In The Queen’s Gambit, Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, who is orphaned at a young age, learns chess from a wise custodian, and becomes one of the greatest chess players in the world. She’s an outstanding player by her early teens, and one of the best in the world by adulthood.
The phenomenon of child chess prodigies is established: Current World Chess Champion Magnus Carlsen became a grandmaster at age 13. Former U.S. champion Bobby Fischer, who would have been a contemporary of Beth Harmon if she were a real person, became a grandmaster at 15 in 1958. Many other young players have since topped that feat.
The Queen’s Gambit, created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott and based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, leaves open the question of whether Beth Harmon is a great player because of genetics — her mother (Chloe Pirrie) is a brilliant mathematician, and Beth is far ahead of her peers as a child – or because of hours of practice in the basement with Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), a teacher who demands greatness. It’s implied that both nature and nurture are factors, and that some things — like Beth’s immediate embrace of tranquilizers and alcohol – are genetic.
Whatever the intention of the show’s creators, The Queen’s Gambit will no doubt contribute to curiosity about what creates a child prodigy. We discuss it in the latest episode of the Low Key podcast, which you can check out on Apple or Spotify or here:
Any discussion of prodigies inevitably includes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born in 1756 and began composing music by age four or five. But author Malcolm Gladwell argues that Mozart has contributed to many of the myths about prodigies. He believes they are made, not born.
“First of all, the music he composes at four isn’t any good,” Gladwell told the Association for Psychological Science in 2006. “They’re basically arrangements of works by other composers. And also, rather suspiciously, they’re written down by his father.”
He argues that Mozart was “compelled to practice three hours a day from age three on,” and had spent 3,500 hours playing by age six.
This suggests that children we think of as prodigies may, in fact, just work harder than other children — perhaps at the urging of overambitious adults.
Given what we see in The Queen’s Gambit, one could make a case that Beth Harmon is either the popular-imagination version of Mozart – the child who just gets it, from that beginning — or Gladwell’s version — a child who is immersed in a particular pursuit from a very young age.
Chess, The Queen’s Gambit makes clear, is the only thing that makes Beth feel special at the orphanage, where she sleeps and eats with dozens of other girls awaiting adoption. She has little else.
Beth Harmon is also very similar to the child prodigies studied by psychologist Joanne Ruthsatz and violin virtuoso Jourdan Urbach, whose work is discussed in this Scientific American piece. They found that every prodigy they studied “scored off the charts in working memory,” which “involves the ability to hold information in memory while being able to manipulate and process other incoming information,” Scientific American wrote.
Working memory is essential in chess — and The Queen’s Gambit dramatizes it by showing Beth imagining chess moves on a ceiling as she goes to sleep.
They also found that prodigies tend to excel in things that are rule-based — such as playing chess, or performing musical pieces. Gladwell, meanwhile, argues that musical prodigies can flawlessly reproduce the work of grown-up musicians, but rarely create dynamic new work of their own.
One of the main points of dramatic tension in The Queen’s Gambit is whether Beth will burn out before hitting her 20s. (A spoiler follows.) The miniseries makes clear that Beth is able to reach the pinnacle of chess — but leaves open, as it does so many things, the question of what she will do with her adult life.
The Queen’s Gambit, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, created by Scott Frank and Aaron Scott, is now streaming.