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Is She or Isn’t She . . . Jewish?: ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

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Vincent Brook reviews new Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit.

SPOILER ALERT: The following review contains major reveals!

We all know about Bobby Fischer, the paranoid, self-hating Jewish chess wiz featured in two American movies (Meeting Bobby Fischer, 1993; Pawn Sacrifice, 2015). Fischer became U.S. champion at fourteen and, marred by his antisemitic rantings, defeated the Jewish-descended Soviet world champ, Boris Spassky, in a Cold War-hyped match in 1972. It’s also no secret that Jews in general, given their 2 percent of the U.S. population and 0.2 percent of the world’s—as with their preeminence in the entertainment industries and among Nobel Prize-winning scientists—have been disproportionately represented among the planet’s top chess players. Eight of the fifteen modern world champions have been Jewish, and about half of the highest-ranked players going back to the 19th century, according to a study by Arpad Elo, were Jewish or of Jewish descent. Even tiny Israel, containing less than half the world’s Jews, came in second and third in the last two chess Olympiads.

Moses Ingram as Jolene and Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in episode 102 of the The Queen’s Gambit. Photo: Courtesy of Netflix © 2020

Cut to the 2020 Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit, an exquisitely crafted miniseries adapted by the Jewish Scott Frank, who also directed, from the 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Tevis. Set in the late 1950s and 1960s, the series follows a fictional American female chess prodigy, Beth Harmon (a superb Anya Taylor-Joy), who at nine years old wipes the floor with an entire high school chess club. Though not quite a female Bobby Fischer, the parallels with the real-life wunderkind are hard to miss, nor did they go unnoticed when the book was published.

Photo: Phil Bray/Netflix

Orphaned at a young age after a car crash that she survives but kills her troubled mother, Beth, though not as mentally disturbed as Fischer or her mother, does suffer from depression and eventual drug and alcohol addiction—which, as with Fischer’s mental illness, contributes to her idiosyncratic playing style. The closest analogy with Fischer is her becoming a pawn in the Cold War. This relates literally to Fischer’s 1993 film title, Pawn Sacrifice, which like The Queen’s Gambit, refers to a stratagem in which a piece is intentionally sacrificed to gain an ultimate advantage, and metaphorically to Fischer’s and Harmon’s becoming reluctant pawns in the USA/USSR’s geopolitical game of one-upmanship.

Marcin Dorocinski and Anya Taylor-Joy play chess masters from opposite worlds in “The Queen’s Gambit”: he a buttoned-up Soviet man, she a glamorous and troubled American woman. Photo: Phil Bray/Netflix

While it’s not specified whether Beth’s mother or abandoning father were Jewish, her somewhat exotic, vaguely ethnic, possibly Sephardic looks (Taylor-Joy is of British-Spanish-Argentinean descent) hint at the prospect. And of course Jewish male chess players abound, coded as such by looks and name—Beltik, Weiss, Wexler—not to mention the Soviet players, several of whom, like Spassky, would likely be of Jewish descent. The most inventive example, and a rare moment of comic relief, is the aging former Soviet champ with bushy white hair and beard who could pass as the ghost of Karl Marx.

Photo: Phil Bray/Netflix

Then there’s old Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), the grizzled janitor at the orphanage where Beth was sent after the fatal crash. Beth stumbles upon him one day in the basement, where he hides and plays chess by himself, and where he teaches her the game and gets her started in tournament play. That the Jewish-named Shaibel also serves as a surrogate Zeide for Beth is indicated in their deep feelings for each other and in the grandfatherly pride he takes, once she leaves the orphanage never to see him again, in her subsequent tournament triumphs. Surely the most moving scene in the film, and for me one of the most heart-tugging in recent memory, comes when returning as a grown woman to the orphanage for Shaibel’s funeral, Beth makes a pilgrimage down to the basement where it all started for her. Looking up from the battered table that supported the old man’s chess board, she’s stunned to tears by a makeshift wall of fame he’d created nearby, covered with press clippings of her rise to glory.

Photo: Phil Bray/Netflix

Yet, despite all the Jewishness swirling around her, Beth Harmon herself remains an ethno-religious enigma. Is she or isn’t she Jewish? No clear answer is forthcoming, and I for one am quite content to leave the question in limbo—like Beth’s fate at the end of The Queen’s Gambit. Jumping out of the car taking her to the airport after the world championship in Moscow, much to the chagrin of her U.S. State Department escort, Beth strides confidently along an adjoining pathway leading to a chess park where dozens of men are playing. An instant celebrity in this chess-crazed country simply for her participation in the championship, and as the lone woman to boot, the men are agape at her deigning to grace them with her regal presence. When she asks if she might take a seat across from an old man who can’t help but evoke Mr. Shaibel, her egalitarian gesture is graciously welcomed. And as she prepares her opening move in the final shot of the film, we are left wondering whether Beth herself, not the Soviet champ her government chaperone hoped was planning to defect, might be the defector instead!

Photo: Phil Bray/Netflix

Creator/director Frank has stated that Beth’s ahistorical chess genius was of little concern to him, as he was mainly interested in presenting a sympathetic portrait of a brainy woman for a change. And though this claim overlooks recent high-profile docudramas such as Hidden Figures (2016, about Black female math wizzes at NASA) and Radioactive (2020, about Marie Curie), I’m also, in the end, less interested in adding Beth’s accomplishments to the tribe’s impressive scorecard than in the larger question the film raises: Will she or won’t she sacrifice her newly anointed chess queen status for the greater good? This is the pan-ethnic, areligious, cosmopolitan issue at stake in The Queen’s Gambit, as it is in the fractious state of the world today.

The Queen’s Gambit is currently streaming on Netflix. It is also available as a novel.

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Vincent Brook is a lecturer in media studies at UCLA. He has written or edited 10 books, most dealing with Jewish issues in film and television.
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