• Netflix's The Queen's Gambit, which tells the story of a young female chess player, has been hugely popular 

  • The drama touches on childhood trauma, creativity, addiction, and relationships – psychotherapist Ajay Khandelwal offer a psychological review

Name an activity that is: time-limited, two person, punctuated with silence, without physical contact, requiring a quiet room, and with an unpredictable outcome?

Therapy? Maybe. I was thinking more about chess…

Netflix's fabulous The Queen's Gambit is a moving psychological drama about chess; but it can also be read as a story about trauma and recovery.

As Beth Harmon, the lead character, says to a reporter, about why she falls in love with the game

"Chess isn't always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful. It was the board I noticed first. It's an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And it's predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame."

A suicidal opening game

And we know Beth is tremendously hurt. Her father abandons her and establishes another family; her mother takes her own life by crashing her car, with Beth as a passenger. Miraculously Beth survives, but she is sent to an orphanage. Her “opening” game is tragic. 

According to the psychoanalyst Donald Kalsched, this level of childhood trauma often results in a psychic circuit-breaker being activated, as the level of suffering is unbearable for young mind to metabolise the emotions. As a result, the child may experience a form of psychic splitting, where their true “true self” goes into hiding, and they present the world with a “false self.”

False self vs true self:  the inner sanctuary

Beth is given the fictional Zanzolam drug to keep her sedated and to allow the total domination of the compliant “false self". This keeps a lid on her suffering and makes life easier for her institutional carers. However, she finds a way out of her zombie-like state through befriending the janitor Mr Shaibel. 

Mr Shaibel represents the potential of the “true self” and the possibility of psychic repair and the path back to wholeness. Through him, a range of circuits are slowly switched back on, allowing Beth to experience new powers flowing through her. Mr Shaibel has a lowly status, symbolised by his job, cleaning up after others. But his personality and knowledge are the transformative ingredients that fire up young Beth’s imagination.

As Kalsched writes, “the inner sanctuary to which the beleaguered ego repairs in time of crisis is a world that opens onto transpersonal energies.”  The janitor in the dark basement represents just such a sanctuary.

Paying back into the transpersonal realm

Later, Mr Shaibel lends her the five dollar fee to enter a chess tournament. She promises to repay him ten dollars if she wins. She never repays him in money, but she does repay him with her dedication to chess. In the final episode, we find out that he has been following her career, through all the newspaper cuttings adorning the wall of her orphanage. Shaibel is the first of many positive forces in Beth’s life. 

She enters her first tournament totally unaware of how it works. She has never encountered a chess clock before, she doesn’t know about the ranking system, and she doesn’t care for the hierarchies and conventions. She is powered by a naive and unshakeable belief in her own ability. The chess encounters are fully psychic charge and electricity.

We also discover she has a prodigious gift for developing herself, learning Russian, digesting chess books, and imagining the unfolding of an entire chess games on the ceiling of her bedroom. She goes onto to beat the number one Soviet player of her time, in a parallel to the cold war, echoing the story of the American prodigy, Bobby Fisher beating the Russian Bobby Spassky in the 1972 world championships.

At its heart, the story is about creativity and destructiveness. Beth Harmon is able to harness the creative forces within her, and find allies in the process, who seek to protect her, and help the her fulfil her talent. They help her to stop drinking and drugging, provide her counsel, teach her moves, celebrate her successes. 

Chess is not a game for her, it is a way of life. Her opening game is tragic, her middle game is a mess, but her end game is extraordinary. It represents her true self. As she drives away from the her victory, she stops the car, and plays chess in a town square, amongst a group of elderly men, who represent the archetypal wisdom of the janitor Shaibel. Her time and attention, given freely and deeply, to a stranger in a square, is the repayment of her five dollar debt. Through her dedication to the sixty-four squares, the original debt is repaid a thousand times, and re-enters the transpersonal field.

Parallel moves: the similarities between author Walter Tevis and Beth Harmon

The story is really very close to the turbulent life of author, Walter Tevis. He was separated and temporarily abandoned by his family aged eight due to a serious illness, Sydenham’s Chorea. He was also heavily medicated on phenobarbital, just like the fictional young Beth.

These childhood experiences of abandonment, sickness, and drug induced escape, reverberated through his whole life. As a teenager, he found sanctuary in the pools halls, finding himself at home amongst the hustlers, outsider and misfits. He was saved by the companionship of his best friend, who went onto run a pool hall. When he wasn’t playing pool, he liked to play chess. Between midnight and 4 am he would drink, before waking up and going to work. He had early financial success as his books were made into films, but this led to further destructive cycles. The Queen’s Gambit offers psychologically hope. Even with a bad start, there is always a move!

Ajay Khandelwal is a verified welldoing.org psychotherapist in London and online

Further reading

The lasting impact of adverse childhood experiences

Netflix's Bad Boy Billionaires review

Why we internalise shame in childhood

Why escapism can be harmful

Is my drinking a problem?