If this Christmas you hear the distant rumble of dusty games’ compendia being brought down out of attics, it’s safe to say you can blame Netflix’s latest smash hit series The Queen’s Gambit, which seems to be convincing everyone that chess can be cool. App stores are reporting a surge of searches for a game first brought to England ten centuries ago by Vikings.
Set in the 1950s The Queen’s Gambit tells the story of Beth Harmon (played brilliantly by Isla Johnstone and Anya Taylor-Joy). Aged eight, she survives a fatal car crash only to end up in an orphanage. She finds relief from the institution’s cruelty and monotony in a janitor’s basement: there a mentor and a talent are discovered and so begins her difficult journey from orphan to prodigy to international chess champion.
This is brilliant lockdown viewing. Clocks start and stop. Players sweat and strategise. The drama of the matches will have you blitzing through the series like a game of speed chess.
But it’s the motif at the heart of the show that should be the main talking point. All our greatest movie heroes – think Batman, Superman, Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter, James Bond and many others – have one thing in common with Beth – the protagonist of The Queen’s Gambit. They begin their story as orphans. Film makers know that the trope of the orphan whose life is transformed resonates with the deep-seated conviction in many of us that our future does not have to be determined by our past. While this plot arc is brilliantly portrayed in The Queen’s Gambit, what sets this series apart from other orphan-hero tales is the acknowledgment that early life adversity carries with it longterm trauma.
Psychologists have long recognised that children who lose their family at a young age will suffer a whole host of ongoing difficulties – especially in managing their emotions, their relationships, and their mental health. This can present in a variety of ways including self-sabotaging behaviours, sense of distrust, low self-esteem and tendency to disassociate.
The Queen’s Gambit handles this aspect of the care experience powerfully. Beth is haunted by the death of her mother and plagued by anxiety and difficulties in forming trusting intimate relationships. Her dress, with her name beautifully embroidered on it by her mother, is sent to burned by the orphanage mistress on her arrival and no amount of ugly standardised uniform or expensive designer fashion ever replace what is lost of her identity in that moment.
For me there are two stand-out characters who provide Beth with help and hope. The first is Jolene, an older girl for whom it has been impossible to find an adoptive home because she is black. Jolene becomes an ally, a big sister, friend and role-model to Beth when she needs it most. The second is the janitor Mr Shaibel. Although the sight of a vulnerable young girl spending time alone with an older man raises all sorts of safeguarding alerts, in this case the rules are turned upside down. The female carers of the institution upstairs are the dangerous abusers and the creepy old man in the basement is, in fact, the genuinely safe and caring adult.
But there is a dark side to this series. Without her chess-winning accomplishments, what would have happened to Beth? Would anyone have encouraged her, valued her, stuck by her if she were just ordinary instead of extraordinary?
As an adopter myself, I sincerely hope that ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ will inspire people to step forward to take in children who need a family. But I fear the show, like other orphan-hero story blockbusters, might give misguided expectations. While I praise it for addressing the long-term psychological damage of life in care, it still glosses over all the other children in the orphanage. What happens to them? Who will be the mentors and advocates and families for children not blessed with exceptional gifts? Who will help them realise that their, albeit more mundane, future is not determined by their past?
In the UK less than 1 per cent of adoptions involve children over the age of 10 (Beth is a teenager when she gets adopted). And much, much fewer than 1 per cent turn out to be child prodigies. If only Netflix could produce a show inspiring families to embrace children in need with no expectation whatsoever of them making headlines or breaking records.
This series is to be commended for refusing to deploy the overly-romanticised view of adoption that is a Hollywood staple in films like Annie, Despicable Me and Anne of Green Gables. It also does a fantastic job of showing the risk of dehumanising institutionalisation that orphanages present; even today 5.7 million vulnerable children around the world have nowhere better to call home. The show also highlights the ongoing challenge of being black in the care system, the long-term emotional damage done to children who lose their families, and the mixed motivations of people who step forward to adopt.
As fans of the show will know, there’s an opening move in chess whereby a pawn is sacrificed to gain control of the board. The irony is that Beth Harmon, a ferocious chess champion, could so easily have been that insignificant pawn in the grand scheme of things. But things turn out differently because friends, mentors and allies make sacrifices to enable her to succeed. There are millions of other children, too, who could be given that chance – not because they are secret prodigies but because every child, no matter what their talent or character, deserves a home.
Dr Krish Kandiah is an adoptive father, a foster carer and works in global child welfare reform.