Lessons From the Queen’s Gambit



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Phumza Dyani
Photos from IMDb

Phumza Dyani is a Founder of the Pan African Network for Investment and Development, a network of professionals and entrepreneurs within the continent and the diaspora with an objective of stimulating trade linkages across the, developing SMMEs, youth and women.

Each of us has the attributes of being a Queen’s Gambit, the power is in knowing which aspects to call out at which point in our lives. 

One of my latest intrigues of well written and executed scripts portraying the fighting spirit of women has been the Queen’s Gambit, portraying the ascendance of a young lady from an orphanage basement to the top of the chess world, played by a deeply gifted Anita Taylor-Joy.  

This resonated with the lessons I learned in areas of my personal life, career and social interactions in general. A relentless fighting spirit is particularly important in this era, where we insist on many more women taking centre stage and doing so unapologetically. This article reflects on my best lessons from this series. 

The Gambit Archetype 

As a start, I specifically had an interest in understanding what a ‘gambit’ is. 

In chess, a gambit is an opening move in which a player will sacrifice pieces to later gain a positive position. In other words, to temporarily sacrifice a pawn to gain control of the centre of the board. I found this particularly intriguing as in the series, there is a distinct confidence that presupposes that the opponent would fall into the trap.  

The audacity as well as the clinical calmness, the confidence the actress approaches this with is so compelling as it reflects the finesse of how she handles her personal life with all its problems. She indeed had a heartbreakingly massive load, but never took her eye off the ball.  

  • As more and more opportunities become available, it becomes pertinent to understand where the gambit archetype will help us to firstly, optimally position us for the future. Equally, it will be important to understand which pawns in our lives are worth sacrificing in order to bring about balance. When opportunities do come, they open a window to many more, and it will be crucial to understand that we cannot do it all.   

Strength of Character 

With such astounding maturity, she deals with the passing on of her mother and does not shed a tear. She calmly accepts her new circumstances as she is introduced into an orphanage as a compliant little girl and learns to survive. She realises, she is alone in the world and has, in her tender years, already experienced rejection from a primary caretaker. She understands the cards she is dealt and makes choices that work for her early on.  

The strength of character in defining what works for her is reflected in her resolute approach to forging a relationship with the janitor in order to learn chess. She realises she is absolutely good at it and capitalises on this to escape the obscurity of the orphanage surroundings. She is in control of something in her life.  Beth falls in love with the game of chess and immerses herself in a game that takes her away from the obscurity of her situation. 

  • At times, we are dealt cards that seem incredibly unfair and in certain instances, we realise that we are indeed alone in understanding our own circumstances. It takes digging deeper into ourselves to stand, believe in a better tomorrow and work with the choices we are given.  
The character Beth Harmon with her mentor, Mr. Shaibel.

Always Have a Strategy for Your Game 

When Beth started playing chess, she relied heavily on her natural gut instinct as a gifted player. Soon enough, she learned that she needed to support this with meticulous reading of the various types of strategies to finally overcome all of her opponents. 

As women, there is without a doubt, compelling evidence that we come to the table with all the credentials and accolades warranted. 

Instead of being defeated and personalising the losses, she learned to reflect on each loss, gain insight from each blindspot and reworked her strategies. The important perspective she had was that failure was not the end, it was not the final destination, but rather the process of perfecting her gift. She did not take it as an inescapable corner, but as a challenge she could break down, learn from and overcome. She came back for more and was relentless in taking her prize. 

  • The significant lesson for Beth was you cannot be prepared for everything. There are the lessons learned in the war (game). 

Own Your Scars 

Whilst the entire series appealed to me, in terms of the strength projected throughout the rollercoaster of her life, the following scenes particularly resonated with me.  

The story starts in the later stage of her life with a poignant portrayal of how we feign perfection with all our scars and behind the scenes challenges. She is woken up by the knock of the hotel staff for an important chess game, after having overslept after a night of heavy drinking, compounded by her prescription pill addiction. After a chaotic preparation in readiness to emerge from her room, she feigns the utmost confidence as the media emerges to take pictures of her. She, of course, is distracted and has not had a proper night’s sleep, so she loses that match. She is, however, resolute to return and beat her opponent.  

  • The lesson here is owning our scars and not letting them stand in the way of where we are headed. The road to success is oftentimes paved with many failures, our baggage and all the imperfections that can wear us down. We may trip at times, but nobody is perfect. If there is any jewel of wisdom I could give to any woman after a failure it would be, “Now in the midst of your despair, you have emerged powerful and wiser from your tribulation.”  

Build and Nurture Networks That Propel You Forward 

Jolene is a friend Beth meets at the orphanage. The Jolenes in life are strong ladies who seem to have transcended the circumstances and in some weird way, buffer us, helping steer us towards our destinies.  

All of us have met our Jolenes. They seem to know all about who we are, where we have been, and continue to cheer us on like fans to make us believe in the power that lies deep within us. In this era, these friends do not only take the form of known acquaintances, but of organisations that are championing the advocacy of women inclusion.  

  • The support we receive from these different avenues fuels us to greater heights and indeed, the call is for all of us to be a Jolene for other women. 

Know Who Your Friends Are 

Beth struggled after losing to World Chess Champion Vasily Borgov twice, and it was a particularly difficult period as within the same period, she lost her adopted mother. This drove her back to what she knew best, drugs and alcohol, in order to cope, as she drowned in the depth of her despair.  

It was only with the help of her childhood friend that she made it to the 1968 Moscow Invitational to defeat Borgov. Beth could not have honed her skills and learned important insights without her chess associates and friends. 

  • Now, what is important is to identify who these friends are within our spheres. It is always important to listen and never miss any insights from sources that are not within our immediate friendship circles. It is important to lean into the power of teamwork and networking. Equally important is not to be afraid to ask for help.  

Be Clear About What You Stand For 

Beth gets an offer to fund one of her costly trips through a Christian Crusade organisation. It is a great offer that would have taken care of all her travel costs and accommodation but turns it down because of a principle. The Christian Crusade insists on her making statements that do not reflect her being. Of course, it costs her to turn their patronage down, but she refuses to be associated with anything that does not resonate with her.  

As opportunities emerge, what are we attracting into our space? Are we still attached to the notion of being the first female whilst nothing much around us has changed. What do we stand for? Are we good for just the pictures and the rich profiles or are we at the table to bring about change and bridge a gap.  

  • There are opportunities we will need to walk away from because they do not represent what we believe in. Guess what, she still finds a way to make it to this event. 
Teenage Beth at her first state championship.

Savour Your Success—Tortured Souls 

This scene takes me to where she returns to bury Mr. Shaibel and for a moment, takes a stroll around what she used to call home. The old school principal surfaces from her office and sees her figure from a distance. She had grown old, had grown through a hip replacement and can barely make up that the figure she sees is of a grown woman.  

What is so poignant is the face marked with traits of disappointment, regret and unfulfilled dreams. The headmistress says, with almost a remote looking face and emptiness, “You should be in the chapel young lady.” This is reflective of how monotonous her life has been, to the extent that she is not present. It gives an indication of the same numbness they instilled in the children through dispensing sedative drugs at an early age. 

  • This taught me that regardless of how far from perfection our lives may seem to be at times, it is way better than living an unfulfilled life of not even trying. On reflection, we need to be kind to ourselves and grateful for even the zeal and the spirit to try. 

Make Your Own Venus Moment 

On her winning night against Borgov in Moscow, he handed her his King piece, saying, “It’s your game. Take it.” 

Of course women are trailblazing and “taking it”. Once we get there, we need to be confident in our abilities and knowledge to perform for your organization. On her winning night, she celebrates, and the Shocking Blue song Venus plays in the background as she celebrates the moment. 

May your Venus be louder than your fears!