by SaraKay Smullens, MSW, LCSW, DCSW, CGP, CFLE, BCD
(This article was originally published by The New Social Worker.)
Like many of us, I work with teens who have endured physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, compounded by dire educational and societal inequities. I am ever telling them that regardless of their circumstances and the safety measures they must take in a far too unfair, unjust world, if they believe in themselves, and hold fast to their education and trustworthy friendships, the choice to make or break their own lives is in their hands.
I’ll never forget the words of a group member, age 13 and destined to become a writer, achingly lonely for the father who abandoned the family of 5: “I love the night. When it comes, it brings the stars, and I feel less afraid.” During this discussion of loss, another group member, destined to be a social worker, responded: “Hey, what we have to face is better than ‘smother moms and dads,’ who make their kids live their lives instead of their own.”
Though none in the group play chess, a member described The Queen’s Gambit as “a gotta see, the work of our group is on TV.” You may remember from my review of Joker that I take group member recommendations very seriously. I will frame the extraordinary experience this series offers with broad strokes, without plot spoilers.
Although The Queen’s Gambit is not a true story, it holds truths that social workers know. Yes, research in ours and related fields points persistently to how impossible it may be for rejected, abandoned, abused kids to make fulfilling lives. Yet, we know well that if a young person is invested in sincerely and authentically, these investments can remain, rock solid, to be built upon. Through rare collage, created by Scott Frank and Allan Shiach (who writes under the pseudonym Allan Scott), directed by Frank, and brought to life through brilliant casting, the series not only brings parallel hope and direction to teens and young adults, it also offers self-care through living art—relief and respite from the constant onslaughts of today’s here and now, where millions disregard the suffering and lack of opportunities provided for America’s young and vulnerable.
A 7-segment adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel with the same name and set in the mid-1950s through the 1960s, the drama follows the life of orphaned child prodigy, Beth Harmon. Beth, played by the luminous Anya Taylor-Joy, an American actor devotedly in touch with her English-Argentine roots, is determined to become the world’s greatest chess player, despite the reality that women are unwelcome and discriminated against. (A shout out also belongs to Isla Johnson, young Beth, and Annabeth Kelly, 5-year-old Beth.)
The plot presents a frightening underbelly—a familiar psychological trajectory: Beth struggles with the devastating and traumatic loss of both her natural parents, especially her brilliant mother (Chloe Pirrie) she loves deeply. In the series, we meet two women familiar in our work—a mom who tries ardently, yet cannot endure the physical and emotional demands of parenting, and a talented adoptive mom (Marielle Heller), caught in the prison of a loveless and cruel marriage.
At a Kentucky orphanage, Methuen Home for Girls, Beth begins two essential relationships—one with an older girl at the orphanage who becomes her friend, Jolene (Moses Ingram), and the other with school custodian Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), who, at Beth’s insistence, introduces her to chess. In accurate ’50s protocol, she is given the tranquilizers, the source of her life-threatening addiction, that kept abandoned children “manageable” during that era. Yet, for Beth, the tranquilizers offered more—heightened vision into winning chess strategies.
Although Taylor-Joy did not know chess when she took the part, she embodied the role. She became Beth, learning to navigate the chess board masterfully, combining accuracy with a captivating feminine twist. As Taylor-Joy moves, you will know instinctively that she is not only an actor, whose gorgeous eyes speak volumes. She is also a dancer. The extraordinary period clothing (Gabrielle Binder) and magnificent set production designs (Uli Hanisch) transport the viewer to that time.
Unfolding scenes and Beth’s sense of style remind viewers of actor and UNICEF Goodwill ambassador Audrey Hepburn, who as a child in the Netherlands during WWII watched trains of Jewish families deported to concentration camps, and who never recovered fully from the impact of hunger and malnutrition. Perhaps a lump will develop in your throat, as it did in mine, as you recall Hepburn’s art, kindness, love of and devotion to children, and majesty.
For chess devotees, with Gary Kasparov as the film’s consultant, the series offers additional intellectual stimulation. Those (like me) who do not play chess will be enlightened by understanding what “The Queen’s Gambit” stands for as a chess term. Wanting to consult one the same age as teens quoted earlier, I elicited the help of my 14-year-old grandson, chess enthusiast Josh Smullens. A high school freshman and devoted chess club member, Josh believes strongly that school chess clubs, with strong mentorship, offer “stepping stones that, in some cases, can really help to deal with complex life situations.” In his words, “‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is a calculated chess opening involving the temporary sacrifice of the Queen’s pawn to gain control of the center of the board. It is a move that brings a lot of anxiety to players, and some refuse the risk of engaging in it.”
Through this explanation, “The Queen’s Gambit” becomes metaphor for the sacrifice compounding Beth’s life—the cruel “plays” she has been dealt. It also offers life lessons. There are times when social workers are privileged to witness a client’s transformation from inanimate to embracing life—for a first time. Few words can describe the depth of this experience. Would Beth muster the courage to face herself, believe in herself, and claim a dimensional life, taking the necessary risks to succeed? As we know from our work, and our own lives, the choice is hers. As far as life lesson: if the meek ever inherit the earth, they won’t have it very long.
SaraKay Smullens, MSW, LCSW, DCSW, CGP, CFLE, BCD, whose private and pro bono clinical social work practice is in Philadelphia, is a certified group psychotherapist and family life educator. She is a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award (2004) and the Social Worker of the Year (2018) from the Pennsylvania chapter of NASW, and the 2013 NASW Media Award for Best Article. In 2018, she was one of five graduates of the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice selected for the school’s inaugural Hall of Fame. SaraKay is the author of “Burnout and Self-Care in Social Work”.