There are serious chess fans out there, wondering how the creators of The Queen’s Gambit structured the matches that prodigy Beth Harmon plays against her hapless opponents. Those people can go read Nitish Pawha’s great interview with Garry Kasparov, former world chess champion who consulted on Netflix’s hit show. Then there are philistines who don’t care a whit about chess, but found themselves—all unawares!—turned on by it, in the context of the show. This conversation is for them.
Which of Beth’s chess matches are the hottest, and why? What, according to The Queen’s Gambit, is the optimum location for a game of sexy chess? And why is some of the show’s chess still so resolutely unsexy? We discuss.
Madeline Ducharme: Okay, so do the chess matches that actually do lead to sex—almost functioning as a kind of foreplay—qualify as “sexy” matches here? Is it fair to compare them to the games that don’t?
Rebecca Onion: You read my mind! I was just about to propose my own favorites from the show, by far the sexiest in my opinion: the two times Beth plays speed chess with Benny Watts. First, she plays him in the student union, lets him take all her money, then uses the knowledge she gains in order to beat him the next day. After she gets home that night, she closes the door to her dorm room and leans against it, breathing heavily. Panting! From chess!
Madeline: YES. I literally wrote “Perfect enemies-to-lovers setup” in my notes.
Rebecca: Then, of course, the scene in Benny’s apartment, where she beats him and his two friends, then they have sex. But I wonder if those scenes appeal to me not just because of Benny, who I love, but because they are speedier. The way their hands zip around one another, and hit the clock over and over? There’s a je ne sais quoi you don’t get in the draggier games.
Madeline: The speedier chess scenes are absolutely sexier than the competition scenes. But I think her slow solo games are sometimes sexier than the speed chess!
Jess Miller: The one with Townes in the high-school gym where she almost lost the match because she was flirting … that’s not a sexy setting, but it was a sexy match!
Rebecca: That’s the first time she meets Townes, right? He just has a very entrancing face.
Jess: I think so—it’s her first time playing with anyone who isn’t the janitor, I think.
Heather Schwedel: She had gone to the school to play a bunch of kids who were older than her, but that was just scary. By the time she gets to the chess tournament, she’s on more equal footing with her opponents, and then Townes is the first one that really turns her head, which like, duh, look at him. Though I do have a soft spot for the twins.
Rebecca: Of course, another major candidate for Sexiest Chess Match has to be the one where Beth plays Townes in his hotel room during a tournament, after he asks her to come to his room so he can interview her and take her picture. Oldest trick in the book, amirite?
But you guys—I just Googled to find out who plays Townes, and found out there’s speculation that the character is supposed to be gay? I completely missed that!
Heather Schwedel: Of course! That was the whole thing!
Madeline: There’s definitely some tension in that scene in the hotel room, where that man walks in on them, into that room that very obviously has one bed…
Rebecca: And he’s wrapping a towel around himself! I’m thick as a board.
Heather: Eh, I miss things like that all the time.
Madeline: Not to be the “well actually” bi reply guy, but I do think he still wants to fuck Beth, as well!
Rebecca: Welcome to the chat, “well actually” bi reply guy!
But here’s the thing—one of the reasons I like the speed chess scenes so much is all the spectators. It’s sexy how many people are watching them!
Madeline: YES! I wrote in my notes that it’s almost obscene, when she has that intense match with Benny while everyone is watching them. So exposed!
Rebecca: So if that’s the case, do we think that the chess that takes place in a hotel room, or, to go back to Madeline’s point, alone—something Beth does sometimes—has the same snap to it?
Madeline: I love it. The single sexiest chess related moment is when Beth is lounging in that bathtub in the lush Mexico City hotel, holding a little chess book, and casually dragging the pieces across the board.
Rebecca: That freaking hotel was so beautiful.
Madeline: It looked like she was reading smut and getting ready to sip some wine and bliss out.
Rebecca: You’re right that the bathtub chess was so languid and luscious. Though I’m so unsold on chess in general that without Townes’ face across the board from me, or anyone’s face honestly, I’d be totally OUT. I guess that’s one difference between me and chess prodigy Beth Harmon!
Madeline: I mean, not to be really smooth-brained about this, but it’s the only game she plays naked! This show should’ve included some strip chess.
Jess: Yes, but the place strip chess would have definitely happened (Benny’s apartment) was one of the least sexy locations to play chess on the show.
Rebecca: Ha! A point! Benny’s apartment was terrifying.
Madeline: Okay, I would argue that the dingy apartment was sexy, in a gross way.
Jess: It was elevated by the French model, but nah.
Rebecca: I got very “going home with a boy as a young twentysomething in New York” vibes from it, which I guess was the point. He doesn’t care about his surroundings! He only cares about chess! That is cute for about four months, then it’s not. Ha!
Jess: Yeah, at some point you want to take a shower that’s not in the kitchen.
Madeline: But I liked that they played speed chess on the floor there! I can’t put my finger on why it’s sexy to be on the floor, but it just is.
Rebecca: Oh sure. It’s because it implies that the people are limber. Benny was literally seated on a yoga blanket, I noticed upon re-watching! One of those gross ones they have in bulk in yoga studios, but never wash.
Madeline: One other sexy spot: the candlelit table in Beth’s backyard, where she plays with Harry Beltik right before she asks him to move in, and they kiss!
Heather: I did like that moment! Up until then there was a lot of “Hmm … could chess be … sexy?,” and that was the first moment the characters in the show figured out how to convert the chess-induced sexual tension into actual sex, even if it still took a while to get to the “So that’s what it’s supposed to feel like” sex.
Rebecca: Oh, that is a good one in some ways, but I just had a bad feeling about the Harry thing right off the bat, like she was gonna crush him. And this one is bookended at the other end of the episode by another backyard match, where Beth berates him for being too slow to see 70 moves ahead, like she does. Which was rough. I had that one on my list of least sexy matches.
Let’s talk about the unsexiest chess matches in the show. Which were yours? I had the Harry breakup chess on my list, but also the time she plays the Russian boy, Georgi Grigov. You got a real “chess can be a slog” vibe from that one.
Madeline: Another one: The game she plays (and loses) after her sexy night in Paris is extremely painful. She loses all her nimbleness in the game. You could really see the hangover in her eyes. It made me feel nauseous!
Jess: What about when she plays Harry the first time, and she can’t stop staring at his teeth?
Rebecca: It’s interesting because, she’s just coming into her power; he isn’t sexy, but the situation is.
Madeline: Yes! Like the final match with Borgov ….
Rebecca: Totally! Though, I gotta say, Borgov is not unsexy, himself.
Heather: Chess-sexy can encompass both the Bennies and the Borgovs.
Madeline: One more is the one where she plays against all the old Russian dudes in Moscow, at the end. It was not sexy, just sweet. And I honestly couldn’t stop thinking about how cold it must be.
Rebecca: Same! So many things about chess seem physically challenging. I am honestly bad enough at sitting down for a long time when I’m simply working at my computer, with ample snacks, pee breaks, and heat.
Jess: About the peeing problem, I was really nervous she was using toilet paper as a pad during half of that one high-school tournament.
Rebecca: Right!! That toilet paper was Chekhov’s gun. I thought for sure we were going to get a YM Say Anything moment.
Jess: I really thought that was going to come back.
Madeline: Very clear this was written by a man when the toilet paper trick worked so perfectly. They should have hired a menstruation consultant, lol.
Jess: Yes! My main takeway about Queen’s Gambit was that they went through a painstaking process of making the chess realistic, but clearly didn’t talk to one woman.
Rebecca: Thanks, everyone. I am now even more excited for my pending Thanksgiving rewatch. Benny Watts 4-Eva!!