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John Henderson
By John Henderson

Get ready for a lengthy seven-hour binge-viewing session, because Friday 23rd October is a big red-letter day for chess fans on Netflix, with the premiere of the streaming behemoth’s chess-themed limited-series “The Queen’s Gambit”, with acclaimed young cosmopolitan actress Anya Taylor-Joy turning in a tour-de-force performance as the troubled chess savant, who not only has to battle her own personal demons but also equality in a very male-dominated sport.

The seven-part miniseries is an adaptation of chess fan Walter Tevis’s 1983 groundbreaking novel of the same name – that came in between the author’s more high-profile tomes that became big Hollywood movies: “The Hustler” (Paul Newman, George C. Scott, Piper Laurie & Jackie Gleason), “The Color of Money” (Paul Newman & Tom Cruise) and “The Man Who Fell to Earth” (David Bowie & Rip Torn) – that eerily pre-dated the rise of Judit Polgar a decade or so later.

The storyline is set in the 1950s and ‘60s around Kentucky orphan Beth Harmon (Taylor-Joy), the skilled and glamorous chess outcast who, according to the official Netflix blurb, is “haunted by her personal demons and fuelled by a cocktail of narcotics and obsession,” in this intriguing and lavish Cold War chess-themed drama.

Taylor-Joy, who grew up in America, England and Argentina, has genuine star charisma and regarded as one of the best young actresses of her generation.  She has carved out a name for herself by playing strong-willed young women, and troubled fictional character Beth Harmon fits nicely into this niche. The actress also seems to have genuinely taken to chess through her new role, and also revealing in a recent media feature ahead of “The Queen’s Gambit” release, that “When it came to the actual chess sequences, my background as a dancer really helped. It’s basically just choreography with your fingers.”

Like the author’s more famous works, “The Queen’s Gambit” was also expected to receive the Tinseltown treatment, with various projects touted over the years. In the early 1990s, the screenwriter Allan Scott (“Don’t Look Now”) acquired the rights to the novel and wrote a film script. The director Michael Apted expressed interest, as did Bernardo Bertolucci; with Molly Ringwald’s name in the frame to star. In 2008, Heath Ledger, a big chess enthusiast himself, was all set to direct his first movie, with Ellen Page signed on as Beth, but the project was cancelled after the Australian actor tragically died.

But now, at long last, “The Queen’s Gambit” is set to make it to the screen, albeit the small one. The trailer for the series looks lush and full of lots of period promise and plenty of chess action. But for chess fans though, it will always be about the technicalities, and all the 64 square scenes look to be of a very high standard – and so they should be, when I tell you that former world champion Garry Kasparov and legendary chess coach Bruce Pandolfini were signed on by the production company as chess consultants for the series!

The Queen’s Gambit title is, of course, Tevis’s wordplay on a woman playing chess by using one of the most famous and historic of all the chess openings. Great chess players of the past, such as Capablanca, Alekhine, Rubinstein, Smyslov, Korchnoi, Tal, Karpov and the great Garry Kasparov all included the Queen’s Gambit in their opening repertoire.

And in the early ‘70s, as a newbie to chess – in the aftermath of Bobby Fischer becoming World Champion – my first real introduction to the Queen’s Gambit came about by being truly amazed while reading and playing through Alexander Alekhine’s best games anthology, particularly today’s game.

Alexander Alekhine – Geza Maroczy
Bled 1931
Queen’s Gambit Declined
1.d4 d5 2.c4 e6 3.Nc3 Nf6 4.Bg5 Be7 5.e3 Nbd7 6.Nf3 0-0 7.Rc1 The Orthodox Defence with 7.Rc1 was in its pomp during the Alekhine/Capablanca inter-war period when the two world champions ruled the chess scene. 7…h6 8.Bh4 c6 9.Bd3 a6 10.0-0 dxc4 11.Bxc4 c5 12.a4! Just looking to stop Black expanding on the queenside with…b5. 12…Qa5! And Maroczy is looking to put …b5 back on the agenda again. 13.Qe2 cxd4 14.exd4 Much better than the more reserved 14.Nxd4 – and with the game beginning to open up, Alekhine had to be in his element here, as it suits his attacking style. 14…Nb6 15.Bd3! The a-pawn is inconsequential here, as snatching it only leads to trouble for Black. 15…Bd7 As we said previously, the a-pawn is taboo. If 15…Nxa4 16.Nxa4 Qxa4 17.Bxf6 Bxf6 18.Qe4 g6 19.Rc7 Bd8 20.Rc4 Qa5 21.Ne5! and Black is in deep trouble, as the attack will eventually crash through. 16.Ne5 Rfd8! Maroczy is doing his best to stay in the game with some very resourceful defensive moves, this being one of them, looking to mount a rearguard defence with his …Be8 retreat. 17.f4! For Alekhine, this position would have been like a red rag to a bull – he’s going to show no restraint whatsoever, simply intent on crushing Maroczy by smashing through his defences in a typical brash attacking manner. 17…Be8 18.Ng4 Hard to know what Alekhine was thinking here, as cutting straight to the chase with 18.f5! looks good and strong. If 18…Rxd4 19.Bf2! Rd6 20.Kh1! just prophylactically removing the king from any possible check scenario on the b6-g1 diagonal, and it is hard to see how Black is going to be able to defend in the long-run. 18…Rxd4? Maroczy is tempted by the bauble of the d4-pawn – but he had to consolidate his position with the solid 18…Nbd5! and it is doubtful whether Alekhine had any winning attack to crash through with, for example, 19.f5 Nxg4 20.Bxe7 Nxe7 21.Qxg4 exf5 22.Bxf5 Nxf5 23.Rxf5 Rxd4! and Black is the one winning. 19.Bxf6 Bxf6 20.Nxf6+ gxf6 21.Ne4 Rad8? The last chance to survive the coming storm was 21…f5! 22.Nf6+ Kg7! (The ingredients are all there for a potential disaster, vis-a-vis 22…Kh8?? 23.Bb5!! and now no way to stop Qe5 winning material or mating.) 23.Qe3 Rad8! 24.b4! (Deflecting the Black queen from covering the vital e5 square. If you go for 24.Nxe8+?! the engine will calmly play 24…Kf8! and ask what you are going to do with the double attack on the Bd3 and Ne8, so it could all pan out with 25.Bxa6 bxa6 26.Nf6 Rd3 27.Qf2 Nd5 and Black having the upper-hand.) 24…Qxb4 25.Qe5 Just in the nick of time, the threat of the discovered check saves White. Now 25…Kf8 26.Nh7+ Kg8 (Definitely not the time to try and run the king through the razor wire of no man’s land, as 26…Ke7?? 27.Qf6+ Kd7 28.Bxf5! Rc8 (Alternatively, you can end the agony with a quick mate with 28…exf5?? 29.Qxf5+ Kd6 30.Qe5+ Kd7 31.Rc7#) 29.Bxe6+!! fxe6 30.Nf8+ Qxf8 31.Qxf8 with a big winning material advantage.) 27.Nf6+ Kf8 28.Nh7+ Kg8 29.Nf6+ etc. and a perpetual. 22.Nxf6+ Kf8 23.Nh7+ Also the immediate 23.f5 looks to be crashing through. 23…Ke7 24.f5 R8d6 25.b4 A typical Alekhine “sexy” move, the idea is to clear the path for Qe5 winning. But the simple win was just 25.fxe6! Rxe6 26.Qf2! and it is hard to see how Black survives. 25…Qxb4 26.Qe5 Nd7? Right idea, wrong square! Maroczy had many hidden resources in this game, perhaps none more crucial than at this moment, with the correct 26…Nd5! Just giving Black’s king a bolthole on d7 to escape to, so Qh8, as in the game, doesn’t work now. White will have to try 27.Rb1 but, as the engine gleefully points out, after 27…Qc5! 28.Kh1 Rxd3 29.Rxb7+ Kd8 30.fxe6 Re3 31.Rb8+ Kc7 32.Qb2 Rb6! 33.Rxb6 Nxb6 34.exf7 Bxf7 35.Rxf7+ Re7 this ending looks to be heading towards a draw. 27.Qh8 Rxd3? This just leads to a total capitulation now. The only defence was 27…Rc6! 28.Rxc6 bxc6 29.fxe6 fxe6 30.Nf6 Nxf6 31.Qxf6+ Kd7 32.Qxh6 Qc5 (Not 32…Rxd3?? 33.Qh7+!) 33.Kh1 Rxa4 34.Rd1 Rd4 35.Rb1 Qd6 36.Qg7+ Kd8 37.Qg5+ Kd7 38.Be2 where the Black king is still a little vulnerable, though doubtful whether White has enough to win. 28.f6+! 1-0 [see diagram] Once you see f6+ the game’s up. But the difficult part lies in bringing your opponent to the position where you can play f6+. So Maroczy resigned, now realising just how bad his 26…Nd7 was, as checkmate is inevitable after 28…Kd8 29.Qxe8+!! Kxe8 30.Rc8# or 28…Nxf6 29. Qxf6+ Kd7 30.Nf8#.

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