Wednesday, 22nd March 2023 09:27
Home / News / How ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ left poker on the cutting room floor

If you look very closely you can find poker in the Queen’s Gambit. There’s a very good reason for that, as Jen Shahade writes…

Over 62 million households across the planet have binged on a seven-course meal this holiday season: The sumptuous, limited edition TV series, The Queen’s Gambit.

Poker players ponder whether another international Mind Sport could enjoy similar success.

Joey Ingram tweeted: “We need to come up with the poker version of Queen’s Gambit on Netflix” while Ben “Spraggy” wrote a detailed thread on the challenges poker has to tell a story of triumph in a similar way: “Any poker results, wins, tournament scores cannot ignore the role luck plays in a victory.”

The Queen’s Gambit (L to R) Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon and Thomas Brodie-Sangster as Benny in episode 103 of The Queen’s Gambit Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2020

Many other poker players expressed a growing or newfound interest in the royal game like Maria Ho, who tweeted, “Binged Queen’s Gambit and now am fascinated by chess…Despite being around games all my life, chess was one that I was never introduced to.”

The quest for glory and self-realization through a game reminded many poker players of their own origins.

Poker did play a role in the 1983 Walter Tevis novel that inspired the series. While the segment was short, it played a key role in character development.

Soon after Beth sleeps with Benny, her main rival for American chess supremacy, in his New York City apartment, he tells her.

“I’ve got to get to a poker game.”

She looked up from the position she had just analyzed. “A poker game?”

“I have to pay the rent.”

That was astonishing. She had not thought of him as a gambler. When she asked about it, he said he made more money from poker and backgammon than from chess. “You ought to learn” he said, smiling “You’re good at games.”

“Then take me with you.”

“This one’s all men.”

She frowned. “I’ve heard that said about chess.”

Beth does go with Benny to the poker club but is more enveloped by anger at Benny than interest in the game.

She did not care how poker was played, even though she knew she would be good at it.  She was furious with Benny…it was quick sex with her, and then off to the boys. He had probably planned it that way for a week. Tactics and strategy. She could have killed him.

In the IMDB credits for “Fork”, episode five of the Queen’s Gambit, actor Murat Dikenci is listed as “Poker Player” (uncredited), suggesting that some version of this plot point was filmed but not included. In this episode, Beth plays Benny in speed game after speed game, losing all of them.

Murat Dikenci (center) in his role as “poker player” which didn’t make the cut

I don’t blame director or editor if poker cards were left on the cutting room floor- the imagery of chess loomed so large in this series, a secondary game could have interfered with the visual concept, even if it helped develop Benny and Beth’s relationship.

I’d love to see more of a swashbuckling Benny at the card table, raising money for Beth’s World Championship training, along with his own rent and hat collection. That’s why my pick for Queens Gambit II is Benny & Jolene, a spin off following two of the most beloved actors in the series.

Beyond this direct poker reference, the series celebrates the power of deep focus, which is also integral to poker players.

Four-time World Poker Tour champion Darren Elias, on, talked about his capacity for deep concentration as key to his success, and something he saw in his daughter, who started to play chess at two years old.

The importance of the “Flow experience” was majestically honored in the Queen’s Gambit, in both book and series.

My favorite example of this was in the final episode, when Beth faces endboss Borgov in a game that Garry Kasparov scripted for the show. When Beth looks up at the ceiling to better picture a devastating variation, her face glows, in the only part of the series you could call supernatural. It’s a perfect harmony of inner and outer beauty, as Beth’s thoughts are clear, powerful, and even, heavenly.

Tevis is lucid in his descriptions of Beth’s mind at work. One of my favorites was his chapter on Beth’s series of victories on her trip from the orphanage to a local high school.

“Her mind was luminous, and her soul sang to her in the sweet moves of chess…The room was silent; she felt her own presence centered in it, small and solid and in command. Outside, birds sang, but she did not hear them…What she did was at bottom shockingly trivial, but the energy of her amazing mind crackled in the room for those who knew how to listen.”

For more from Jennifer on the Queen’s Gambit, find her Ladies Knight episode on comparing the book and the series, and the Garry Kasparov girls club session that she hosted for US Chess Women.


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