making moves

How The Queen’s Gambit Made Its Chess Scenes Believable and Exciting

Cower before Beth Harmon. Photo: Phil Bray/Netflix

Once young orphan Elizabeth Harmon gets in front of a chessboard, her life snaps together around a purpose, and so does The Queen’s Gambit. The Netflix series, based on Walter Tevis’s novel, imagines the life of a fictional addiction-prone American chess prodigy, played by Anya Taylor-Joy, who rockets into the highest levels of the international chess circuit in the 1950s and ’60s. Once Beth starts to play chess, she can’t really bring herself to stop thinking about it, playing out games in her head, and obsessing over the matches she does and does not win over the course of her career.

The show is filled with sequences of Beth playing chess, which could make for dreadfully boring television, but the series, developed by Godless’s Scott Frank and Allan Scott, plots out numerous engaging matches, and edits each of them together in a variety of ways to hold your attention. By the end of the show, you might actually find yourself wanting to watch more chess — or at least I did.

Two key figures in putting together those sequences were Bruce Pandolfini, a longtime chess author and coach who also consulted on the original novel, and Michelle Tesoro, The Queen’s Gambit’s editor, who also worked with Frank on Godless. The two of them talked to Vulture about mapping out the series’ many chess matches, finding innovative ways to cut them together, and the useful advice they got from grandmaster Garry Kasparov.

1. Think through how all the chess matches will look onscreen — even the ones that are offscreen.
Tevis’s original novel describes many of the chess moves seen in the show, but filming the series meant filling in more details on Beth’s matches, and inventing many other ones. “It’s one thing to have moves that don’t quite make sense in a novel,” Pandolfini said, “but onscreen, it has to be very clear.”

Pandolfini consulted on the original novel back in 1982 and suggested chess positions to Tevis then, though the author decided not to include any of his suggestions. “Really the only thing I gave to the novel was the title,” Pandolfini said, saying that he tossed off the idea for using the chess opening as the name of the book in an early meeting with Tevis and his editor. Since the book’s publication, there have been several attempts to adapt it for film (including by Heath Ledger before his death), but Pandolfini wasn’t involved in any of them until producer William Horberg, who had also made Searching for Bobby Fischer, reached out to him about working on the show. His assignment: going over all the chess moves you see onscreen to make sure they made sense.

“Scott went more or less with what Walter had written in the novel in the script,” Pandolfini said. “So I read through all that and made sure the moves actually matched the scenarios that were going on. I came up with 92 positions, we called that the Bible, that reflected the actual scenes in the series. In fact, many more positions were created beyond the essentials, because you want to have the ambience. Other players, even actors off camera, are doing things that are logical. As many as 350 total positions were brought on, and that wasn’t just myself.” Garry Kasparov, the Russian grandmaster, also contributed positions, especially for Beth’s matches against the Russian characters, as well as two German chess techs who also consulted onsite.

2. Give the characters a playing style that makes sense for their personalities and the era.
In the show, the characters describe Beth as a very “intuitive” player, something you need to understand through the way she moves her pieces on the board. “I tried to find moves that displayed a certain naturalness, which might not be bookish, and which might veer from what’s traditionally accepted as right,” Pandolfini said.

The characters on the show often mention real chess stars of the era in passing, and discuss moves that those players might have used, though there’s one famous American analogue for Beth that seemingly doesn’t exist in her universe. “You’ll notice Bobby Fischer is not mentioned,” Pandolfini said. “Walter didn’t want to mention him. Benny is kind of like him, but a little sexier. Bobby would’ve been a rival [for Beth] that might’ve thrown it off in a way.”

3. Coach the actors to look like they know what they’re doing.
“You can tell if you just watch people when they’re grabbing chess pieces, if they’re good enough,” Pandolfini said, comparing it to the way you might be able to tell a fake baseball player if they grab the bat in the wrong place. He worked closely with the actors before and during filming on how to best imitate actual professional chess mannerisms. “It’s how quickly they respond in certain situations, and the right hesitations at points, how you write your moves down in a score sheet, how you hit the clock, and how you look at your opponent after certain moves, all these little intangibles” he said. “Anya was quite adept at it. She picked up all kinds of nuances.”

4. Switch up the visual focus of each match.
“When I started the project, Scott was like, ‘Here’s a bunch of films I don’t want it to be like,’” editor Michelle Tesoro said. “Which was, obviously, all the films that are already out there. He didn’t want it to be like anything else.” So as Tesoro cut the many different chess sequences in the show together, she tried to experiment with alternate ways of conveying what happens in different matches. In some, the focus stays on the competitor’s faces, or on the time elapsing on the clock. In others, the focus is on the movement on the pieces over the board. In one tournament in Paris, when Beth is hungover, the pieces slide around in what she dubbed a “Gumby” effect. In a competition in Ohio, Beth and a rival rise through the ranks in split screens, an effect Tesoro borrowed from the 1971 film Le Mans (“and then when I watched JoJo Rabbit, I was like, goddammit, they used the same thing”).

6. Give the games a rhythm.
The show, like the book that inspired it, starts to move quickly as soon as Beth discovers chess matches, often through long montages of tournaments, so much so that Tesoro and Scott eventually worried that “we were making one big montage.” But then they decided to make that a part of the structure of the show — sequences that build up a rhythm, suddenly interrupted by an important match or conversation or twist.

“In the script, it constantly felt like we were jumping in time and it had its own movement,” Tesoro said, “so it was important to have a show that moved in its storytelling. You’re running, running, running, and then you’re stopping to digest and take it in.”

Along the way, they also decided to break up the story from six episodes into seven shorter episodes, both in order to preserve a rhythm to the watching, and because of notes from Netflix itself. “When the cuts had gone to Netflix and [the early episodes] were an hour plus, they were concerned,” Tesoro said. “They have their metrics that say, hey, you really can’t go past an hour. Preferably, you want to go under an hour.”

7. Bring the focus back to the board for the big moments.
The show builds to a big finale when Beth manages to get to Russia to play against their star players, which is when the filmmaking and chess consultation really comes together. After working through a whole bag of tricks in terms of how you could communicate what’s happening in a match, Tesoro felt it was important to revert back to the basics: “At the end, you return to the classic medium shot where you’re seeing what’s happening at the board,” she said. “It feels more like you want to go back there than if we had pummeled you with the same shots of chess.”

Then we also get to see some of the most involved chess playing of the show, which took a lot of careful planning. Kasparov helped contribute a lot of the playing you see there, both in Beth’s final match against her constant rival, Borgov, and a crucial penultimate match with an old Russian player named Luchenko.

“It was hard finding a place in the game where we could also match the script, because at a point in the match with Luchenko, the game had to be adjourned. That’s when you stop playing and come back the next day and you cheat. Everyone does it. Both sides,” Pandolfini said. “We had to make sure the game had an adjourning point. Kasparov found one that was reasonable. Then he came up with some moves that were intriguing and different and had real brilliance to them. It makes for a very dramatic scene.”

How The Queen’s Gambit Made Chess Believable and Exciting