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Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ illuminates the chess-tennis connection
The way chess becomes the protagonist’s source of salvation rings true to tennis players.
January 16, 2021
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Editor’s Note: The below contains spoilers for The Queen’s Gambit.
It’s often been said that tennis is physical chess. Might that make chess mental tennis?
Perhaps an answer can be found in The Queen’s Gambit, a popular and recent seven-part Netflix series about a chess prodigy. Though this show only makes one passing reference to tennis, it reveals a longstanding affinity between the two games that’s compelling and edifying.
The protagonist is Elizabeth “Beth” Harmon, a fatherless child whose mother commits a fatal car accident that the nine-year-old Beth survives. Sent to live a bleak life in an orphanage, she stumbles into chess courtesy of a janitor and rapidly demonstrates an exceptional aptitude for the game. By night, under the influence of tranquilizers given to her by the orphanage’s medical staff, Beth attempts to sleep in a lumpy mattress, stares at the ceiling and visualizes a chessboard, complete with pieces she imagines moving. By day, Beth devours chess books, studying past players, games and moves. In short order, she becomes a strategist as keen as Martina Hingis and a killer as driven as Rafael Nadal.
In one game, well aware that she has an opponent completely trapped, Beth asks her imminent victim, “Do you see it now, or should we finish this on the board?” As the show’s executive producer, William Horberg, told me, “She has a go for the jugular instinct . . . this existential need to win.”
The way chess becomes Beth’s major source of salvation will ring true to many a tennis player.
Says Beth about chess, “I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And it’s predictable. So if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”
This is similar to the deep reverence all-time great Jimmy Connors holds for tennis’ singular DNA. Unlike team sports, in tennis, Connors once said, “you hold your destiny in your hands.” Also, like Connors, John McEnroe and Pancho Gonzales, there are times—many times—when Beth draws on hatred for the opposition as a motivational tool. Pointedly, chess and tennis are comfortable venues for those distrustful of others.
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, the protagonist. (Netflix)
On a more intellectual basis, the chess-tennis connection is vivid. It is one thing to be able to hit a tennis ball well. It’s another to know what it takes to construct points and compete effectively.
“The game [of tennis] is about moving pieces,” says 1983 Wimbledon finalist Chris Lewis, who currently runs the Southern California-based Brymer Lewis Tennis Academy.
This is where an appetite for the study and practice of various plays, patterns and strategies makes a major difference. Chicago-based Jim Egerton has taught both chess and tennis and is keen on the deep similarities the two share.
An article Egerton wrote for TennisPro notes that, “Many of the strategies used in both games are generated from the fact that a chessboard and a tennis court are four sided shapes with similar geometric properties.” As Egerton explains, “The idea is to get your opponent to a bad part of the court.”
“A chess mentality on the court involves knowing where you ultimately want to get,” says Gene Mayer, a two-time Grand Slam doubles champion who was ranked No. 4 in the world in 1980. Hitting with two hands off both sides, Mayer took his own chess-like approach to tennis, often utterly flummoxing opponents with a vast array of speeds and spins while directing the ball into more nooks and crannies than you’d find on a toasted English muffin.
“There are very different ways people like to be offensive,” says Mayer. “[John] Isner wants complete first-strike tennis. For me, it was over six to eight balls. I was very happy to let the point continue, as long as the court spreads.”
Audrey Grigore, a member of the tennis team at Marshall University, competed extensively in chess when she was younger—the equivalent of a nationally ranked junior tennis player—and sees a direct link to her tennis.
“Chess has helped me critically think,” says Grigore. “I try to figure out my opponent’s weaknesses. Chess helped me look for weaknesses.”
Characters Harmon and Dorocinski in episode 107. (Netflix)
Says Sophia Nguyen, a junior tennis player based in Santa Rosa, California, “Chess can help with patience. There’s a just a lot of brainpower in chess and tennis. They’re both very tactical. You’re looking ahead, predicting what’s going to happen. But you don’t want to be too stuck on it.”
“It’s analytics and emotions and instinct,” says Tennis Channel analyst Martina Navratilova, who has played both games. “And then your personality is reflected in how you play tennis or chess. Are you looking shots ahead?” In Navratilova’s case, that meant constantly seeking ways to get to net, often with the combination of her sliced crosscourt backhand and topspin forehand.
Comparing several tennis players to chess pieces, Navratilova regards Roger Federer as the Queen: “He can do whatever he wants.” Monica Seles’ penchant for hitting the ball early and creating sharp angles makes her akin to the diagonal-moving Bishop. Fabrice Santoro—who broadened his tactical array while working with Mayer in his youth—is the Knight: “He beats you sneaky.”
Since 2013, US Chess Federation senior director of strategic communications Dan Lucas, himself an avid tennis player, has organized a tennis outing for players and family members during the US Open chess tournament. According to Lucas, “The most obvious similarity is how you have to learn to build a point to be a good tennis player and the way you win a chess game is by slowly building a strong position by accumulating small advantages. Even the mistakes beginners make are similar: New tennis players just want to slam a serve as hard as they can; new chess players like to play one-move threats [which are easily parried by better players].”
Yet for all the positives surrounding chess and tennis, there are also downsides. Amid the pressure to win, distrust and solitude can curdle into paranoia and isolation. In Beth’s case, that leads to a burnout phase as tabloid-worthy as any seen from various tennis stars, complete with substance abuse, an increasingly disheveled home, and emotional anguish. Only the arrival of a long-lost friend from the orphanage triggers the intervention that puts Beth back on a healthy path.
The show’s characters Harmon and Jolene. (Netflix)
Life as an American also plays a telling role in the journey of both Beth and a great many tennis players too. As The Queen’s Gambit richly depicts, Russia is the dominant chess nation, not just due to its longstanding engagement with the sport but also because its players work together to study past games, assess opponents and support one another.
In contrast, American chess players often go solo—similar to the ways of its many tennis players. Though American tennis stars will join forces for high-stakes events like Davis Cup and the Billie Jean King Cup (formerly Fed Cup), camaraderie in the American tennis world has always been a far cry from what’s common in Spain, Sweden and Australia. Akin to such American lone wolves as Connors and Gonzales, it’s not easy for Beth to compete and connect.
“She’s clearly got problems relating to people, human to human,” says Horberg. “That’s her whole arc in the show, of re-inhabiting her skin and allowing herself to be vulnerable and be connected to people.”
In the seventh and final episode of The Queen’s Gambit, Beth takes on the reigning world champion, Russian Vasily Borgov. “He’s like Bjorn Borg,” says Horberg. “He doesn’t make mistakes.”
Having lost to Borgov earlier, Beth dismisses his disciplined playing style as “bureaucratic.” But Beth soon realizes that to beat Borgov, she must seek collaboration with her fellow American chess players. Over the course of a lengthy phone call, they deeply pick apart his game, study a range of other moves and soon hatch a winning game plan.
As informed and confident as a Billie Jean King Cup player who’s logged in hours of drills and practice sets with her mates, Beth plays smart, aggressive chess and defeats Borgov. Along the way, for those moments, she has overcome her emotional demons, built community, and found redemption.
Following Beth’s grand triumph, she walks the streets of Moscow and sees a group of elderly men playing chess—a scene akin to a gathering of crafty tennis veterans hanging out at a public park. In the show’s final scene, Beth sits across a chessboard from a man that bears a resemblance to her first chess mentor, back at the orphanage. Beth’s full circle return is similar to this 2013 YouTube clip of a 60-year-old Connors, hitting methodically against the wall:
“We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote the poet T.S. Eliot, “And the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.”
Chess and tennis: singular activities, subtly but powerfully defined by our relationships—to the opponent, to the pieces, to the board, to ourselves, to the game. As Beth tells her opponent in the last words of the show: “Let’s play.”