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Series / The Queen's Gambit

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"The one thing we know about Elizabeth Harmon is that she loves to win."
"It was the board I noticed first. It's an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it; I can dominate it. And it's predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame."

The Queen's Gambit is a 2020 Netflix miniseries based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis. It was created by Scott Frank (Logan, Godless) and Allan Scott (also known as the Scottish screenwriter Allan Shiach) and written and directed by Frank. It stars Anya Taylor-Joy as an orphan who becomes a chess prodigy during the 1950s and '60s.

Elizabeth "Beth" Harmon (Taylor-Joy) is orphaned at the age of eight and placed in the Methuen Home for Girls. While residing there, she gets the custodian, Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), to teach her how to play chess and quickly becomes a genius at it; at the same time, the Methuen Home also provides her and the other girls with tranquilizers, which are supposed to make them compliant. Beth becomes addicted to the tranquilizers even as she becomes better and better at chess. As time goes on and she gets adopted by Mrs. Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), she starts entering into chess tournaments and winning money, all the while trying to cope with her addictions and emotional problems.

The show also stars Moses Ingram as Jolene, a fellow orphan; Christiane Seidel as Helen Deardorff, the head of the Methuen Home for Girls; Rebecca Root as Miss Lonsdale; Chloe Pirrie as Alice Harmon, Beth's deceased mother; Harry Melling as Harry, a fellow chess player and briefly Beth's lover; Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Townes, a fellow chess player; Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Benny Watts, a former child prodigy, US chess champion, and fellow competitor; along with Annabeth Kelly and Isla Johnston as five-year-old and nine-year-old Beth, respectively.

Tropes in The Queen's Gambit

  • 555: Beth rides a taxi emblazoned with a phone number beginning "KL5."
  • The '60s: The bulk of the show takes place in the 60s, after Beth becomes a teenager. The decade's fashion and music are shown changing from episode to episode.
  • Adaptational Nice Guy: Almost all of the characters are softer and warmer versions of their book counterparts. In the book, Beth is generally unpleasant to all the people around her, Benny is more distant and his intentions with Beth are more ambiguous, and Harry and Townes don't return for the final act to help Beth.
  • Adults Are Useless: While Alma doesn't understand much about chess, she does support Beth's career, partially because of the monetary prizes but partially because she's trying to be a good mother.
  • All Love Is Unrequited: Harry loves Beth, who loves Townes. Cleo remarks she was "fascinated" by Benny, but says he only loves himself.
  • Alpha Bitch: There's a group of them at the high school Beth goes to. We get to meet one of them after she's left school and she's a lot less bitchy, though is now a housewife with a baby and an implied drinking problem.
  • Amazingly Embarrassing Parents: Alma pulls this on Beth when she graduates high school; not only is she the only person who applauds, she also lets out a loud whistle.
  • Amicable Exes: Although they were never in an official relationship, Harry and Beth lived together for some time and he clearly had genuine feelings for her, to the point where he got his teeth fixed just for Beth. After she snaps at him one too many times for being too "slow" at chess, he finally moves out, though he still checks up on her periodically. Although they have a messy fight in the sixth episode, they make up just in time for the finale. A visibly choked-up Beth even admits that she's missed hearing his voice.
  • Anachronistic Soundtrack:
    • During Beth's drug-and-alcohol binge following her defeat by Borgov in the Paris tournament, she watches a performance of Shocking Blue's "Venus" on TV and dances to it. The scene is set in 1968, but the song wasn't released until 1969, and didn't chart in the U.S. until 1970.
    • On the way to Mr. Shaibel's funeral in 1968, Beth and Jolene listen to Laura Nyro and Labelle's version of "Jimmy Mack". While the Martha Reeves & the Vandellas' orginal had been a hit in 1967, the cover wasn't released until 1971, three years after the scene is set.
  • Answer Cut: The Alpha Bitch that ridiculed Beth at high school invites her to an Apple Pi pledge party after Beth achieves a certain level of fame. After inviting her over the alpha bitch says "Can you make it?" Cut to Beth at home picking out what to wear to the party.
  • Arc Words: "Close your eyes." Beth recalls her mother's words just before the car crash multiple times throughout the series via flashbacks. When she faces off against Borgov again in the finale, she closes her eyes and breathes to calm her anxiety during the match. This allows her to achieve the state of mind necessary to envision the chess board on the ceiling, this time without the help of any drugs whatsoever.
  • Artistic License – History:
    • One reason given for Beth's popularity with the Russians is that Nona Gaprindashvili, the women's chess champion from the Soviet Union, never faced men. In real life, Gaprindashvili did play men regularly in the 1960s, even once taking part in a qualifying tournament for the men's USSR championship. This is even more disappointing since the book, which the show followed very closely for the most part, got this right, stating that although Gaprindashvili herself wasn't at the level of Beth or the other players in the Moscow tournament, she had competed against them before (as she did against a number of top male players in reality).
    • Though the show does indulge in Deliberate Values Dissonance, it's been reported by female chess players that the show's depiction was actually fairly mild compared to what Beth would actually have endured. Attitudes among chess players towards women even now are so toxic that the Defeat Means Friendship reactions she gets would be highly unusual, and there was actually a higher chance she'd deal with angry and threatening players lashing out over losing to a teenage girl. Considering the timeframe the show is set in, Beth wouldn't even have been permitted to attend many of the tournaments she enters, as they were gendered and refused to let women play against men.
  • Artistic License – Sports:
    • We only see Beth play each tournament opponent once, and she never draws with anyone, implying that most chess tournaments have a single-elimination format where rounds are decided by a victory in one game. The only real exception is when Beth is acknowledged to only need a draw to defeat Benny in their tournament. In reality, there are a number of formats for chess tournaments, and most grandmaster games end in draws, because if both players make perfect decisions, a draw is the only possible outcome.
    • In the final match with Borgov he makes what real-life World Champion Magnus Carlsen describes as a huge mistake. When Borgov calls to adjourn the match for the day, Beth has put him in a position (threat of queen capture) where he has only one viable move to play. Adjourning then rather than on his turn before or after the forced move of the queen greatly simplifies Beth's preparation for the next day. Borgov compounds this by playing a relatively poor move in response to Beth's prepared response, when he had all night to work on it. Together, this is a lack of basic game strategy from the best player in the world in a high-stakes match, though it may be intended to show how much she'd rattled him.
  • Awful Wedded Life: Implied with Beth's former classmate, who married and had a daughter right out of high school. While she acts like she's happy, Beth sees the bag with several bottles of alcohol under the carriage. Not to mention that her dialogue seems to convey that she's jealous of Beth's freedom as a chess player.
  • The Big Rotten Apple: Primarily seen in Benny's shoddy New York apartment which is barely comfortable enough for one person. It's also implied that living there is why he always keeps a knife on his person.
  • Bedmate Reveal: In the opening sequence of the first episode, Beth is shown getting out of the bathtub in her hotel room fully-clothed but soaking wet. She hastily gets ready for what is revealed to be a match with Borgov. As she leaves the room, the camera shows someone stirring in the bed with the implication that Beth spent the night with that person. It is not revealed until the sixth episode that the person in bed is Cleo. Although it is implied that they had sex, the fact that Beth wakes up in the bathtub and is fully-clothed suggests otherwise.
  • Book Ends: In the first episode, when Mr. Shaibel starts teaching Beth how to play chess, he always begins with, "Let's play." By the end of the finale, when Beth sits down to play chess in the park with an old Russian man, she says "Let's play," but in Russian.
  • Break the Haughty:
    • Harry, early on the series. What with being the best in the state, he snaps at Beth for talking a little too loudly during his match and even arrives late to theirs because he stopped to get a cup of coffee. When he starts yawning exaggeratedly during their match, an annoyed Beth goes for the kill. Afterwards, Harry is definitely nicer to her, to the point where they even become good friends and briefly have a sexual relationship.
    • Beth, of course. Due to being a Child Prodigy, Beth derides the techniques of those she considers "boring" and refuses to study players whose style doesn't match hers, as well as saying she finds chess problems (situations constructed specifically for players to try and figure a way out of, which would virtually never show up in an actual match) "pointless". As expected, this comes back to bite her in the ass once she starts playing people who literally live for chess, such as the Russians.
  • Call-Back:
    • There are several to Alma. When Beth settles into her suite in Moscow, she whispers, "This will do nicely" – which was what Alma said of their comparatively modest suite on their first road trip.
    • After her losses to Benny in speed chess, Beth wraps herself in Alma's coat for comfort.
    • She also wears it to confront Mr. Wheatley. It goes to show that despite a sometimes awkward relationship, Beth remembers her adoptive mother warmly – and looked to her for comfort.
  • Character-Driven Strategy: Impulsive and emotionally stunted chess prodigy Beth Harmon is noted to have a very aggressive playing style. It usually works out for her if she can intimidate her opponent quickly, but she is also easily frustrated and prone to slip-ups when she goes against players with above-average defensive strategies. Over the course of the series part of her character growth involves learning to pause and think things out, both on the board and in real life.
  • Chekhov's Gun:
    • The giant chessboard that appears whenever Beth looks at the ceiling. After Borgov makes a move that Beth's friends were unable to predict, Beth takes a moment to calm herself before staring up at the ceiling and playing out multiple moves in her head before she finds the one that ultimately seals her victory.
    • One of the openings Shaibel teaches Beth is the Queen's Gambit, which Beth uses against Borgov in their final match.
  • Child Prodigy: Beth is obviously one, but there are others. She plays a Russian child prodigy at a tournament and defeats him, then talks to him about drive-in movies. Borgov was also this, having played his first game at age four, and Benny was eight when he forced a draw against the number two-ranked player in the world.
  • Coming of Age Story: For Beth Harmon, who starts off a lonely orphan and blossoms into a top-ranked chess player.
  • Costume Porn: There is a reason every review of this show mentions the costuming; the period outfits they put Anya Taylor-Joy in are simply beautiful, perfectly reflecting her personality and situation while looking completely elegant. Justified by Beth's status as The Fashionista; she loves nice clothes almost as much as she loves winning. And given that she spent most of her adolescence in an orphanage where everyone wore the same ugly, ill-fitting uniform, and was then bullied for her drab clothing after being adopted, it makes sense that she'd start wearing the nicest clothes she could get her hands on as soon as she could afford it.
  • Crazy People Play Chess: Many, if not most, of the top players in the series tend to have problems with their sanity and emotions. Beth herself is one.
  • Cry into Chest: After Mr. Shaibel dies, Beth returns to Methuen and goes down into the basement. She discovers Mr. Shaibel has kept a wall of news clippings following her career as a chess player, and has even kept a photo the two took when she was younger. Beth brings that photo out to the car where Jolene is, and starts sobbing, at which point Jolene hugs her.
  • Defeat Means Friendship: A great many of Beth's friends — Harry, Benny, and Townes — become her friends after she bests them in a match. In the finale, all of them come together to advise her in her final match against Borgov, which visibly touches Beth.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance: The show takes place in the 1950s and '60s, warts and all.
    • In the first episode, Beth befriends another orphan named Jolene, who says that she will never be adopted because she's "too old and too black." In the second episode, when Beth tells Mrs. Wheatley that she (Beth) could get a job, Mrs. Wheatley says that the only teenage girls who get jobs are "coloreds." Despite this ugly viewpoint, Mrs. Wheatley is still presented as a mostly-good person, emphasizing how common these ideas were at the time.
    • There's also the fact that at Beth's orphanage, all the girls are given a mandatory daily tranquilizer "to even their temperaments". It's a major plot point when the government makes the practice illegal, and all the addicted orphans are now forced to go cold turkey with no notice.
    • Beth faces sexism throughout her career, ranging from mild irritation at her presence to people openly questioning if a woman can be competitive in chess.
    • People smoking indoors (even on airplanes) and around children. A random gag in episode 3 has Alma flipping on a TV set just in time to hear a woman on TV saying "Got a cigarette, Doctor?"
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation: In the book Beth's mother dies in a car accident, but in the show, she commits suicide while driving, attempting a Taking You with Me with Beth.
  • Dies Wide Open: In the fourth episode, Alma, Beth's adopted mother, dies with her eyes open.
  • Double-Meaning Title: The show's title has multiple interpretations.
    • The Queen's Gambit is a common chess opening, and Beth plays this opening against Borgov in their final match.
    • Beth's nickname In-Universe is "The Chess Queen", and her playing style is incredibly aggressive, usually sacrificing some of her powerful pieces to achieve victory.
    • Beth wants to become the best chess player in the world; however, she is forced to sacrifice a normal life to achieve her goal.
  • Dramatic Irony: Harry Beltik calls Beth to offer her his condolences regarding her loss to Borgov, not knowing that she's just suffered a much worse loss: the death of her adoptive mother.
  • Dramatic Shattering: The first episode ends with nine-year-old Beth dropping the giant jar of green pills she stole on the floor as she hallucinates and falls off the stool, and the glass jar shatters.
  • Dutch Angle: The camera tilts around a lot as Beth is realizing that she will lose her match with U.S. champion Benny Watts. It's the first time she ever loses.note 
  • Eating Lunch Alone: At high school, Beth chooses to do just that.
  • Entertainingly Wrong: Between her past at Methuen and her well-publicized opposition to Borgov, a Christian organization opposed to Communism offers to sponsor Beth, believing that she shares their values. She doesn't, but Benny suggests taking their money regardless. She ends up not being able to go through with it after reading the press release they want to put out as ostensibly coming from her.
  • Family of Choice: When they reunite, Jolene mentions that though she and Beth didn't have parents, they thought of each other as family.
  • Forced Addiction: The Orphanage of Fear in which Beth and Jolene were raised used and abused tranquilizers to make the orphans easier to manage. Beth becomes addicted to them; though it can be assumed she is far from the only one, she is the only one shown.
  • Foreshadowing:
    • The first episode has Beth and the other orphans learn about periods, something that comes into play in the second episode.
    • Beth's time spent alone in the college students' house briefly shows her capability to manage a household on her own, foreshadowing her time alone after Alma dies.
    • A minor example: When Beth walks into the U.S. Championship in Vegas, there's a long take of her walking shot from behind. Her focus only slips once – to gaze in fascination at a very fashionably dressed women in a hip mod outfit. While Beth has already begun to dress more classy and feminine, it's a hint at her budding love of fashion and eventual mod style.
    • In the fifth episode, Beltik compares Beth to Morphy, a chess prodigy who went insane. In the next episode, Beth has a mental breakdown after losing to Borgov in Paris, though she eventually recovers.
  • Friendship Moment: An important ingredient for Beth's victory against Borgov. Without the help of her friends and former rivals in America, suggesting possible strategies via telephone the night before match, the result could have been very different. As Benny previously mentioned, the Russian players work together as a team, so to beat Borgov, Beth needs to do the same.
  • Get Out!: Mr. Shaibel banishes Beth from the basement with this line after she calls him a cocksucker, not really knowing what the word means.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: Once Beth starts to earn money to buy fine clothes, her wardrobe optimizes the Mod styles of The '60s. She's also surrounded by men, many of whom wear dapper suits.
  • Graceful Loser: While Beth is a Sore Loser, most of her opponents are incredibly good sportsmen and display decorum when defeated. Even the imposing and serious Borgov takes defeat with the utmost grace and respect, insisting that she keep his king as a memento.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: Pouring rain at the beginning of episode 5 as Beth gets back home, alone, after her adopted mother's unexpected death in Mexico City.
  • Hard-Work Montage: After Alma dies, Beth returns to Kentucky after her Paris loss and starts redecorating the house to her liking.
  • Hate Sink: This is Mr. Wheatley's role even though he has very little screen time. Beth's chess opponents are almost all sympathetic and cordial, and most of the series' conflict involves Beth battling her own inner demons. But Mr. Wheatley is cold, selfish, and condescending toward both Beth and his own wife, leaves Beth to bury Alma after she dies at her own expense without even bothering to show up at the funeral, and eventually tries to sell the house out from under her for his own profit, after he had previously told her she could have it as long as she made the mortgage payments. It's very satisfying when Beth buys out the remainder of the house's mortgage and tells him off for his selfishness.
    Beth: (very coldly) Alma was not pathetic, she was stuck. There's a difference. She didn't know how to get out of it. Pathetic? Well... I'm looking at pathetic.
  • How We Got Here: The first episode begins with Beth in a hotel in Paris being woken up after a drunken night. After getting cleaned up, she rushes down to a room full of photographers and a waiting game of chess. The first through sixth episodes show how she got to that point.
  • Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Episodes are named after elements of chess play, though "opening" is pluralized and "middlegame" and "endgame" are usually single words. "Openings," "Middle Game," and "End Game" are probably self-explanatory. Here are the others:
    • "Exchanges", where an "exchange" is the more polite term used for "capture" of one piece by another; though in this case, it's when players exchange the same piece (e.g. sacrifice a rook to capture a rook) as a way to prevent each other from gaining an advantage.
    • "Doubled Pawns", mentioned in the episode but never fully explained, refers to two pawns of the same color in the same file, normally considered a weak situation since a pawn can only move directly forward unless capturing.
    • "Fork" refers to a situation where one attacking piece simultaneously threatens two of the opponent's pieces, forcing the player to choose which one to save (or if one is the king, leaving no choice at all).
    • "Adjournment," refers to an agreed-upon suspension of play with the intent to finish after a break.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: While dining with Beth at a hotel restaurant in Episode 3, Alma begins having a major coughing fit. She continues to cough a few more times after taking a sip of her drink, and Beth wonders out loud whether all her drinking is actually what's making her sick. In the next episode, she finds Alma dead in bed from hepatitis, implied to be from drinking too many tequilas.
  • I Need a Freaking Drink: Beth reveals that she's almost as much of a prodigy at drinking beer as she is at chess when her crush turns out to be gay.
  • Incompatible Orientation: Beth's First Love, Townes, is revealed in Episode 3 to be gay, much to her surprise and heartbreak. However, they end up becoming close friends, and he serves as her Number Two in strategizing against Borgov, even organizing a strategy meeting back in the states with all her chess friends.
  • Instructional Film: In the orphanage, Beth and the other girls watch various instructional films, like one on menstruation and another called "Mind Your Manners" that seems to be about dating boys.
  • Intoxication Ensues: In the first episode, nine-year-old Beth begins taking the "green pills" (tranquilizers), which make her feel good, but the state eventually bans using them on children. Methuen still has a large supply, however, so one day she manages to bypass the lock, grab a fistful of pills, and shoves them in her mouth. After taking more and more, she finally grabs the entire jar of them, only to begin hallucinating. She's caught by the head of the orphanage, but by that point, she's taken so many that she simply drops the jar and falls to the floor.
  • Ironic Echo: Alma says in episode 2 that she suffered from terrible stage fright, which prevented her from trying to have a career as a concert pianist. The night before she dies, she plays to a lobby full of appreciative guests in Mexico City, but when Beth teases her about it, clarifies that she "plays fine as long as it's just for fun".
  • It Will Never Catch On: In his first match against Beth, Borgov plays the Rossolimo variation against Beth's Sicilian Defense and wins due to Beth's lack of experience against the Rossolimo. The tournament commentator remarks that the Rossolimo is a rare response to the Sicilian, and later, Beltik is surprised that Beth lost against the Rossolimo. Of course, this chess match takes place in 1966 when the Rossolimo didn't have the reputation as a practical Sicilian counter as it does in modern-day chess.
  • Jackie Robinson Story: Beth finding her way into the male-dominated world of chess.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Most of the staff at Methuen fall under this category. They are strict and not always warm and make Innocently Insensitive remarks with varying degrees of harshness, and Ms. Deardorff takes chess away from Beth after her overdose. However, they are not the strictly fearsome stereotype one might expect from orphanage staffers and tend to mostly just be strict; they are happy for Beth when she gets adopted and seem to, in their own way, care for the orphaned girls. Most interestingly, they are neither aggressively pro- or anti-tranquilizers; they give the kids what the State tells them is necessary and don't seem to protest when the State no longer allows the distribution of tranquilizers.
  • Jerk with a Heart of Jerk: Mr. Wheatley, Alma's husband and Beth's adopted father. In spite of Alma's assurance that it was his idea to adopt Beth, he is completely dismissive and eventually abandons both her and Alma. That being said, when Beth phones him up after Alma dies, he seems to show a bit of compassion by giving her precise instructions on how to bury Alma respectfully and even tells her she can keep the house as long as she makes the payments on it. All well and good... until a few years later, when Mr. Wheatley and his lawyer suddenly show up to take back the house so he can sell it. Mr. Wheatley dismissively claims that Beth "misconstrued" his words and refuses to acknowledge her as his adoptive daughter, finally snapping that it was Alma's idea all along and he only went along with it in the hopes that it would shut her up. He goes on to deride his deceased wife and her piano playing as annoying and pathetic, and snarls that Beth isn't entitled to anything that he earned by himself. Finally seeing Mr. Wheatley for what he is, Beth calls him the pathetic one and uses most of her accrued winnings to buy the house from him.
  • Karma Houdini: The people running the orphanage get no comeuppance for drugging children. In particular, Beth is the one who is punished by the headmistress when she steals pills, which was wholly predictable after they got dozens of children addicted and didn't even bother to get rid of the pills they weren't giving out anymore.
  • Lady Drunk: A running theme for women to cope with life in the 1960s. Mrs. Wheatley self-medicates with alcohol, a tactic that Beth eventually joins in on. Beth's old Alpha Bitch nemesis is obviously turning into an alcoholic to cope with the stress of finding herself married with a child right out of high school.
  • Let Us Never Speak of This Again: An unspoken agreement between Mr. Shaibel and young Beth. After she calls him a cocksucker, he tells her to leave and locks her out of the basement for several days. When she finds the door unlocked again, she wordlessly goes down to clean the erasers. When she looks over at him, he just as wordlessly offers her usual seat at the chess table, and the incident is never mentioned again.
  • Lighter and Softer: Jolene sexually abusing Beth is omitted from the series and the effects of the tranquilizers are much less pronounced in the book.
  • Love at First Sight: It's made pretty clear that Beth fell for Townes when they first met at the school's tournament where she kept throwing Longing Looks after him. Unfortunately for her, he's gay.
  • Magic Feather: Downplayed with the tranquilizers. They help Beth play out games in her mind, but are also dangerously addictive. In a crucial moment in her final match with Borgov, she is able to harness her ability without help from the tranquilizers.
  • Media Scrum: Her presence in Paris and Moscow leads to more attention by local reporters than Beth would have liked.
  • Men Can't Keep House: As much attention as Benny pays to his fashion, he seems utterly indifferent to his apartment, which features almost nothing in the form of decoration or comfort besides his collection of trophies. It doesn't help that it's a semi-basement apartment in a bad area. Beth is not enthusiastic when she sees where she'll be staying.
  • The Mentor: Beth gets quite a few throughout the show.
    • First is Mr. Shaibel, the aging custodian at Methuen who starts off her entire relationship with chess.
    • Then Harry, who lives and trains with her for a while, although it's immediately subverted when he says that he can't even teach Beth anything anymore because she's way better than him.
    • Finally, there's Benny, whom Beth even stays with for a while and grows close to after he starts coaching her for her match with Borgov.
  • Mirror Monologue:
    • When Beth takes a toilet break during her final match against Harry at the first tournament, she gives herself a pep talk in the mirror.
    • Benny does a similar mirror monologue later.
  • Moment Killer:
    • Just when it looks like Beth is getting somewhere with Townes, his boyfriend walks into the room. On the eve of the continuation of Beth's match with Borgov, they reconnect and Beth finds out that Townes had actually intended it more as a Friendship Moment, rather than a romantic one.
    • While Beth is in New York learning from Benny, they end up having sex in his bedroom. As Beth is enjoying the afterglow, Benny immediately starts talking chess strategy again. For once, Beth is not pleased about the conversation turning to chess.
      Beth: Are you serious? This is what you're thinking about right now?
  • Mundane Made Awesome: The series has received a lot of praise for making chess — not a classic spectator sport — seem fascinating.
  • Mundane Luxury: When Beth arrives at her new adoptive parents' house, Alma takes her upstairs to show her her room. Having lived the last several years of her life in a communal dormitory — and before that, a tiny trailer she shared with her birth mother — Beth is amazed to have a private and comparatively luxurious room all to herself.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Beth has been modeled very much on Bobby Fischer, American chess world champion.
  • Non-Nude Bathing: The opening scene of Beth emerging from a bathtub fully clothed.
  • "Not So Different" Remark: While his aides insult her past and her drinking habits, Borgov notes that Beth's a survivor, and positively compares her to himself and people like him in the USSR. It's also apparent that, like Beth, he has no interest in the Cold War political theatre despite being clearly used by the USSR as a propaganda tool, much like Beth herself is on behalf of the US.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: Most of the cast (almost all of whom are British) nail their American accents, but Harry Melling's accent is just barely hanging on in most of his scenes, and Rebecca Root's is a bit off as well.
  • Orphanage of Fear: Played With. The Methuen Home for Girls is a grim and depressing place, and they put all the children on tranquilizers until the practice is banned. On the other hand, nobody there is malicious or behaves improperly, and the people who run it genuinely appear to care about the well-being of the girls, albeit in a strict and conservative way. The girls are kept physically safe, given an education, and genuine efforts are made to find good adoptive homes for them. The headmistress even encourages Beth's budding interest in chess, only putting a stop to it when she overdoses on said tranquilizers. It's not a happy place for Beth or Jolene, but there's no indication of abuse or neglect.
  • Precision F-Strike:
    • When Beth is describing her adopted mother and her new boyfriend.
      Beth: She came in at three o'clock this morning, 2:30 the day before. He's got a green Dodge that always seems to be at her disposal, and they've had lunch and dinner every day this week. (Beat) I'm pretty sure they're fucking.
    • When Mr. Shaibel is teaching 9-year-old Beth chess, he makes her lay down her king when the match's outcome is certain, though she wants to finish it on the board. In a fit of anger she blurts out, "You cocksucker." He tells her to get out, and locks her out of the basement for several days afterward. Afterward, she asks Jolene what the word means, making it clear she was just repeating something she'd heard without understanding it.
    • When Beth drops an F-bomb on the evangelical organization financing her play, it's a clear indication that she's breaking with them.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Beth gives a brief, but incisive one to Mr. Wheatley when she buys him out.
    Beth: Alma was not pathetic, she was stuck. There's a difference. She didn't know how to get out of it. Pathetic, well... I'm looking at pathetic.
  • Red Herring:
    • It is foreshadowed that the Christian Crusade will pay for Beth's trip to Russia, but this is subverted when Beth rejects them.
    • Beth's bodyguard states that the Russians would cheat, but there are no underhanded tactics by the Russians in any of their matches against Beth.
  • The Rival: Beth goes through a few, but her final and most dangerous opponent is Russian juggernaut Borgov.
  • Rule of Three:
    • Beth has three major chess mentors: Mr. Shaibel, Harry Beltik, and Benny Watts.
    • There are three women who act as maternal figures for Beth: her biological mother Alice, the orphanage head Mrs. Deardorff, and finally her adoptive mother Alma Wheatley.
    • Beth is shown having sex with three different guys on the show — her first time with a random stoner from her Russian language classes; the second with Harry, which she doesn't seem to enjoy all that much either; and lastly, with Benny, after which a pleased Beth lazily murmurs "So that's what it's supposed to feel like."
    • Beth plays her main rival Borgov three times. The first time she is overconfident and he beats her handily, being immune to her intimidation tactics and far more experienced. The second time she is hungover and can't concentrate on the match, resulting in another defeat. The third time is a two-day match wherein she strategizes with all her old rivals on a conference call during the adjournment, and on the second day she finally defeats him to much fanfare.
  • Serious Business: Chess. Even without the context of being another battleground for the Cold War, the show goes through great lengths to depict life for the people who live only for the love of the game. Several people also note how much more important chess is in the USSR. Excited crowds of superfans gather around the lavish Moscow tournament, while Benny laments that the American championship is being held in a crummy college classroom in Ohio to a handful of bored spectators. He also notes that one reason the Russians are so good is that they consider themselves a team: the highest-level players all go over matches together afterward (and indeed, Borgov is shown talking with Luchenko after the latter loses to Beth) while the Americans keep to themselves.
  • Sex as Rite-of-Passage: Beth has sex for the first time with an older boy from her Russian language class, this being sparked by her first experience with marijuana just prior, lighting a candle which is molded in the shape of a penis, and thinking of her attraction to Townes. She clearly finds it lacking (even asking the boy how much longer it's going to take).
  • Shadow Archetype: The 13-year-old Georgi is one to Beth. Like her, he's a chess prodigy and has ambitions of becoming the world champion. However, she meets him after she begins questioning what she'll do if she wins that title and realizes that her entire life revolves around chess and begins questioning that. She is visibly confused and annoyed when he can't answer the same questions.
  • She Is All Grown Up: Harry says as much when he sees Beth again for the first time in five years. This is also around the time she ditches the high-school dresses for pants and shirts.
    Harry: What happened to that gawky kid who kicked my ass five years ago?
  • Shout-Out: In the first episode, Beth and the other girls in the orphanage watch The Robe.
  • Shown Their Work: Every chess match is real and is done with real moves. Former World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov was even a consultant on the show, alongside Bruce Pandolfini and Iepe Rubingh, the founder of chess boxing. This website even goes through every single game in the first episode and shows how they use real moves.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Beth is highly intelligent, as are most of her friends and opponents.
  • Smash Cut: The US championship builds up to Benny and Beth's rematch after her loss to him in Vegas, and when they meet in the decisive game we see Benny making the first move with his pawn and then instantly cut to both of them at a bar discussing Beth's victory.
  • Smoking Hot Sex: When Beth and Harry start making out, the scene cuts to Beth lighting a cigarette in bed afterward. In this case, it's not so much a reaction to the sex itself, which Beth found underwhelming, as just something she happens to do in that moment because she's a smoker.
  • Speaks in Shout-Outs: Mr. Fergus at the orphanage is shown constantly quoting Shakespeare.
    Mr. Fergus: Go thou farther off. Bid me farewell, and let me hear thee going.
    Beth: (looks at him quizzically)
    Mr. Fergus: Get lost!
  • Technician Versus Performer: Beth is a Performer, having a lot of natural talent but disliking studying chess techniques because she prefers to analyze real games. Surprisingly, the narrative doesn't favor her, with criticism from Harry (a Technician who works hard and studies chess moves to improve) and her losses against Benny and Borgov forcing her to reevaluate her style.
  • Tempting Cookie Jar: The huge jar of green pills is irresistible to Beth. It doesn't end well.
  • Third Time's The Charm: Beth and Borgov face off three times. The first time they play, Beth doesn't have enough experience yet and inevitably loses. The second time, she is hungover and is unable to focus, resulting in yet another loss (she claims that the hangover didn't make a difference and she never stood a chance, but she's probably lying to herself). By the third time they play, Beth is now fully sober and armed with a plan instead of her usual Attack! Attack! Attack! strategy; after much fanfare, she finally gets a well-deserved win.
  • Those Two Guys: The twins Matt and Mike, who are present for Beth's early career and provide commentary about events.
  • Time-Compression Montage: Several of Beth's tournaments are comprised in a montage, e.g. the U.S. Open in Las Vegas.
  • To Be a Master: Beth pretty much decides to be the World Champion the moment she hears that it exists. By the finale, she is well on her way, having beaten the reigning world champion in the decisive game of a major tournament.
  • Troubled Backstory Flashback: Beth's expanding flashbacks to that fateful day of her mother's suicide (and possibly attempted Murder-Suicide).
  • Truth in Television: "Chess=Addiction" is a very common thing for any professional chess player to hear that you can't really succeed in the world of chess unless you pretty much devote your entire life to it. The chess and addiction comparisons suddenly make more sense. Contrary to the casual board game reputation it typically has, chess is very much an intense sport that requires utterly obsessive dedication if you're playing at a professional level. This is well-reflected in the chess scenes and the players themselves.
  • Uncomfortable Elevator Moment: Beth is in the back of a crowded elevator when Russian champion Bogrov and his entourage enter. They discuss her flaws both professional (her Attack! Attack! Attack! style, which makes her vulnerable to counterattacks) and personal (her drinking problem), while Beth hears everything. Then Bogrov turns in the elevator and catches sight of her just before they all get off.
  • Underestimating Badassery: Beth is underestimated more than once throughout the series, most notably by Harry Beltik, who shows up late to their match and clearly doesn't expect a challenge despite her undefeated status. His experiences with Beth humble him significantly over the course of the series. At a later match, the announcer notes that her opponent probably didn't spend much time preparing because Beth didn't register as an important player by his standards.
    Announcer: My guess is Laev was expecting an easy win, and not at all the 27-move thrashing Beth Harmon just gave him.
  • Viewers Are Geniuses: Beyond young Beth's explanation of the moves of the pieces, virtually nothing about the actual playing of the game is explained. The show expects you to really understand chess.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Benny gives Beth one in Episode 7, telling her off for making the terrible decision to reject her sponsor for her Russian tournament, then for distancing herself from him and only contacting him to ask for a favor. He later forgives her and offers advice for her match against Borgov.
  • Where It All Began: Towards the end, Beth returns to the orphanage after attending Mr. Shaibel's funeral.
  • You Are Not Alone: In the final episode, Beth's path to recovery begins when Jolene shows up and takes her to Mr. Shaibel's funeral; she admits she'd probably have gotten blackout drunk if that hadn't happened. She ultimately prevails in her game against Borgov knowing that she has a whole network of people who love and support her, including her friends and former rivals who all show up to help her beat him. She is deeply moved when she realizes how happy everyone is for her and how proud she's made them. Beth may be okay with being alone, but that doesn't mean she has to be.
  • You, Get Me Coffee: Benny Watts is hanging out with two lesser players in a cafeteria the night before his big match with Beth, when Beth shows up. Beth says she can't linger, she's just there to get coffee—and Benny establishes the social pecking order when he tells one of the lesser players, a guy named Weiss, to go get Beth's coffee. And an apple juice for Benny.

"Let's play."