Four ideas on mastery from ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

NOVEMBER 9 — Spoiler alert: This article contains spoilers to the mini-series.

The Queen’s Gambit, released by Netflix near the end of October, is the story of an orphan girl in the 60s who is a chess prodigy. 

Beth Harmon is played by Anya Taylor-Joy whom I found intriguing in M. Night Shmayalan’s Split and whose character I hated in Peaky Blinders (which only shows what a good actress she is!). 

In this show, she personifies both beauty, opacity, “weirdness” and genius all at the same time; it is like Alice in Wonderland meets Catwoman meets Judit Polgár who is generally considered one of the strongest female chess players of all time.

I look forward to seeing her again in The New Mutants where she’ll have powers of a different kind.

Anyway, what follows are four musings on the topic of mastery (and not just chess mastery!) by drawing on themes and scenes from the show. 

Apart from being enjoyable entertainment, I think this queen of a mini-series also reminds us of some key principles involved in being damn good at anything.

Here goes:

1. Mastery needs (true) freedom

In a sense, The Queen’s Gambit was all about freedom. Harmon sought to free herself from the orphanage’s rules, from recommended prescription dosages, from class times, from gender stereotypes, from alcohol, from insecurities, even from bad fashion.

While this may upset conservatives who believe in strong institutionalism, there is no doubt that Harmon exhibits the kind of strength of character and independence which many young people today sorely need.

With reference to her time in the orphanage, I can think of nothing more soul-destroying than children being forced into a hated routine day in and day out. 

Strangely and sadly, I do not recall a single scene in which the orphan kids were having fun outdoors. Maybe director Scott Frank was trying to say something without saying anything?

As for those “tranquilizer” pills Harmon was addicted to, I’m sure Frank wasn’t signalling the effectiveness of pills in playing chess. 

My guess is — and I’m no film theorist okay? — he’s showing how often the very thing giving you strength can be the same thing which enslaves you.

You can see such a “curse” in the on-going identity politics in Malaysia, not least in the racial and religious rhetoric still being used. 

It’s like our country’s leaders are never seen to prefer to excel in the domains of persuasion other than such stale fear-mongering. Some even seem addicted to invoking the spectre of May 13.

And in our national education system, thousands of students leave secondary school with essentially only one “thinking skill”: Memorisation (surprise, surprise).

Ultimately, Harmon found freedom is doing what she loves. Why this is so hard to accomplish for so many of us is something we have to keep asking, I guess.

2. Mastery requires study and time

The Queen’s Gambit reminded me of why Malaysia’s movement control order (MCO) in March sounded so familiar. 

I couldn’t place it back then but it’s the initials to one of Harmon’s favourite books, Modern Chess Openings. I remember our coach in SEA Park Secondary School (way back in the 90s) gave us a copy each of that book plus another one, the Batsford’s Modern Chess Openings i.e. BMCO.

I can still recall spending hours and hours playing out lines and variations in the hope of “spotting” certain moves my opponent may not. 

This is probably a good time to give high praise to that amazing CGI chessboard on the ceiling that Harmon kept “logging on” to from her bed. 

What she was doing was more or less what every budding chess player does when playing through sequences, trying to resolve a positional deadlock, looking for that magic move, and so on.

Ultimately, the strenuous study of chess is one of those things in which not even fiction can do away with: Great players inevitably end up studying more and more. 

Chess mastery, like every other endeavour bar none, grows with intentional training. Talent alone is never enough.

You can play chess for years, but if you don’t study the game, you never substantially improve.

The above may sound like a stale point but — especially in the context of last week’s US elections — it’s amazing how many people claim to be experts in politics while doing nothing more than read and share Facebook article links. 

And yet millions of people are up in arms over political issues from another country? Likewise, in the realm of religion and spirituality, it’s amusing to hear folks who couldn’t tell the difference between pantheism and pan pizzas proudly making theological pronouncements on the religious beliefs of others.

If anything, a show like The Queen’s Gambit should humble us to speak more tentatively about matters we haven’t spent huge amounts of time analysing and learning beyond a casual level. 

For while Beth Harmon (unrealistically) managed to beat all the members of a high school’s chess team sans serious studying, there is simply no way she could have progressed far in her first official tournament without storing north of dozens of openings in her head (but please be wary of memorisation as cognitive software, as per point #1 above).


3. Mastery doesn’t always ‘transfer’ well 

In the opening episodes, we see Harmon taking on the entire chess team of a high school and winning easily. I’m going to take a small risk here by suggesting that that feat was largely unrealistic.

Not being sexist at all. Even Magnus Carlsen as a pre-teen would have trouble defeating 12 amateur to good players if he had just learnt how to play chess from a janitor one or two years ago, and doing so by skipping classes (in an orphanage). 

Instead, folks like Carlsen and Bobby Fischer spent hours and hours in their homes (Fisher learning by himself and Carlsen being taught by his dad) before becoming the child prodigies who thrashed 20-plus people at a time.

Presumably, the point of that simultaneous chess scene was to emphasise how gifted and strong a player Harmon was.

Still, one of the reasons why grandmasters can beat over 40 or 50 players at a time is that breath-taking capability which only humans (among living creatures) seem to possess: Immediate and actionable pattern-recognition. 

At a glance, a good player can make a reasonably helpful or even strong move not because he has analysed every potential line but because he’s seen the same chess-board configurations so many times.

While very helpful for winning chess games, I must add this ability to excel in limited repeated processes isn’t always beneficial in the real world. 

The rules of chess are fixed, those of life aren’t. Chess pieces can only move in specific ways, those of one’s family members, lovers or business partners are practically infinite.

Domain-dependency is a very real problem among chess players; it also shows up in much of formal education. We tend to believe that a student who gets an A in Science and Maths will naturally become good at roles and skills outside of school.

Not true at all.

Could this be why, as the show progresses, you can see Harmon making very bad mistakes with regard to alcoholism, sex and, of course, her finances? 

She couldn’t control her addiction at a major tournament and ended up losing. Her two or three sexual experiences were entirely trivial, with zero intimacy and personal fulfilment, and less than zero sense of responsibility (I mean, imagine if she had gotten herself pregnant, not least at a time before Roe vs Wade?). 

Finally, her lack of prudence with money got her into serious trouble. Somehow a person who can master the Najdorf and Levenfish variations of the Sicillian Defence — worthwhile feats of analytical skill, especially in the international chess scene — could NOT notice how spending X amount of money could lead to Y levels of deficits in Z number of weeks.

Never equate excellence in a limited domain with mastery in alternative domains. Go for breadth and range. Learn up whatever you can and avoid an early “lock-in” of skills.

4. Mastery and Friends

I loved the finale. Not only did it stamp Harmon’s dominance in the world of chess, it also showed the importance of friendship in doing so. 

Her American friends calling her in Moscow all the way from New York to help during the adjournment of her game with Russian champion Borkov was unpredictable and delightful.

Finally, this all-sufficient know-it-all woman finds out the true value of friendship which isn’t restricted to winning tournaments. There are people who care for her, people who love her and look out for her, yet she’s taken these same folks for granted. Harmon finds out how much her friends mean to her and that was a wonderful sight.

Her “repentance” in this regard, and her final discarding of her alcoholism and pills served as good closure to a show about someone fighting her personal demons and doing so largely alone. 

Winning the world’s biggest tournament in the end felt only natural, the way a marriage is simply the natural endgame of a loving relationship.

In such a tumultuous year with a pandemic, a desperate economy, wild politics, a crazy election on the other side of the world, etc. it helps to remember that our friendships are, in the end, almost the only thing we have.

Other people matter to us, and we matter to them. When we affirm and celebrate this on a regular basis, why, victories shouldn’t matter anymore — even though they’re likely to be just around the corner.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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