Chess problem scene in ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

30 Oct. 2020 | by Peter Wong

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is a new TV mini-series (produced by Netflix) in which chess plays a central role. Based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, it’s a coming-of-age story about an orphaned girl named Beth Harmon, who struggled with substance addiction while growing up in the sixties, but discovered in herself an extraordinary gift for the game that’s life-changing. The 7-episode series follows her rise through the ranks as she competed in various tournaments, first in the U.S. and then on the international stage against some of the world’s best players.

I enjoyed the show tremendously, despite my misgivings as a problemist (see below). It’s beautifully shot, with an authentic sixties-look and many sumptuous chess tournament scenes. Anya Taylor-Joy, who stars as Beth, exudes screen presence and her captivating performance has earned high praise from critics, so much so that an Emmy nomination seems possible. The technical details of chess depicted are more-or-less realistic, and where they are not (e.g. the overuse of toppling a king to signal resignation), their implausibility may be forgiven as artistic licence taken. Actual goofs are few and far between, apparently because Kasparov and Pandolfini worked as consultants. It’s surprising how much chess jargon is allowed in the dialogue, for a TV drama intended for the mass audience.

Another surprise for me was how the series includes a chess problem scene from the book (which I read decades ago). Here’s the clip in question which I have uploaded to YouTube. Beth is introduced to a “problem freak” named Hilton who immediately challenged her to solve a mate-in-3 composition. If you wish to attempt this problem yourself, skip to the diagram below because the video gives away the solution.

Did you notice the chess goof in this scene? When Hilton sits down and asks if he could mess up the position to set up the problem, the board seen from a distance contains five pieces. But even before he touches anything, four of these pieces are miraculously placed exactly where they need to be!

Below is the passage from the novel describing the same scene. The screen adaptation in this instance is remarkably faithful, including some word-for-word copying of the dialogue. The actual chess problem used is obviously different, however.

Beth’s disinterest in composed problems is for me the only regrettable aspect of the show and its source material. The objection that problems are not relevant because of their “unnatural” positions betrays a misunderstanding shared by many players (one which I try to remedy in What is a Chess Problem?). I have little doubt that the late author Walter Tevis, a Class-C player, was expressing his own views through his protagonist.

A screenshot from ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ showing the mate-in-3 position, from Black’s side.

Now to the three-move problem itself. It was composed by a little-known Canadian, William Atkinson (1835-1887), and published posthumously in a book collection, Canadian Chess Problems (1890) by Charles F. Stubbs. The book, viewable on Google Books, contains 25 works by the problemist, with this three-mover appearing on page 17. According to a brief obituary note quoted on Chessgames.com, he was also a practical chess player and a pianist.

William Atkinson
Canadian Chess Problems 1890

Mate in 3

Black has only two legal moves initially, 1…Kg7 and 1…Bg7. The latter obstructs the king and shouldn’t be hard to deal with, but after the former, the black king will have three further diagonal moves from g7. Particularly, 2…Kh6 leaves the king trapped except for its flight back to g7, and this configuration suggests that White’s spare b7-knight will mate on f5. Hence the key 1.Kd7! (waiting) which vacates d6 while still constraining the enemy king. 1…Kg7 2.Sd6 Kh6 3.Sxf5. The knight on d6 is also well-placed for handling the other two diagonal flights: 2…Kf6 3.Se8 and 2…Kf8 3.Se6. After 1…Bg7 2.Sd6, there’s no defence against 3.Se8. A pleasant mix of mates, but by no means an exceptional composition. The choice of this problem to be featured in the series seems pretty random, though such a light and uncomplicated position makes it more believable that Beth could solve it in seconds. In any case, its appearance on a popular TV show should make this the most viewed of all composed problems.