The Intuition in The Queen’s Gambit
Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit must be the ultimate mathematical geek series. One cannot underestimate the attention to detail you find in this movie. That detail takes you back into a different time and leaves you with the impression that it was all too real. The movie is not only about chess, but rather our relationship with our minds, the changes in society, and the passions that we are obsessed with.
The movie takes place in the decade of the 1960s. Where a young child (Elizabeth Harmon) is sent to an orphanage after her mother’s tragic death. What’s incredible is how this movie reveals the changes in 1960s, the technology, architecture, interior decoration, music, fashion style and even inflation. The movie reveals in astonishing detail of how the main character lives in a world that is changing at an incredible pace. The aesthetics of the series was stunning. It’s a different kind of film when the environment is also a big part of the story.
The movie begins in an orphanage in Kentucky. She then gets adopted by a family and gets introduced to the 1960s single-family home with a car on every driveway. Her adopted mother stays at home while the father is always away on business trips. The home has all its walls covered in wall-paper (rarely seen today).
One can see how technology changes as cars evolve. Even small details of how the telephone changes from rotary phones (is dial a phone number still understood today?) to touch tones are taken care of. This was a very different time when technology changes were brutally evident. The movie takes you back in time and shows you how everything remarkably changed so quickly.
But that’s just a slice of the movie, it’s about a gifted chess player. Few may have noticed that her natural mother wrote a Group Theoretic Ph.D. dissertation. In one of Harmon’s recollection of her childhood, while her mother burned books. She picked up a green book which was titled “Monomial Representations and Symmetric Presentations” by Alice Harmon. This reveals her unique innate ability to work with the mathematics of groups and symmetry. It was at this point that I began to wonder if this was a real story of someone I didn’t know about.
The thing which surprised me about the orphanage was they prescribed daily vitamins and tranquilizers (benzodiazepine sedative delivered in half-green capsules) to their children. The daily regiment of benzodiazepine allowed Harmon the ability to halucinate and accelerate her learning of chess. Don’t try this at home, despite how real it may seem this movie is still a work of fiction!
There is an underlying theme here that an intense passion for a subject can drive one insane. This is not an uncommon observation in the world of chess. Harmon’s tutor Beltik realized how one’s passion could drive someone mad. Humans and chess could be like moths that are attracted to a flame. However, the movie reveals examples of players with a mature relationship with the game and their passion. The player Luchenko who looked like an eccentric grandmaster sought beauty in the game rather than gamesmanship.
The orphanage had little opportunities for intellectual engagement. if you lived in the 60s or even decades that followed you will recognize this. You see none of the distractions and stimulus that we experience daily today. Information was sparse. I was indeed surprised that they had Chess magazines during those days.
Harmon learned to play from the Janitor who read books (‘Modern Chess Openings’ written by Griffith and White) about chess. This movie has a lot of use of chess vocabulary. In my youth, I did play chess and read some books, so the jargon was familiar to me (example: Sicilian defense, Ruy Lopez, Capablanca). I’m not sure how this plays for people without that exposure. I gather it’s the same experience of ignorance I feel when people talk about the game of Go. I’ve never played Go.
The movie reveals the popularity of chess even in the US. Despite this, the movie reveals how the rest of the world took chess more seriously than the US. This certainly was true, the US has a strange relationship with intellectual past-times.
It’s fascinating how this movie explores how Harmon becomes better at chess. Through different mentors that exposes her to new approaches. She begins by reading games played by other masters that aligned with her style. She gets exposed to blitz chess. A fast-paced type of chess that was frowned upon in the movie ‘Searching for Bobby Fisher’. Harmon even makes use of sense-deprivation methods like going underwater.
The movie talks about the intuitive chess player. The player that has no fear in sacrificing her pieces. The player that breaks the rule. Harmon in one scene even remarks that she does not do chess puzzles because they are unlikely to happen in a real game. Harmon indeed has indeed a keen insight into intuition. It is as if the patterns of real games are different from the patterns in made up chess patterns. It is perhaps why playing blitz-chess can also mess up your intuition. I used to play a lot of reverse chess, and that certainly messed up my intuition! The movie lets the outsider into the minds of chess playing enthusiasts.
This movie reveals to its audience the incredible passion, work, and ability of people to become master of this game. It also reveals to us the background of a rapidly changing world. In the decade of the 1960s, the changes were visible for all to see. In perhaps the last two decades, it has not been as obvious.
The movie showed how passionate the Russians were of the game of chess. Transfer that image to East Asian countries like China, Japan and Korea who had a similar passion for an intellectual game like Go. The game of Go is much older than Chess and is likely to be rich in strategies and tactics. Now fast-forward into the future (actually several years ago now), where an artificial machine (see: AlphaGo) bested the best human player. How does this affect the psyche of a nation? You can appreciate this better by watching Queen’s Gambit.
But there’s more. The chess world champion, the Russian Borgov, is characterized as machine-like that plays by the book without error. In Chess (unlike Go), there is a fascination for those players who introduced an unorthodox way of playing. The kind of intuitive player who had moves that were entirely unique and novel. The kind that would break all orthodoxy, the kind that does not follow the rules.
Unfortunately, that kind of chess players was finally discovered not to be a human, but rather a machine (see: AlphaZero). Humans exchange knowledge by giving names to different lines of thought. That is why in the movie they talk about the Sicilian Defense, the Queen’s gambit, Ruy Lopez and other chess jargon. Experts play chess by following patterns and becoming experts at variations on patterns. That is why it was not a good strategy to play against an expert like Gorgov. In contrast, an intuition machine like AlphaZero doesn’t play with any patterns and rules that come from humans. It plays an alien form of chess. A kind of chess that was commonly understood to be an intuitive kind of chess. Where the word intuition is used here to mean something beyond the rules.
The movie’s attention to detail to detail cannot be overemphasized. The final game on actual gameplay. In real life, the game did end in a draw. Yet, the creators of the movie took the additional effort to find an improvement in the original game so that one side wins! You can find some analysis of the game in the movie here and here. This improvement wasn’t published until it was shown in the film. I would not be surprised if AlphaZero was used to discover the novel line of moves. My fearless prediction is that the next chess-playing AI is going to be called Harmon.
The exponential changes in our society have surpassed our own human intuitions of this world. We have are at a point in civilization where we cannot physically see these changes. The 1960s was more than half a century ago, back then the changes were obvious and they were rapid. To avoid distractions, one could simply leave the phone off the hook. (Note: terms like “off the hook” or “dial” a number are so far removed from the semantics of modern phone usage)
The Queen’s Gambit will be loved by all the geeks who grew up approximately around that time or grew up in chess. It will be difficult to recreate this kind of experience in today’s world. But perhaps the ending of the movie offered a clue. That we discover our humanity when we discover how the love of a game connects us all. It was a unique experience and this movie lets us all re-experience again those fascinating times.