Chess Mistakes In 'The Queen's Gambit'
What mistakes did you spot?

Chess Mistakes In 'The Queen's Gambit'

SamCopeland
NM SamCopeland
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"The Queen's Gambit" is an INCREDIBLE new show on Netflix. It has received rave reviews from almost everyone and has been #1 on Netflix in more than two dozen different countries. The show tells the story of a young chess prodigy, Beth Harmon. By the end of the show, Beth, impeccably portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy, is a young woman ascending the highest heights of chess.

The show has incredible writing and dialogue, production value and costuming, and—most of all—great performances. Additionally, the show GETS CHESS RIGHT. The mannerisms, terminology, and atmosphere of chess are nearly perfectly captured. This is not just fan service for chess players. It makes for more immersive and compelling storytelling.

However, across the course of the seven hours of the show, there are few chess errors. In this blog, we are going to break down those errors.

The Queen's Gambit

In general, the show does a great job accurately referencing chess openings and other chess terminology, and the chess terminology does a great job of not being pointless and showy. Instead it supplements the story by helping to involve the viewer in the niche world of chess.

This is a rare exception where the terminology is incorrect and stands out. The Queen's Gambit is 1.d4 d5 and 2.c4, OR in the descriptive notation of the show, 1.P-Q4 P-Q4 2.P-QB4. In the video, one can see that only the first move, 1.d4 has been played. The "gambit" in The Queen's Gambit—the sacrifice of the bishop's pawn for more activity and central control—has not yet been played. This is a nitpicky point, BUT the show is called "The Queen's Gambit" so it would have been good to get this detail right.

"Now That My Rating's Up To 1800..."

At this point in the show, Beth is the Kentucky State Champion and got there with a perfect score against 1700 and 1800 players and a master (2200+). She also beat a "grandmaster in Pittsburgh." She's clearly stronger than 1800, AND her rating would reflect it. She would actually start with a crazy-high provisional rating in the 2600s after her initial games. Even if she lost some games we don't see after that, I think her rating at this point should conservatively be somewhere around 2300-2400+.

Adjournment

Adjournments are from before my time. The last adjournments in the World Championship were played in 1996. However, they are absolutely accurate to the time period, and were an important part of the game. There are two adjournments in the show, and in both cases, Beth's opponents decide to adjourn the game, and then the arbiter brings an envelope and a move is sealed. It WAS possible to decide to adjourn the game and forfeit your remaining time in the time control, but in practice, it would almost always be the arbiter who intervened at the end of the time control to inform the players it was time to adjourn.

However, if Beth's opponents did decide to adjourn on the spot and forfeit their remaining time, they would have to seal the move and not her, so the fact that she seals the next move is inaccurate.

Speed Chess, Skittles, Blitz Chess, Bughouse

Speed chess and blitz chess are close to synonyms. Speed chess is a *little* broader than blitz chess, I guess? In modern chess, most would say that rapid chess is games with 30 minutes per side down to 10 minutes per side. Blitz chess is 10 minutes per side down to three minutes per side, and bullet chess is less than three minutes per side.

ALL of those can be considered speed chess, but most speed chess is likely to be blitz chess so it's a bit odd to distinguish the two here. Also, skittles refers to friendly games (i.e. not rated, and not part of a tournament). That is USUALLY blitz chess again, so in context, most chess players would think these are synonyms in context, and the sentence sounds off.

Bughouse is different and refers to a "doubles" version of chess in which captured pieces are given to a teammate, and they can be placed back in play on unoccupied squares.

Later there's a blitz chess simul that is one of my favorite scenes in the show, but I think that it's not realistic. I doubt that any player in history could play three strong players, two of them grandmasters, at once in blitz chess, but I would certainly love to see Magnus Carlsen or Hikaru Nakamura prove me wrong...

The Great Nona Gaprindashvili

This is probably the one error in the show that truly does trouble me. Nona Gaprindashvili is the first female grandmaster in history, and she absolutely played (and crushed) men. It's true that she was never able to compete evenly at the very highest level of chess as Beth is shown to be doing here, but she's a great and inspirational player. In fact, here she is three years ago playing crushing chess well into her 70s.

People often ask why chess has separate competitions for men and women since both genders can compete equally, unlike in physical sports like basketball and swimming. It's important to note that there is no tournament that female players are excluded from. "The Queen's Gambit" does accurately depict that there are competitions available exclusively to female players (The US Women's Championship, The Women's World Championship), but any woman can compete in any open tournament and championship, and you see in the show that Beth does compete and dominate at the highest levels of chess, and real-life women like Nona have as well.

Something that's probably not fully depicted is the degree of sexism that Beth would likely have experienced at the highest level of chess, especially at the time. When Vera Menchik, the first female world champion, played in a super-tournament in 1929, the Viennese master Becker said that those defeated by her should be placed into a "Menchik Club." He lost the game and became the first member.

At the same time that Beth Harmon is ascending the chess heights in the show, Bobby Fischer in a 1963 Canadian Broadcast Corporation interview said of women: "They're terrible chess players... I guess they're just not so smart... I don't think they should mess into intellectual affairs, they should keep strictly to the home."

Obviously, these sentences are horrible. I would say that Bobby Fischer almost certainly had undiagnosed and untreated mental illness and some of the horrible things that he said were probably related to that. He also later said complimentary things about Menchik AND Gaprindshvili herself. There is however a karmic justice in the fact Bobby Fischer's record as the youngest grandmaster of all time was surpassed 34 years later by a woman, Judit Polgar, inarguably the greatest female player of all time, and one of the greatest players of all time by any measure. Fischer also later lived with the Polgars and trained with them, and Judit has spoken positively of that time.

The Analysis Team

It's very "Hollywood" to have all of these players assembled together in NYC for the dramatic finale, but setting aside my suspension of disbelief regarding them all being gathered in NY, some of these players are just going to get in the way. Adjournment analysis is rigorous and intensive, and some of these players aren't contributing. Anything that the twins contribute would almost certainly have errors, and if correct, it could be seen instantly by Benny Watts. It IS accurate that players in super-tournaments would have the support of seconds to help with preparing their openings and analyzing the adjourned positions. The Soviet players had quite large teams of helpers for the biggest events like the world championship and basically all strong players were expected to contribute to defeat players like Bobby Fischer.

Hugging And Tipping The King?

Many have commented that the show overdoes "tipping" the king as a means of resigning. This is a form of resignation, but it's fairly rare. Much more common is simply offering a handshake and saying, "I resign." Among strong players, there's a good chance that the player won't even say they resign, the proffered handshake is enough of an indication. Both players will know the game is over. The resignation is a formality. The show does depict that well I think. Some chess drama makes checkmate or resignation "surprising." That's rarely the case, and it's much more accurate to show the end as "The Queen's Gambit" does. The conclusion to hard, trying psychological battle that is primarily about acceptance.

Here Borgov offers a handshake AND his king. It's dramatic and unusual, but possible I guess? The hug stands out to me though. I guess it's not illegal to hug your opponent after the game, but I've never seen it happen, and I think it would be inappropriate.

There are a few other chess errors that sharp-eyed viewers have spotted. These are the ones I've seen mentioned.

  • In Beth's first game against Benny Watts, she plays an Open Sicilian, but in the endgame, she has a pawn on d2 which was moved on the third move.
  • Later in the show, a game is shown on the board and the demo board, and the positions don't match. One has a bishop on d3; the other a queen.
  • There are no draws depicted in the show. Surely, Beth must draw on occasion

I hope you've enjoyed this show as much as I do! Normally, I would never bother to nitpick a chess show like this because I don't EXPECT them to get that much right or (frankly) to enjoy the show this much. This show is great, and it gets far, far more right than wrong about chess. What are your thoughts on the show? Please share them in the comments!