Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
I sharply remember the night in college I beat several boys at a rousing game of Risk. At least—it was rousing until I started to win. When it became clear I would be the champion, the boys turned sullen, and by the end of the game, those who were left were sulky and taciturn. Looking back, I have no idea if their poor attitudes were because I was enjoying my victory or because I was female, but being female in typically male-dominated spaces—even very silly ones like board game spaces—taught me early on that competition and sportsmanship can bring out the worst sort of tension between the genders. Allowing myself to, for a night, enjoy my ability to win a board game rather than shrinking back so the boys could shine made me feel as though I had somehow violated their manhood.
It was just a game of Risk, but I recalled this incident while watching The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. The Queen’s Gambit is an excellent fictional miniseries following the story of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a chess phenom who rises to prominence in the 1960s to challenge the world’s greatest chess masters—and win! Beth’s story is riddled with tragedy, abandonment, substance abuse, and despair as she comes of age while navigating the world of competitive chess. People will find many things to appreciate about The Queen’s Gambit (contributing to the popularity of the show), but what I appreciated most of all is that it tells Beth’s story like the game of chess itself. Beth, a young woman in a very male-dominated game-world, is much like the queen on the game board she loves so much, and I resonated with her because I saw in how she moves through her story a lot of the female experience in history and in life.The female experience in life very frequently feels like that of a queen on a chessboard, especially when we get into traditionally male-dominated spaces.
Beth’s story is a sad story. Abandoned by her father, and then orphaned at age nine, she is brought up in an orphanage providing shelter and education (but no emotional warmth) and only learns to play chess by happenstance. When she sees a janitor playing, she asks to learn how, and it soon becomes clear that she has an uncanny ability to play the game. A few years later, adopted out of the orphanage, she quickly begins playing competitively, but doing so doesn’t come easy. Girls, if they play at all, don’t typically play in the same rankings as boys. Beth finds herself having to navigate the world of competitive chess much as she would have to navigate a chess board; she’s the most powerful “piece” there—but because she’s a woman, she also has to earn respect that the other players simply have by virtue of their gender. She’s a queen among the other players, and her whole story is about her struggle for control of the board.
In chess, a gambit is when a player makes an opening move that requires a sacrifice of a piece, but in exchange for this sacrifice, they get some compensating advantage. There are all sorts of gambits that can be played in chess, but the queen’s gambit is unique in that it is both the most popular and the most sound: “The objective of the queen’s gambit is to temporarily sacrifice a pawn to gain control of the center of the board.” Gaining control of the center of the board lets the queen out early—it gives her freedom to move and use her considerable power. The “gambit” is the sacrifice of the pawn, if the other player takes the bait.
Not being a longtime serious chess player or master of any sort, I won’t pretend to know what chess is all about, but when I played chess as a child, I always thought the game was ideologically flawed. If the queen is so valuable, why do we run her all over the board? The king can hardly do anything—why’s the game over when he gets checkmated? It seemed to me that the piece with the greatest abilities should be the piece that is worth the most, and I didn’t understand why the king was considered so valuable. But that’s not how it works, in chess or in life.
And as I watched The Queen’s Gambit it came to my mind that Beth’s story, and chess itself, is very loosely like an element of the Fall: a struggle for power between the competitive male and female. Specifically, I saw a reflection of the curse of man, which touches all opposite gendered interactions, even those on a gameboard where a powerful queen must sacrifice her own wellbeing to protect a less-powerful king. And those in any sort of game or sport, where boys and men chafe at the female competitive presence in “their” space.
At the risk of turning this into a bad analogy (or have I done that already?), I’m not saying that all women are queens and all men are kings—one powerful but undervalued and one overvalued but useless. I am saying that the female experience in life very frequently feels like that of a queen on a chessboard, especially when we get into traditionally male-dominated spaces. Also especially when we look back on history to try to see what sort of mark our stories have left.
The final chorus in the Broadway musical Hamilton revolves around Eliza Hamilton, left standing on stage after the death of Alexander. It repeats the line, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” One of the most astute observations I’ve heard from friends and longtime fans alike is that the show isn’t (or maybe better said, shouldn’t be) titled for Alexander Hamilton, but for his wife, Eliza. Alexander cuts a complicated heroic figure, considering his sometimes callous ambition and his torrid affair—but Eliza Hamilton moves through the show, and through history, like so many virtuous women. The work she did is less known to history, perhaps, but not less known, or valued, to God. Eliza doesn’t usurp her husband’s legacy at the end of the story, but she is left standing, her story finally being told front and center after he has died in a petty duel.
As the cast sings, “Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?” I can’t help but think how often in history a woman’s story has been overlooked, ignored, or subsumed into a man’s story—and how this is just an extension of the curse and the Fall. With regard to people like Eliza and Alexander Hamilton, it is not insignificant to say that despite how much more we know of Alexander, they both have unique and individual stories to tell—parallel to and interwoven with each other, and neither one making the other less important. Is it accurate to say Eliza is the true hero of Hamilton? Perhaps, but neither does that paint a complete picture of the musical, which tells of dual experiences. What Hamilton does do in regard to Eliza Hamilton, though, is it both shows how the female experience is so often treated, historically, and gives her voice a place to be heard where so few women have had it.
Which brings us back again to the conflict that runs through The Queen’s Gambit: a struggle for control of the center of the board. Although history so often comes down to who gets to control the narratives, life—especially for the Christian—doesn’t have to be that way. Although we are touched by the curse, we have reconciliation in Christ. And that is why I love the conclusion of The Queen’s Gambit so very much (and I won’t spoil it here for you). But I will say that as Hamilton is simultaneously about both a heroic Eliza and an antiheroic Alexander, so in The Queen’s Gambit do we see an ultimate rejection of the autonomous self and a reconciliation of contraries between male and female. Stories like this show us a foretelling of the kingdom to come; in them, we find goodness—we find glimmers of hope.