‘The Queen’s Gambit’: What Exactly Is the Opening Move That Inspired the Netflix Series?

Overwhelmingly voted the #1 Netflix original program of 2020, The Queen’s Gambit is an utterly elegant, totally binge-worthy 7-part series that tells the tale of an orphaned chess prodigy named Beth Harmon. The story itself is fictional, but the chess moves are quite real. What is the opening move that inspired the series? Here’s what we know:

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon sitting next to a chess board
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon | Phil Bray/Netflix

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ begins

As the series opens, viewers meet a fatherless 8-year-old who survives a horrific car accident that kills her mom. Portrayed by Isla Johnson, young Beth Harmon winds up in the custody of a church-run orphanage called Methuen Home where she watches Coronet Instructional Films and develops a crippling dependence on little green tranquilizers.

Sullen and unable to fit in with the other girls, Harmon befriends the school janitor, Mr. Shaibel, who gives her a book called Modern Chess Openings and teaches her how to play chess. Not only does the youngster learn the game quickly, but she also becomes a world-class chess prodigy.

The show’s eponymous opening move

To a dedicated chess master, the phrase “1.d4 d5 2.c4” denotes a bold opening sequence called “The Queen’s Gambit.” The player with the white pieces always makes the first move, and if they manage to complete the Queen’s Gambit, they have a more than 40 percent chance of winning the game, says Chess.

The Queen’s Gambit starts with white moving the pawn that sits in front of their queen forward two squares. The “gambit” part of the name describes placing a piece at risk of being captured. In the case of a pawn, the sacrifice may not be permanent.

This opening move gives the first player a chance to trade a pawn for better control of the center of the board. If this move is countered by black moving their queen’s pawn forward two squares, white moves their queen-side bishop pawn forward two squares, and the Queen’s Gambit opening is complete.

As the game progresses, benefits of the Queen’s Gambit include white forcing their opponent to play in a cramped position and/or lose control of the center of the board entirely, explains Simplify Chess.

Interestingly, the series starring Anya Taylor-Joy employs a story technique not unlike Lewis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass. In the classic sequel to Alice in Wonderland, the girl protagonist begins as a low-ranking pawn and takes just seven moves to become queen as Harmon does in seven episodes.

Chess board, pieces, and moves simplified

In competitive chess, a system known as algebraic notation is used to record moves. In fact, any player who competes in a tournament must understand and employ chess notation. This technique provides a running scoresheet that makes it simple for any arbiter to see the entire history of the game in lieu of relying on the recall of the participants.

A chessboard comprises an 8 × 8 grid alternating color squares. Each of the 64 squares is named with a number and a letter. Every chessboard has the same alphanumeric coordinates. The entire board is numbered and lettered from the perspective of the white player with 1-a in the lower-left corner of the board and 8-h at the upper right. Vertical rows are called “files” while horizontal rows are known as “ranks.”

To set up a chessboard, start by placing the rooks, or castles, at the outside corners. In notation, rooks are called R, explains iChess. The knights, or horses, go next to the rooks. Knights are notated as N. The teardrop-topped bishops (B} are placed next to the knights, then the queens (Q) and the cross-topped kings (K). The queens, by the way, always sit on their own color and are perfectly opposite one another on the board.

Pawns are the most plentiful and are not given a notated name. Pawns can only move forward. At their first move, a pawn can move one or two squares forward. A pawn may capture an opposing piece by moving one square forward diagonally, explains Dummies.

Bishops may move any number of squares per turn as long as they move diagonally and are not blocked by other pieces. Knights can only move in an L-shaped pattern of two squares up and one square over, and they may do this in any direction. Queens are the most versatile pieces and can move in any direction for any number of squares. Kings are the most valuable piece and may move just one square in any direction.

According to Chess Equipments, the history of the strategic board game that enchanted Beth Harmon dates back to long-ago India. The rules have changed over the years, but the game remains an exercise in intellect. In fact, searches for chess terms have increased exponentially since The Queen’s Gambit premiered.

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