The Queen's Gambit: A Story of Psychological Resiliency

Part I: When a Netflix show and resiliency research collide.

Posted Nov 29, 2020

Warning: Spoilers ahead for The Queen's Gambit.

The Queen's Gambit, a Netflix miniseries based on the 1983 fictional novel by Walter Tevis, tells the coming-of-age tale of an orphaned girl with an incredible talent for chess. It also depicts a story of psychological resiliency, with the heroine overcoming a traumatizing accident, the abandonment of one parent and death of another, a turbulent childhood, and an addiction through well-studied psychological and biological factors that promote grit, hardiness, and growth.

In short, despite the traumas the protagonist suffers and her maladaptive coping through substance abuse, she ultimately prevails through 1) specific attributes with a strong genetic basis; 2) strong relational ties; and 3) a support system who reward her abilities — the same factors found in longitudinal research which explores which factors make people resilient (Werner, 2000; Afifi & MacMillan, 2011).

Pixaby/Pexels CCO
Chess pieces on a board, with a pawn wearing a gold crown.
Source: Pixaby/Pexels CCO

The Queen's Gambit opens with a disorienting scene of a young woman seemingly at her worst; being woken by loud knocks by a hotel worker, signaling to the audience that she’s clearly and frantically running late. She scrambles around her room to find a spare shoe, further depicting her disorganized state, as she reaches for a small bottle concealing a few pills, which she quickly swallows. 

Suddenly, a flashback reveals a terrible car accident with a dead woman, and a child, who turns out to be our protagonist, Elizabeth "Beth" Harmon. Standing near, an officer at the scene describes the "miracle" of Beth's survival "without a scratch" while, prophetically, the other officer replies, "I doubt she’ll see it that way." 

Beth is taken to an orphanage, where the director, Mrs. Dierdorf, welcomes her by saying, “I know at this moment all you’re feeling is lost, but after grief brings you low, prayer and faith will lift you high. High enough for you to see a new path for yourself.” This foreshadows the journey on which Beth is about to embark, when she finally does see a new path for herself after eventually recognizing her suppressed losses.

Early on, we see the first factor with a strong genetic basis of Beth's resiliency at play: her intelligence (Garmezy, 1985). We find out that her mother was exceptionally gifted, earning a Ph.D. in mathematics from Cornell. This trait is likely passed on to her daughter, as we see that she finishes her math test early, leading her teacher to ask her to clap chalk erasers in the basement with the remaining class time. Interestingly enough, resilient children were found to particularly conduct "acts of required helpfulness" (Rachman, 1978) and were found to better "concentrate on their work [and] had better reasoning and reading skill than their less resilient counterparts" (Werner, 1987).

It is through this act of helpfulness that Beth discovers Mr. Shaibel, a janitor at the orphanage, and gets her first glimpse of chess. The following day, she returns to Mr. Shaibel, asking him to teach her how to play, which he refuses.

Around this time, she is advised by Jolene, another girl in the orphanage who assumes the role of a big sister, to not to take the green pill routinely administered to the orphans, but instead to wait until nightfall to consume the green ones. Resilient children are, in fact, sociable — a trait with a strong genetic basis, allowing for Beth to develop a friendship with Jolene — and “especially adept” at recruiting "surrogate parents" like Mr. Shaibel.

While she initially walks away defeated after her third request to Mr. Shaibel, that night, high on green pills, Beth dreams of a chessboard, despite knowing nothing of the game. The following day, with renewed vigor, she asks him to teach her again, where he notes that "girls do not play chess." Indeed, her gender will become a defining element that she will continuously confront with herself and others, particularly in the arena of chess.

In research on resiliency, the most resilient children show "signs of a healthy androgyny, a blend of both 'masculine' and 'feminine' interests in addition to a positive self-concept and a strong faith in the control of their own fate" (Werner, 1987). It is perhaps these traits which propel her persistence to win over Mr. Shaibel, who eventually agrees to play with her, and are best exemplified by her early rejection of nearly all things feminine, like the doll given to her by an inspired Mr. Ganz, Mr. Shaibel's chess playing colleague, which she quickly discards directly into the trash bin, and the abandonment of her feminine first name to her surname, "Harmon," in the chess world. 

Check back soon for Part II!

References

Werner, E. E. (1987). Vulnerability and Resiliency: A Longitudinal Study of Asian Americans from Birth to Age 30.

Werner, E. E. (2000). Protective factors and individual resilience. Handbook of early childhood intervention, 2, 115-132.

Afifi, T. O., & MacMillan, H. L. (2011). Resilience following child maltreatment: A review of protective factors. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56(5), 266-272.