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10 Psychological Truths in "The Queen’s Gambit"

Good storytelling doesn't merely entertain us. It conveys the truths of life.

 "The Queen`s Gambit" by mbgrigby/Flickr
Source: "The Queen`s Gambit" by mbgrigby/Flickr

The Netflix miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit, has been seen by nearly 70 million people since it was released in late October. What accounts for its popularity?

People are drawn to storytelling, not just because stories entertain us, but because they convey important psychological truths. The Queen’s Gambit is no exception. Here are 10 such truths:

1. We are resilient.

Human beings are capable of surviving the most horrific circumstances. We can even thrive after healing from them. The hero in The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon, must overcome the death of her biological mother, the death of her adopted mother, and her own serious addiction. Beth rises to the top of the chess world because she has grit and refuses to give up her dream of becoming a world chess champion.

2. The enemy is us.

People can be their own worst enemies. Beth competes in the chess world, but her most formidable opponent is herself. She struggles with a deep dependency on tranquilizers and booze. Even worse, she falsely believes that these drugs help her chess game. Beth’s story tells us that when life deals us blows, we must take a personal inventory to see how much we are responsible for our own misery.

3. We need mentors.

At the age of 9, Beth expresses an interest in chess to Mr. Shaibel, a janitor at the orphanage. He could have shunned her, but instead, he teaches her the game and is the first to recognize her genius. Shaibel’s mentorship is the key to Beth’s heroic journey. Not only do we need mentors, we owe it to others to mentor them.

4. We need friends.

Mentorship is not enough. Beth’s skills and charm endear her to other chess players whom she has defeated. They become her friends who rally behind her in helping her to defeat Borgov, the Russian world champion. The hero’s journey is never meant to be undertaken alone. All heroes, from Harry Potter to Katniss Everdeen, need help from friends.

5. Genius is hard work.

Sure, Beth has prodigious natural talent. But there are numerous scenes in The Queen’s Gambit showing Beth’s habit of reading books on chess and practicing the game for hours every day. Success doesn’t just happen. The hero of every story has to have the discipline, patience, and effort to succeed, and only after first experiencing numerous failures.

6. Heroes are flawed people.

Human beings tend to idealize their heroes, expecting them to be perfect in every way. We know, of course, that heroes are flawed, troubled, and suffering, just like every person. Beth Harmon has anger, anxiety, and trouble with intimacy. She’s also emotionally shut down. What sets heroes apart is their ability to transform themselves and commit to their own personal growth. Mr. Shaibel, her mentor, taught her this fact.

7. We love underdogs.

We all know that people love an underdog, and Beth is an underdog in many ways. First, Beth is a woman competing in a man’s world. Second, she’s not only an orphan, but she is twice orphaned. Third, she has a substance use disorder. Fourth, because of the severity of her losses, she’s emotionally stunted. Fifth, she is poor. Finally, she is an American playing a game that is dominated by the Russians.

Almost every human being begins life as a small, weak, disadvantaged underdog. So when Beth prevails over the Russian world champion, we feel sweet satisfaction.

8. Failure is mandatory.

Beth may be a natural chess genius, but she still loses matches to Benny Watts and twice to Vasily Borgov, the world champion. These losses humble her, and she uses this humility to work and study harder about chess strategy. Failure doesn't stop her journey; it fuels it.

9. Forgiveness is a gift.

The Queen's Gambit is peppered with acts of forgiveness. Beth forgives Jolene for stealing her book. A shopkeeper forgives Beth for shoplifting a chess magazine. Mr. Shaibel forgives Beth for calling him an obscenity. Beth and Townes forgive each other over a misunderstanding. Forgiveness is a gift signaling that we treasure the sanctity of a relationship above all else.

10. We give back what was given to us.

The conclusion of The Queen's Gambit features Beth winning the world championship. Instead of reveling in the spotlight, Beth's first action is to mingle with ordinary Russian citizens resembling Mr. Shaibel. She has returned "home" so to speak. Beth then plays chess with one of the men, giving back what Mr. Shaibel once gave to her.

All of these psychological truths make The Queen’s Gambit not just entertaining but validating and uplifting to us. Good stories impart wisdom about how to overcome adversity, how to become our best selves. That’s why we read bedtime stories to kids and why we watch compelling films and television.


Allison, S. T. (2021). Beth Harmon’s hero’s journey: The psychology of heroism in The Queen’s Gambit. Richmond: Palsgrove.

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