Chess or life

Mira Schendel, Untitled, 1985, Photographic reproduction unknown author


Comparison between the novels “Near the wild heart” by Clarice Lispector and “The Queen's Gambit” by Walter Tevis.

This article is dedicated to all women chess players, starting with the great master “by pure chance” Clarice Lispector.

The same muse that inspired Clarice Lispector in Close to the wild heart must have enlightened Walter Tevis in conceiving the novel – and now Netflix miniseries – The Queen's Gambit. The difference is limited to the ambience of the chess tournaments, since, as for the protagonists, Joana and Elizabeth Harmon are twins personifying variations of the same theme: the orphan girl who, through trial and error, discovers herself as an independent and empowered woman in a world patriarchal where recognition, when it exists, can only be earned at the cost of a certain loneliness.

Loneliness, yes, however, not that which concerns passive and resigned spirits; perhaps that is why the word is more appropriate here solitude, meaning voluntary adherence to isolation. After all, neither Beth nor Joana are like the Hollywood heroines who confuse a happy ending with romantic love – an ideal, incidentally, shrewdly deconstructed by Clarice through the mouth of her character when, still a girl, she asks the teacher: “I wanted to know: after is happy what happens? What next?”. Here is the prototype of the woman who, later, will be the inquisitor of marriage as a synonym for happy end of existence itself.

In short, what we have Close to the wild heart e The Queen's Gambit it is the challenge of answering the very current question: what is the value of a woman on the chessboard of the world if, even when she proves to be as powerful as a lady, she can still only exist insofar as she obeys the rules that subordinate her to the king? It seems to me that, in these two works, it is above all about embodying the struggle feminist (in the broadest sense of the term) for the right to exist in front of men who, outside the controlled universe of the 64 scaques, do not know how to deal with the initiative – and sometimes with the daring – of women. Let us look more closely at this bias of the problem.

If we can say that Beth's character from an early age manifests itself in a preference for active moves and counterattacks in the style of the “Sicilian opening”, a favorite of chess players with an aggressive style, we will see a structure of behavior that would explain, for example, Joana's overwhelming maneuver, in the chapter "A vibora", to get pregnant by her ex-husband, Otávio, before abandoning him for good, as if he were a mere sacrificed pawn (here's the definition of "gambit") in order to to contain the threat of his lover Lídia. Everything happens as if, in the interview with her rival, Joana was disputing the initiative by resorting to risky moves and, just like in a decisive game, sacrificing all her pieces because she had nothing left to lose but her own freedom.

The analogy is irresistible, starting with the repressed revolt that moves the Kentucky orphan. Clarice seems to be talking about Beth when she gives us to understand, in the chapter “O dia de Joana”, that her character needs to deal from an early age with “that feeling of restrained strength, ready to erupt violence” in the relationships she has with people. Beth would certainly recognize in these survival moves the same logic without easy solutions of a chess game, as when the mysterious nameless man – the lover chosen to occupy the empty house left by Otávio – abandons the game of affections whose control from the beginning was always in Joana's hands: “She, who had violated that man's soul, filled it with a light whose evil he still did not understand” (cf. the chapter “The departure of men”).

In schematic lines, the parallelism between Beth and Joana regarding the relationships involving male characters can be postulated as follows: in both narratives, there is an arc that goes from lonely childhood, marked by the older man who teaches about life and death as a mysterious oracle, until reaching maturity, whose figuration is given by the escape of the lover after he realizes he is incapable of controlling the emancipated woman. Such a game of mirrors is somewhat reminiscent of the symmetry of black and white chess pieces.

On the one hand, the teacher who teases Joana with philosophical lessons at boarding school, and on the other, the orphanage caretaker, Mr. Shaibel (in the series played by Bill Camp in a decisive supporting role reminiscent of Burgess Meredith in Rocky), which teaches the girl lessons on how to lose sportingly at chess. Similarly, we have those who might be called training loves: the mysterious, nameless man, with whom Joana gets involved after separating from Otávio and who helps her discover her independence, resembles the young champion, Benny Watts, who, even with wounded pride, accepts being the “second” of Beth in order to help his former chess-playing lover in the final match against Borgov.

In both cases, we see unorthodox relationships that do not last “until death do us part”, thus contrasting with the conventional marriage model desired by Lídia or by the leader of the “Apple Pi” teen club. In addition, both Joana and Beth approach figures that, from a psychoanalytical point of view, can be seen as archetypes of the father, but not to be imagined as protectors, but, pragmatically speaking, as supports for personal development, because it is thanks to absence of the father figure, present only in the person of his substitute, that the adolescent's maturation and empowerment takes place, who needs to survive on her own.

With regard to the psychological construction of the characters (and this is what interests me), the question concerns the formation of a semantic field of the characters' discourse where the words loneliness e freedom can be understood in a complementary way, and not as if they were antagonistic terms. We see this linguistic elaboration in the words that Joana uses to disqualify the marriage: “not even the freedom to be unhappy is preserved because someone else is dragged along with it” (ch. “Lídia”).

Now, we are not talking about a mere moral criticism, because the difficulty is not the institution of marriage itself, since, for Joana, the model of the romantic couple functions as an experience of self-knowledge. The real threat of the game is the woman's loss of independence in exchange for a supposed savior man. When expressing her desire, Joana is very clear when she says that, in terms of a lover, she wants nothing more than a “living body”, in the sense of a sexual object (chap. “The departure of men”).

Thus, if Clarice reflects on marriage, it is not to defend female celibacy. A clear proof of this posture is that Joana voluntarily decides to stay with the lover who takes Otávio's place: “I could still back down, I could still turn my back and walk away, avoiding him. […] Nothing kept her there motionless, clearly waiting for his approach” (ch. “The man”). Deep down, what Clarice seeks is the dismantling of the Manichean stereotype of the dependent woman, whose representation oscillates dichotomously between two naturalized images: on the one hand, the saint, and on the other, the harlot (or hooker same, as the late Gabriela Leite would say). These detached maneuvers toward men recur as variants of a wild combination in Beth's life. Now let's talk a little about the opponent.

Lídia symbolizes the wife destined for domestic life while alluding to marriage as a place of redemption from sins. However, after the interview with Joana, we see that this whole image falls to the ground, as Lídia does not manifest either sanctity or devilry, but only the desire of a woman who idealizes her self-realization in the form of submissive life to a man according to the conventional model of marriage. Such a scheme of moral intelligibility is also verified in Joana's disqualification when she is called a "viper" by her aunt and by Otávio: the snake manifests the visible sign of the "evil" characteristic of the stereotype of the misfit woman who rebels against her role in society .

The free female, capable of legitimizing for herself the right to choose and abandon her males, is, in this sense, the image of “evil”. For Clarice, a woman's salvation, if any, is found in herself, and not in marriage or motherhood: “God, come to me not to save me, salvation would be in me [...]” (chap. “ The trip"). It is also the same with Beth Harmon in relation to the men with whom she has relationships, starting with the colleague from her Russian classes, who can disappear without causing pain or nostalgia: just like her father, they are all replaceable and, even though they are important in their affective history, none will be so indispensable as to cause irreparable sadness when they are absent – ​​the lives of Beth and Joana do not lose meaning when they are abandoned, because deep down, both cherish the freedom that only solitude can offer .

In short: what Beth and Joana demonstrate in their upbringing stories is that being alone is not synonymous with punishment, but with independence. There are several other similarities in the confrontation of the two works, all linked to the deconstruction of the idealized woman figure according to the bourgeois family model and, for that very reason, subjected to misogynistic institutions that veto even the slightest desire for emancipation. In both, the heroines call into question the social destiny of women established according to the moral standards of a good family.

Now, although an exhaustive comparison within this framework of analysis could be interesting from the point of view of feminist criticism, we should first note the greater purpose of the analyzed authors: it is necessary to agree that, in addition to militancy for women's rights, what Beth and Joana teach us concerns the representation of female self-sufficiency in our culture. It is not by chance that none of them fits into psychological types that are not very complex and based on established prejudices.

In Beth's evolutionary arc, this is remarkable: she starts out as a purely intuitive player (like the great Cuban master José Raul Capablanca), who gets lazy to study the books that men show her, but at the end of the series, Beth is a complete player, combining, on the one hand, the imaginative trait that marks her femininity in the eyes of men (the aversion to methodical study), and on the other hand, the discipline of studying books that legitimize the knowledge of male players.

Tevis and Clarice are magnificent in the construction of their characters whose triumph is seen as a failure by traditional society. Lídia's success is equivalent to a resounding "scholar's mate” for Beth: it is the commonplace of all beginners, and therefore it is the place where Joana and Beth, both experienced players, do not want to be. Despite the losses and damage caused by the women's freedom in motion – in the end, both Joana and Beth end up in the loneliness of the “wild heart of life” – yet both manage to see in life, to our astonishment, something they can call beautiful. Joana herself could conclude here by saying: “even the weariness of life has a certain beauty when it is borne alone and in despair” (cf. chap. “Lídia”).

Let us now look at this issue of beauty from a woman's point of view in The Queen's Gambit. In the third episode of the series, the character played by Anya Taylor-Joy talks to an unfriendly reporter who lets her sexism of questions show; and it is in this scene that Beth, in one of her answers to the interviewer, exposes the revealing analogy between the game and her life: “Chess is not always competitive… Chess can also be… beautiful”. This is a small change from the book (Tevis had left the last sentence just in thought, cf. Tevis, 1983, p. 136) whose merit lies in providing us with a better image of Beth, both in terms of her contradictions internal, or in what concerns their place of speech. The Beth in the series is more empowered than the one in the book.

Attentive readers soon realize that both Beth and Joana are characterized not only by tragic feelings of uniqueness and social inadequacy, but also, and above all, by the philosophical principle of autonomy, which, incidentally, makes the mentions of philosophers in both novels understandable: Aristotle, Spinoza, Diderot, etc. The armies mobilized on the board express the player's self-government, who can declare herself sovereign over the opposing side. Evidently, all this jurisdiction is limited to the 64 houses in the game, but Beth and Joana's intention is to expand sovereignty and self-government to the lived world.

Thus, despite having the feeling of freedom constrained on all sides by the oppression of institutionalized machismo, it is they themselves who, embodying the fiction of the autonomous subject, find ways to become masters of their own destiny. in a philosophical sense; each one, in her own way, aims to decide, based on her own experience and apart from the etiquette of the time, the movements of her pieces on the chessboard of life. It may seem like a small thing to us, but in the XNUMXth century this was how certain philosophers, Rousseau, for example, understood human relations and civil institutions on the eve of the French Revolution.

This invention of modern philosophy, the autonomous subject, whose freedom is self-determined, although he is despised by the nobility as if he were nothing more than a pawn on the chessboard, is capable of turning the tide and declaring not only death to the enemy king, but also a radical change in the customs of the time. In this sense, disregarding a weak piece in the game, be it the woman or the pawn, can lead to a deadly counterattack culminating in the death of the king. In a philosophical sense (of political philosophy), Beth and Joana's posture is nothing less than revolutionary in its historical moment.

But a woman's personality is not constructed solely on the basis of the social aspects of life. Without falling into biologizing discourses, it is necessary to recognize that there are psychological problems to be taken into account when discussing concepts such as female consciousness or female condition. The girl Joana would say without blinking: “the first truth is in the earth and in the body” (ch. “The bath”); Joana a woman would perhaps prefer to speak of the “living body” (ch. “The departure of men”). And, in addition to the examples of Close to the wild heart, we could transport Clarice to the scene in GH's room where she would describe the viscera of her soul in the image of the “neutral body of a cockroach” (cf. The passion according to GH).

With Beth it is no different, as we can read the basement of Casa Methuen as the intestine of reality, an underworld where good civility counts less than the resources accessed for controlling one's own body. Hence the relevance of the moment when little Beth becomes aware of the pleasure she experiences playing chess, with the tragic detail of being a pleasure that can only be realized with the use of a certain dose of tranquilizers.

“That night, for the first time, she took three pills. […] she discovered something important. […] Something in her life was resolved: she knew the chess pieces, how they moved and captured; and she knew how to make herself feel good about her stomach and the tensions in her arms and legs using the pills the orphanage gave her.” (Tevis, 1983, p. 8).

Thanks to the green pills, the eight-year-old girl (“nine in November”) effectively controls the pieces on the 64 squares of the board in the basement of the orphanage and, therefore, acquires unprecedented mastery of herself. From now on, the very fragile Beth starts to find in the successive matches played in the basement of the orphanage against the caretaker, Mr. Shaibel, a source of courage to face life's frightening events. If until then Beth was powerless in the face of adult authority, from now on, in a crescendo that combines risks and needs at the same time (that is, the effective reality of life, to reflect like Machiavelli), she begins to build a new world where, to some extent, power is in their hands and needs to be conserved at all costs, even if that means self-violence. The woman portrayed in the person of Beth cannot lose: “losing is not an option for her”, as we heard in a speech by the Russian Borgov, the great master and opponent of our stories.

For better or for worse, the medicine, and later the drink, help Beth to endure an existence permeated by traumas that go back to early childhood. Despite the moralistic judgments about our “Addictions”– after all, who does not have vices to hide? –, The important thing is to note that such resources exempt the young woman from having to expect much from the oppressive adults around her. Both in the book and in the series, it seems to me quite sensible that value judgments aimed at supposedly “immoral” behaviors are left aside: just as Joana steals a book and affronts her aunt’s moralism (the niece is called by her aunt “ little demon”), Beth steals (in the second episode) a magazine Chess Reviewto find out about tournaments.

Who in that scene does not reflect on the conditions of possibility for future chess players who are annulled in their potential by material conditions imposed by society? The consequences of the agenda proposed in The Queen's Gambit is seminal and feminist authors are expected to write inspired by the figure of Beth. Forget about censorship. Together with Beth, and by extension, with Joana, we reject cheap moralisms and share with them the feeling of revolt and the desire to act subversively against the institutions that oppress all women. In this way, all chess players should feel motivated to declare themselves feminists – which, however, does not occur, as we know from the attitude of great professional masters, such as the brilliant Judit Polgar, who refuses to be seen as a feminist (on this subject). subject, see Jennifer Shahade's book, Chess Bitch, P. 92).

Clarice and Tevis also touch on the theme of religion from a moral point of view. The issue is of primary importance both for Beth (who denies the missionaries financial help) and for Joan (who asks God for knowledge, i.e., Eve's sin). And it is also for us today. Even if our heroines triumph in the failure of their inglorious battles against moralistic enemies, there are many girls and women on the chessboard of life who face far worse struggles every day – struggles whose violence would make a match against Borgov seem like child's play: no wonder that “beauty”, according to Beth, is limited to the chessboard, and there she authorizes herself to do everything, like a female version of Machiavelli's prince.

Furthermore, if Beth is comparable to Machiavelli, it is not because she is a bad woman similar to Joan, but because of the need to deal with the effective truth of the world of men. The question is not to answer whether the ends justify the means, since that would be, from a philosophical point of view, a misunderstanding of Machiavelli (as philosophers are well aware, the question of ends and means presupposes a teleology, which is absent in the Príncipe), and from the point of view of the women's movements, a repression of the true root of all evil. Thus, in Clarice and in Tevis, it is a question, rather, of putting in check the source of this justification; it's about naming, one by one, who legitimizes the source of justification for means and ends. Even as a “male”, I believe that no cheap moralism around the female issue can survive in the face of the problem posed in these terms.

However, in addition to the gender issue on the agenda in the adventure of The Queen's Gambit, there is another equally provocative. Beth's great challenge in this formation narrative is quite familiar to psychoanalysts: choosing between her own life or addictions, among which, the addiction to chess, which for Beth operated as an instance of meaning in life. Let us remember what Jacques Lacan said in one of his seminars, more specifically the one in which, to talk about alienation, he exemplifies with the dilemma “the stock market or life”, commenting that the second option (in fact, the only possible one) results in a “ severed life” (Lacan, 1988, p. 201).

It is therefore symptomatic that, in Beth's social circle, two people symbolize this dilemma: Annette Packer, Beth's first opponent in the Kentucky tournament, who gives up chess to study medicine, and Harry Beltik, state champion who exchanges unrequited passion for Beth and the love of the game for the electrical engineering course. Basically, the theme of maturation in The Queen's Gambit concerns the acceptance of nonsense in life and discovering the place of Other in our symbolic world according to the premise of discourses that can both build us up and break us down. It is Joana who says everything that cannot be said by revealing the unnamable aspect – self-analysis full of pain! — Of her desire for freedom: “What I desire has no name yet” (cf. ch. “The bath”).

Beth herself spends most of her time in silence as if lost in the midst of various nameless desires. Not by chance, from time to time Beth expresses herself tersely with “ok" or "yes, ma'am”. The exception is when he describes his moves in matches, as if winning tournaments were Lacan's unnameable “purse”. In general, Tevis is silent in unison with Clarice's feminist point of view, because, in one of the simplest moments of sisterhood between Alma Wheatley and Beth during the tournament in Mexico, we read an unforgettable dialogue. To her daughter's question, "What's important?", Mrs. Weathley, a frustrated pianist, responds like the good mother she dreamed of being: “Live and grow. […] Live your life” (Tevis, 1983, p. 169). It can be seen here that Beth's mother chooses to drop the “bag”.

There are several other very interesting points in The Queen's Gambit, but I limit myself to just one more: the match against Georgi Girev. It is curious to verify the exact counterpoint of Beth's non-choice for the “bag” in the dialogue between her and the young Girev, a sort of portrait of the younger protagonist herself. The genius kid, whom Beth makes a point of cruelly humiliating herself as when she criticizes herself in front of the mirror (the themes of psychoanalysis abound!), simply does not understand her opponent's existentialist question: “If you are world champion at sixteen, what going to do for the rest of your life?” And, subtly, the scene plays out as if Beth is about to answer herself that she's going to see Elvis Presley movies in a drive-in where she herself had never been. The feeling of guilt and resentment are evident there. But we leave these discussions to psychoanalysts like Maria Homem, who in this field of knowledge is more competent than the author of these lines, in addition to being a great reader of Clarice Lispector in Portuguese. Let's go back to chess.

Those who watched the series will probably like the book, as there are passages that could not be transposed to the scene. Just one example: the apex of Beth's moral development arc, which even without seeing an imaginary board on the ceiling (this is the wonderful technological resource of the series[I]), manages to create, in her own terms of understanding reality, a world where she is free and master of herself:

“She did not open her eyes to see the time remaining on her watch, nor to look at Borgov across the chessboard, nor to see the crowd that had come into the auditorium to see her play. She set aside all that in her mind and allowed herself only the chessboard of her imagination with its intricate arrangement. It didn't really matter who was playing the black pieces, or whether the real board was in Moscow or New York or the basement of an orphanage; this eidetic image was her own domain.” (Tevis, 1983, p. 354)

The miniseries, available on Netflix since October 23, 2020, was extremely well received by chess players. In a France Culture podcast, French chess player Andreea Navrotescu states: “from a technical point of view [referring to chess], the series is perfect” (see the link to the interview in the references below). Director Scott Frank was careful to hire none other than Garry Kasparov to imprint the scenes with the same atmosphere experienced in the universe of tournaments played by Grand Masters. In my opinion, it is the best cinematic representation of the game universe since the Soviet film Shakhmatnaya goryachka [chess fever], from 1925.

Match bids and positions were taken from real matches. There are spectacular dramatic solutions, in particular, in the game that Beth plays against Luchenko with the absurdly incredible rook sacrifice on “h7”: a maneuver like this – an amazing move, not shown in the scene, but fundamental to the combination that defeats Luchenko – is worthy of a game of great international masters, a true masterpiece from the point of view of the poetics of the board, and without a doubt, a spectacle of the first magnitude to be seen on the TV screen. I confess that I was so moved watching the series that I even allow myself to give up criticizing the cultural industry to say that Netflix has done more to popularize chess in the world with the series The Queen's Gambit than Garry Kasparov with his courses and speeches that are more reminiscent of training coaching for entrepreneurs in our perverse capitalist world (with all due respect to Kasparov, of course!).

By the way, the technical aspects of the production are a spectacle in their own right. From the coherent script to the protagonist's costumes, passing through the European-style set (almost all the filming took place in Berlin) by the emotional soundtrack by Carlos Rafael Rivera and seasoned with songs popular in the 1950s and 60s (Fever by Peggy Lee or Venus of Shocking Blue, in addition to the delicious The End of the World), everything fits perfectly into a puzzle where the pieces are being put together together with the spectators. What perhaps makes the series so attractive is the fact that it teaches chess tournament rules (time control, simultaneous or blind games, postponement of the game, sealed move, etc.) in a didactic way for the lay public. Over the seven episodes of The Queen's Gambit, we learn chess together with Beth and, in the end, we want her to teach us. It is impressive to realize that, before the release of the series on Netflix, only people who study chess knew that “gambit” is a move that sacrifices a pawn in exchange for some positional advantage with the other pieces.

Combine this with all the beauty of the female cast – Moses Ingram and Marielle Heller are as wonderful as the two child actresses, Annabeth Kelly and Isla Johnston, who play Beth at five and nine, respectively – and we can say that the chess it definitely entered popular culture, which until then had seen nothing more than a curious universe, however, inaccessible. All the emotion we experience watching the series concerns the moral strength of the female characters. Apply this empowerment of chess players, and it is not too optimistic to believe that many future Grand Masters will be interested in chess today thanks to the story of Elizabeth Harmon. What potential chess players need is social incentives and practical conditions (such as training communities) so that they can build their characters in real tournaments without any qualms.

Returning now to Clarice – because it was with her that we started the chess journey of this text –, I quote an excerpt from the chronicle “Shame on Living”, published in Newspapers in Brazil in 1972, in which Clarice tells how she learned to play chess. So I leave here my tribute to this great master of literature who would be 100 years old on December 10, 2020.

Regarding Clarice, my feeling is the same as that of the Japanese pseudo-chess player who entered the history of Brazilian literature in the following text: “Lá [on the farm where Clarice spent her vacation feeling ashamed of everything and everyone] there was a Japanese man who asked me if I played chess. I boldly replied that he should teach me, that I would soon learn and play with him. And suddenly I found myself having to face so many game rules and ashamed of not learning. But soon afterwards I superficially learned to play. It turns out that, I believe, by pure chance I checkmated the Japanese guy who didn't want to play with me anymore. I felt unhappy, I thought the Japanese would not forgive me and that he didn't like me. I was very shy with him. It was therefore with great astonishment that I heard him tell me when it was time to say goodbye, with an entirely oriental delicacy that doesn't flatter my face, which would have been suffocating for my shyness. And he said, "I thank your parents for making you." (Newspapers in Brazil, 14/10/1972. Text reproduced in Discovering the World: Chronicles. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 2015).

*Thomaz Kawauche he holds a doctorate in philosophy from USP, is a visiting professor at Unifesp and, in his spare time, is an amateur chess player.



Clarice Lispector.Discovering the World: Chronicles. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 2015.

___. The passion according to GH Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 2015.

___.Close to the wild heart. Rio de Janeiro: Rocco, 2015.

Jacques Lacan. sseminar 11: Four fundamental concepts of psychoanalysis. Rio de Janeiro: Jorge Zahar, 1988.

Jennifer Shahade. Chess Bitch: Women in the Ultimate Intellectual Sport. Los Angeles: Siles Press, 2005.

Walter Tevis.The Queen's Gambit. New York: Laurel, 1983.

The Queen's Gambit. Director Scott Frank. Miniseries in 7 episodes. Netflix, 2020.



The wonderful behind-the-scenes video of the Netflix series:

The best video about building the “perfectly imperfect” character:

The main matches that appear in the series:

The impressive match between Harmon and Luchenko analyzed by Rafael Leite (not to be confused with GM Rafael Leitão):

Jennifer “bitch” Shahade's interview with Scott Frank and Garry Kasparov:

Podcast on France Culture with good comments from the point of view of literature, philosophy and the universe of chess:

Comment from Miriam Castro (Mikannn) about the similarity of The Queen's Gambit with sports anime, in particular the Japanese series Sangatsu no lion:

Movie Shakhmatnaya goryachka [chess fever], from 1925:



[I] I recommend this video that shows how much 3D animation was applied to the footage:

See this link for all articles


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