Lessons from The Queen’s Gambit

Lessons from The Queen’s Gambit

December 20, 2020

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by Trey Nosrac

“Have you watched The Queen’s Gambit?” I asked David as we pulled into a curbside slot at Wok This Way Japanese restaurant.

“I did. It seems like everybody else did too. I read that it’s the most popular show Netflix has ever made.”

I pushed a button on my phone to let the restaurant know the Lexus had landed and said, “Last night I googled the author, Walter Tevis. He died in 1984. Tevis also wrote The Hustler and the sequel, The Color of Money. Three books centered on chess and pool games, offbeat pursuits, and three big smashes on film.”

David said, “Isn’t it awesome how when a subject or a person crosses our radar screens, we can dig deep while sitting on our couches?”

“The books Walter Tevis wrote had a lot of him in the characters, the demons, and the locations. He caught the billiards and pool bug after learning to play in the basement of a friend named Toby Kavanaugh. Young Toby and Walter began slipping into a local hotel to watch pool sharks and professionals.”

“After a stint in the Navy, Tevis studied English at the University of Kentucky. One of his short stories,The Best in the Country, was sold to Esquire for $350. He wrote, taught English in high school, played pool for money, married, and had two kids.”

I continued, “An agent persuaded him to turn The Best in the Country into a novel, so he quit his teaching job and wrote The Hustler. In 1959, he sold the movie rights for $25,000. He moved his family to Mexico, where he wrote The Man who Fell to Earth in 1963. Then nothing for 17 years.”

He asked, “Didn’t Paul Newman win the best actor award for The Hustler?”

“No, that’s a common misconception. Paul Newman won the best actor for playing the same character, Fast Eddie Felton, in the sequel, The Color of Money. And here is some uber trivia, Robbie Robertson of The Band wrote the soundtrack.”

“No kidding. Did Walter Tevis play chess?”

“Yes.”

“Too bad he wasn’t a harness racing junkie. He could have written a book that might move the needle.”

“Did you know that in 2013, hopes were high for Johnny Longshot, a movie set in the world of harness racing? The proposed movie was to be produced by and star Emilio Estevez. The theme was a retired thoroughbred jockey who wants to make a comeback in racing as a harness driver and win the Little Brown Jug. A trailer and preproduction began, but eight years later, Johnny Longshot has not left the gate. As anyone in our game understands, dreams do not always come true.”

David slipped into his scholarly mode, “Many films have used horse racing for a backdrop, including Secretariat. None of these films brought a significant uptick in the popularity of racing. Sports films do not seem to bring many new participants. People don’t watch Bull Durham and buy a minor league baseball team. They don’t watch Chariots of Fire and start running on the beach.” He paused and added, “The Queen’s Gambit is looking like an exception. I think the show will create a push in the popularity of chess.”

I nodded. “While noodling around about the film, I read that they can’t stock enough chess sets for Christmas and that London’s oldest continually operating chess club, Battersea, reports an enormous surge in people contacting them, wanting to get involved. Since the debut of The Queen’s Gambit, 2.35 million players have joined chess.com, many of them women and teens.”

David whistled. “How would you like 2 million more participants in harness racing?”

“I’d like that a lot. What’s the Queen’s magic? What does it have that others don’t? What would you recommend for a revival and reworking of the Johnny Longshot project if you want a product that could change the trajectory of a small sport?”

He waited for a masked man in a blue sweatshirt to hand our food in through the passenger window, thanked the guy, and then said, “I would make the product a series, not merely a movie. Sports and games are complicated. To truly learn a game and to appreciate that game takes time, a scripted series offers a significant amount of time.”

I agreed. “I’ve always believed that the complexity of horse racing is too big of a lift for a drive-by layperson. New people don’t learn much when they watch a race.”

“Yes, a traditional movie format allows little time for the audience to grasp the nuances of a game or a sport. A movie about Beth Harmon winning a chess championship might be fine entertainment and entice a new player or two. However, eight hours watching her play chess matches will exponentially increase the chances of new people learning the game. Also, a series can provide time between episodes where viewers can do some research.”

I said, “Of course, I didn’t think of that. Eight hours lets the viewers nibble away at the game of chess.”

“Oh, it will be more than eight hours, trust me. There will be a sequel, maybe more. Any project that draws an audience like The Queen’s Gambit will revisit the landscape with vigor.”

“What else you got?” I asked.

“Send out a product that avoids characterization. In sporting movies, competition is built-in motivation. Productions can move the plot forward without cardboard villains or heroes. Instead of the typical oddballs and insanity associated with chess, competitors often became friends in this film. While a touch cold and robotic, even the Russian players did not prove enemies.

He added, “And The Queen’s Gambit showed warts, and the heroine is flawed and far from the prototype chess player. Other characters, both major and minor, were also fascinating and flawed. Alcoholism, depression, abandonment, repression, selfishness, and other issues raised their heads. The early settings ranged from a dingy basement to a high school gym to a rundown tenement apartment. Winners were not always gracious, and losers were often sore.”

I replied, “Yeah, I enjoyed the secondary characters. They grew on me. I could have watched another series about them.”

He continued, “Use the sport with dignity and in a supporting role. Unless you are making an in-depth documentary, the sport will never be the star. The games will always be the backdrop. The Queen’s Gambit followed this format beautifully. People love to watch people. The players led us to the game. When we got to the games, we were much more susceptible and hungrier to learn. We wanted to understand what the characters found so fascinating. Chess stood proud and worthy in The Queen’s Gambit, but people took the lead.”

I asked him, “Do you know how to play chess?”

“Not really, just how the pieces move.”

“I play a little, but in The Queen’s Gambit, it didn’t seem to matter to viewers whether or not they played chess.”

He added, “Exactly, because they did not over-explain the sport. Unless the viewer was a genius savant, they did not learn how to play chess during the series. If viewers decide to learn how to play or compete in tournament chess, that is for another time. Learning any sport is a slow reveal. The slower, the better.The Queen’s Gambit dropped a few breadcrumbs. The screenplay did not use valuable time explaining the Sicilian opening while playing white.”

I eased the Lexus into traffic and said, “I got another tip for a harness racing series that follows the Queen’s Gambit model?”

“What’s that?”

“Release the series during a pandemic.”

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