sleep at a hotel in Mexico where Beth is competing. Harmon’s drive to become master of chess and world champion increases but she travels through a roller coaster ride of binging trials and sober phases. Only with the help of several chess friends and ultimately, Cleo, will she finally be able to quell her addiction and choose a life of full awareness to her surroundings and relationships over the fleeting high she receives.
Conquering her addiction and realizing she does not need drink and pills to make her feel worthy is the true testament of this story. Her true friends stepped into her life, called out what was obviously wrong, and aided her in focusing on overcoming what was unhealthy and destructive to her life.
The flight of her father and then stepfather, the death of her mother and then stepmother, and the lack of love shown to her in the orphanage and by her worldly fame was triumphed through the fortuitous and virtuous actions of true friendships. Beth became world champion and viewed her true worth as something which no one could take away from her.
The Queen’s Gambit is her famous strategy in chess, but this series ought to gain fame because of its strategy in calling out addiction and its focus on the fact that the high’s of drugs and alcohol can never replace authentic awareness to the present moment, and those people who travel with us along the journey.
If God is a relationship of perfect communion (a Trinity), then we are also called to relationship. When we choose drinks or drugs over relationships it always leads to being more lonely and less fulfilled. Let us be fully aware of those around us and the One who constantly surrounds us with his love. Only then we will know what life is about and how to receive true happiness – we must be in relationship with God and others.
Thomas Griffin teaches in the religion department at a Catholic high school on Long Island and lives with his wife and son. He received a master’s degree in theology and is currently a master’s candidate in philosophy. He writes for several Catholic media outlets.
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