Queen’s Gambit: Netflix Show dedicated chess expert Bruce Pandolfini

As with all other high level competitions, chess has its own tells. And while there’s a lot to discuss in games between veteran gamers, there’s a quick way to find a pretender.

For chess player Bruce Pandolfini, this was one of the most important ways to ensure that the cast in the new Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” didn’t break the illusion immediately.

“Perhaps the most important thing is how you grip and move the parts. So they really want them to look natural and we’ve worked a lot to make it, ”said Pandolfini. “It’s like looking at someone who is handling a baseball bat. If they grab it in the middle, you’ll know they don’t like baseball. There is some flow and fluidity that you want to capture if you can. ”

Pandolfini is no stranger to fictional portrayals of amazing chess talent, having consulted a number of other film and television projects, including “Searching for Bobby Fischer,” in which he is portrayed by Ben Kingsley. He has also written a flotilla of books on the intricacies of chess strategy, from general guides to in-depth studies of openings and endings.

Even for a series like “The Queen’s Gambit,” which uses the constant presence of a chessboard as a building block for Beth Harmon’s story rather than a surface-level affect, there hasn’t been a concerted effort to drill the main characters into the intricacies of the game. Pandolfini worked with Anya Taylor-Joy and other actors by focusing on patterns that would not detract from the other physical and mental demands of their respective roles.

“We’d use mnemonics and other visual cues to help them grasp things and remember them more easily,” said Pandolfini. “We tried to do things in sequences, usually three, so that the movements would be connected and it would seem more natural. Having to stop and think with every move can seem a little unprofessional, especially in certain places. So we would have few visual aids on the board and ways to remember things. Whenever we can, we try to give it to them to make them feel more comfortable. ”

A particular challenge presented by “The Queen’s Gambit” were the sequences of the show, which included chess variations that went beyond the usual time-controlled individual games. There is a scene in which Beth and Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) recite movements back and forth in a virtual road trip game. In practice, this comes closer to memorizing a cumbersome monologue.

Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Queen’s Gambit”

Phil Bray / Netflix

What is far more difficult to “fake” are the scenes that take place once the couple arrives at their destination. For the late-night speed chess sessions and Beth’s simultaneous Free-for-Alls (“Simuls” for short), the preparation was a little more complicated. Director Scott Frank lets enough of these scenes breathe and stick with them as the action unfolds. Instead of just cutting to include footage of someone else’s hands, the actors had to expect a lot more movement beforehand.

“For some of these more complicated scenes, we’ve prepared in more detail. We sent them short films so they could watch good players play the same moves. Another thing is that we can send them the movements so that they are on their phone. You can just follow a sequence of movements on your phone so they can see them anytime, ”said Pandolfini.

Of course, these movements do not only appear from the ether. Walter Tevis’ novel “The Queen’s Gambit”, from which the series was adopted, does not contain a complete overview of Beth’s matches with her colleagues from Kentucky or the Soviet grandmaster Vasily Borgov. Pandolfini helped ensure that these boards, whether those in the spotlight or in the background of any number of broad tournament shots, followed a natural and logical evolution.

“We want to keep the logic so that the final position really ties in with the previous modes. I originally created 92 positions or games that fit the script. We called that the Bible. In the end we had up to 350 different positions, ”said Pandolfini. “Of course most of them are not filmed. Many of them were used off-camera to create the ambience. So there is a lot of work behind it that makes everyone feel like they are in a real chess environment. 350 games, that’s the game of chess of all time for a dramatic series or film. I was working on Finding Bobby Fischer and we had about 100. ”

Pandolfini met with Tevis in advance of the novel’s 1983 publication while working as a consultant for Random House. He said he made some suggestions to Tevis (who was himself a seasoned chess player) based on reading the as-yet-unpublished manuscript, many of which did not end up in final form. In the end, Pandolfini (whom Tevis included in the book’s recognitions) said that the main idea that found its way into the novel was his suggestion of the title itself.

For the screen version of the story, Pandolfini wanted to make sure the drama did not come at the expense of chess logistics, as he saw in some of the examples in the novel.

“There were movements that just didn’t make sense. It’s hard to imagine what the state is like. First, it was imaginary and not based on anything concrete, ”said Pandolfini. “It would mean, Bishop moves to King Knight 4, let’s say. What did that mean? There are innumerable choices in chess. Then one page later you have “Turm zum Ritter 6.” Linking these movements is not that easy. So I had to work really hard on it and it never made it into the novel. But it was much easier here. ”

Pandolfini was now working on the TV version of this story nearly four decades later and wanted to offer this adaptation with dramatically conspicuous attacks and surprises that did not contradict the high-level game and player strategies that are explicitly integrated into the script.

THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT (vlnr) JACOB FORTUNE-LLOYD als TOWNES und ANYA TAYLOR-JOY als BETH HARMON in Folge 102 von THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT Cr. PHIL BRAY / NETFLIX © 2020

THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT (vlnr) JACOB FORTUNE-LLOYD als TOWNES und ANYA TAYLOR-JOY als BETH HARMON in Folge 102 von THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT Cr. PHIL BRAY / NETFLIX © 2020

Jacob Fortune-Lloyd und Anya Taylor-Joy in „The Queen’s Gambit“

Phil Bray / Netflix

“In some cases openings are mentioned. The games shown must reflect these openings. I think there is a Levenfish variant, there is a Najdorf Sicilian, there is a kite. I think Ruy Lopez is mentioned. Some of this also needs to be translated into Spanish and Russian. The terms are roughly synonymous, but they differ a little. So the games had to fit the script as well as possible, ”said Pandolfini. “But I had some leeway to go in more interesting directions because some of it could be visually boring. So we had to think about what would be more interesting in terms of the position. ”

Pandolfini not only devoted himself closely to the game of chess, but also offered a perspective from his own competitive experience before his second job as a commentator, author and consultant.

“I knew how it used to be. I was a tournament player myself when I was younger. I remember how little time the American scene would have compared to the competitions and games of European and Spanish speaking countries where everyone in the audience was very well informed. People sit around, very good players in many cases, but not necessarily at the American tournament, ”said Pandolfini. “It would be a big deal if you were the Kentucky State Champion. But it would be nothing compared to what is happening on the world scale. What was like Bobby Fischer was so extraordinary. He came out of nowhere. ”

Ultimately, Pandolfini’s contributions still depend on those who ultimately run the games as the show progresses. He applauded Taylor-Joy’s ability not only to understand the logistics of movement to movement, but also to project oneself as someone in control of an adversary.

“They say play the board, not the player, but even the best players in the world take into account subtleties and nuances, physical expression and movement. Your opponent doesn’t want to reveal any information and you don’t have to look unnatural if you don’t move at all, ”said Pandolfini. “I think Anya is great. She didn’t want to prepare many steps in time. She would do it just before the scene and she would get it that way. Anya really got involved, she immediately received it with great sensitivity. She looks like a real top-class chess player, but it’s not easy. And I think she really enjoyed it. You can feel that in every setting. ”

And his praise isn’t just for a Beth Harmon.

“I also have to honor Isla Johnston, who plays young Beth,” said Pandolfini. “She is a real child prodigy! She didn’t know how to play chess either. She got it pretty quickly. She looks like an enormous chess talent. She’s just a brilliant young girl who I think has a promising career if she stays with acting. ”

The Queen’s Gambit is now available to stream on Netflix.

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