Disappointed by Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit: A review by a former professional Go player

Note: This review includes spoilers.

At first I didn’t pay much attention to Netflix’s original show, The Queen’s Gambit. After all, it’s a story about chess, not Go. I am a retired professional Go player, now working as a software engineer. I first learned Go when I was five years old, and trained up to twelve hours a day as a young prodigy, until I became a professional player at sixteen.

Chess and Go have many similarities. They are both mind sports, both have national and international competitions with substantial prize money, and elite players of both games devote their lives to become the world’s best. When I worked for the International Go Federation, I even had a chance to work alongside officials from FIDE, the chess federation, and to visit some world-class chess competitions that were co-located with Go events.

When The Queen’s Gambit became a world-wide sensation, my social media feeds filled up with more and more of my Go friends posting about it. I finally decided to watch the show. Plus, it also helped that my husband recently received a one-year complimentary membership to Netflix.

I understand The Queen’s Gambit is fiction — a fanciful story about a beautiful young woman becoming world chess champion, how she overcomes drug and alcohol addictions, and how American chess players come together as a team to help her defeat “The Russian.” I don’t mind how unlikely these events are. I am thrilled and touched to watch them. However, many aspects of the story left me frustrated. Rather than feeling excited to watch the next episode, I had to force myself to continue the series, thinking I should at least finish the show.

Here are the main reasons why I was disappointed by The Queen’s Gambit:

  1. In real life, players grow stronger from losing. I remember the moments, hundreds of them, when I went to the bathroom to cry by myself, because I felt so upset and angry after losing a match. No one is so talented and so far ahead of everyone else that they never lose. I believe losing is an indispensable part of the journey. You grow stronger from the pain of losing. In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth almost never loses, except to the US champion or world champion. The story would have been more compelling if she had lost more games, especially in the beginning, and learned from them.
  2. Not even a genius can become world champion without extensive and systematic training. Training requires sacrifice. When I was an elementary school student, I could only imagine what it would be like to be free to go to friends’ birthday parties, or just casually to hang out with them. The reality was, day after day, I always had to go to my Go school for training, without exception. I couldn’t help feeling cheated watching Beth become US champion, and later world champion, without strict training or sacrifices.
  3. The transition from a hobby player to an elite player is tough. It seems free and easy when you are playing for an hour or two here and there. You might think you really like it and you could do it all day, but when you actually start playing as a career, you will sooner or later encounter struggles. When Beth began getting full support from her mother and they travelled all around the country together, I expected to see at least some struggle from Beth. They were not well-off, and paying travel expenses up front meant that Beth absolutely had to win. This is a significant pressure, but the show didn’t depict how Beth handled this transition and pressure.
  4. Strong players have a strong respect for the game. In Beth’s game against the young Russian boy to become US “co-champion”, it was unthinkable that she would behave with such poor manners. It’s absolutely unbelievable that she would lose self-control the night before her final match in Paris. I also didn’t appreciate how she constantly stared at her opponents. It’s considered bad manners in Go, and while I don’t know for sure whether it’s the same in chess, I never saw any world-class player doing that when I visited chess events.
  5. I highly doubt that any world-class chess player would spend time styling her hair and putting on impeccable makeup, including long fake eyelashes, in the morning before important matches. Beth was already stunning — was it really necessary to doll her up like that for all the match scenes?

Having said all that, I do agree that the acting was splendid and the cinematography was stylish. I am also happy for the chess community, which is enjoying a tremendous influx of new players thanks to the show. While there have been lots of movies and TV shows about elite athletes and sports dramas, there have been too few about mind sports: chess, Go, bridge, and so on. My small wish is to see more content in this area, and with more compelling stories.