This is a rather short post. Originally, I wanted to write something about Talleyrand and this very interesting book about his life, but I’m in a different mood right now.

Just recently, I was thinking about The Queen’s Gambit, which everyone around me seemed to rave about. It’s a Netflix original miniseries based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel that came out in October of last year. So I caved and watched it a few months ago. The series follows the life of Beth Harmon, an orphan who eventually transforms into a competitive young woman fueled by the ambition of becoming the world’s greatest chess player. Watching it, I noticed that I could oddly relate to the protagonist.

I tend to be very choosy when it comes to TV shows. They are always a time-consuming commitment, so watching something mediocre seems like a waste of time to me. I’d rather just read engrossing works of literature, biographies and books about classical antiquity.

Queen’s Gambit, however, was definitely an immersive and highly enjoyable TV series. Its pacing is slow enough to force you to pay a modicum of attention if you want to understand the protagonist’s relationships with other characters alongside the storyline. The show also offers and intricate and authentic depiction of 1960s aesthetics in all sorts of objects, buildings and clothes, without delving too much into the stereotypical.

It’s portrayal of the Soviet Union is also surprisingly neutral. Or to be more precise, I found that the show’s focus was on the non-political aspects of culture and everyday life in the Sovet Union, somewhat disentangled from overly intrusive ideological depictions. The manner in which chess is depicted (something that everyone plays in all sorts of places, the very young and the very old) is one such example. I found this rather interesting and peculiar, as Western TV shows generally depict life in Eastern Bloc countries more antagonistically.

For the sake of historical accuracy, it’s not entirely non-political, of course. As I’ve found out, Gary Kasparov was one of the show’s advisers. Apparently, he recommended that Viktor Borgov should be seen with KGB agents anytime he was abroad and outside the Eastern Bloc, as this is what would have happen to prevent defections.

The interesting story and its depictions make it worthwhile to watch the series, but it also had a greater emotional impact on me than I expected. 

In some odd and intangible way, I found that I could relate to Beth Harmon. Perhaps it’s because she is always that one girl amidst a sea of nerdy guys, in an environment where it’s rare to see any woman at all. That was clearly the case for chess in the 1960s (and still today), and this is an environment I’m very familiar during university and until today, to varying degrees: my interest in (classical liberal) political philosophy led me to join student organizations and travel around the world to organize academic conferences, seminars, and similar events. For various reasons, it’s still quite rare to be a woman with such… rather nich-y and academic interests, I suppose, so I was invariably one of the few women surrounded by a sea of overly intellectual nerdy men, just like Beth Harmon was. In a way, Harmon’s chess circle, which became her social circle, looked like my political/philosophical circle, which also became my social circle. And more so, Beth Harmon never felt uncomfortable because of her gender in these social settings and friendship constellations, and neither do I. There’s something about her being so profoundly blasé when it comes to social voncentions, paired with her relentless intellectual ambition that seemed to have sparked a feeling of familiarity. Coming back to this post’s title, Harmon conveyed this combination of unconventionality, ambition, and passion that almost always inspires sympathetic appreciation within me.