Money And Life Lessons From “The Queen’s Gambit”

For a moment, she wanted to say something about the expansiveness of room service, even measured in pesos, but she didn’t. She picked up the phone and dialed six. The man answered in English. She told him to send a margarita and a large Coke to room 213.” Walter Tevis, author of The Queen’s Gambit (1983)

Have you seen Netflix’s most-watched miniseries, “The Queen’s Gambit,” yet? It is the story of Beth Harmon, an orphan after her mother commits suicide and takes place in mid-1950s Kentucky. Against all odds, Harmon becomes a chess prodigy, rising to become the world’s chess master while emotionally struggling with adoption, rejection, drug, and alcohol dependency.

I was fascinated by this “coming of age” drama. Harmon playing chess is a symbol for life and, specifically, for providing money lessons. As a metaphor, chess is not new. Chess is often symbolic of life, war, and survival. The famous physicist  Richard Feynman was said to have used chess to solve mathematical and scientific problems.

Valuable Money And Life Lessons

 

1. Find Your Passions And Purpose

Beth Harmon was a socially awkward child when she arrived at the orphanage. Alone in the world, an older girl, Jolene, takes her under her wings. Harmon is more of an observer in her small world rather than a social butterfly. She finds comfort in the “vitamins,”  which are tranquilizers dispensed by the orphanage to keep the girls calm. Prescribing these drugs in the mid 20th century was common practice.

Once Harmon gets a taste of chess, her social awkwardness evaporates as she finds herself on a more confident and purposeful path. From a burgeoning interest in chess, Beth Harmon discovers her passion for playing chess as soon as she learned how to play. with hard work, passion, and determination, she won games, prize money and was able to support herself and her adoptive mother. 

2. Keep Practicing And Learning

Beth Harmon’s first exposure to playing chess was through watching the orphanage’s janitor, Mr. Shaibel. He is an experienced chess player who plays alone in the basement. Mr. Shaibel initially discourages her from watching him but soon recognizes her strong interest. Mr. Schnaibel, a chess enthusiast, mentors Harmon who learns quickly. He gives her encouragement and gives her the first chess book, “Modern Chess Openings.”  She studied and practiced moves to quench her thirst for mastering the game.

Recognizing her growing talent, Mr. Schnaibel introduced Beth to the school’s head of the chess club, who invites her to play in the tournament. This tournament is Beth Harmon’s first challenge in encountering hurdles. The high school’s chess club was male-dominated. They initially do not take Harmon as a serious contender.

Beth took the sedative pills she received at the orphanage. The pills help her to visualize the entire game on the ceiling of her room. It clears her head, increases her confidence, and spawns her dependency on drugs, which becomes problematic later on.

3. Adopted, She Adapts To Her New Situation

Beth Harmon is adopted by a childless couple, the Wheatley’s, sticking with her chess passion. She quickly realizes her adoptive parents, Alma and Allston, have marital problems, and her adoptive father moves across the country.  Beth remained with her adoptive mom, Alma Wheatley, an alcoholic who requires some adulting. Beth provided financial support to her mother, who began to enjoy Beth’s success in the game.

Beth Harmon goes full throttle into the world of chess, signing up for chess tournaments across the country.

4. Overcoming Hurdles In The Male-Dominated Chess Game

In the mid 20th century, the chess game was played mainly by males, like the business world at that time. Chess was not always that way. Notable women are known to play chess: Mary, Queen of Scots, and Queen Elizabeth I. When Benjamin Franklin traveled to Europe, he played chess with socially important women.

Lyudmila Rudenko became the first female International Chess Master in 1950. However, Beth Harmon in the fictional series would have been playing in a male-oriented game as portrayed.

Overcoming Mr. Shaibel’s resistance to her playing the game was the first of many hurdles. Signing up for the first tournament in Kentucky exposed Harmon to males who initially saw her more as a curiosity until she proved her mettle. Her reputation grew as she won tournaments and cash prizes.

5. Set Goals And Have Strategies

As her winnings increased, Harmon set her sights on larger venues in different cities in the US. She dived into reading classic chess books by the masters learning each possible strategic move practicing through visualization skills. Taking tranquilizers regularly, Beth used the ceilings to envision the chessboard pieces and tried out different strategies to play in her next game.

Romanticizing the game, Beth Harmon said: “It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I can get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”

Along the way, Beth met many different boys who became her friends and mentors. In her high school, girls invited Beth out to find out about the boys she was meeting at tournaments and did not know her. These girls fit the stereotype of women who went to school, got married, and had children and no career. This scenario was counter to Beth’s ambition to be top of the chess world.

Beth’s goals were to master chess, win tournaments in the US, travel to Paris, and ultimately play the Chess Master, Vasily Borgov, in the Soviet Union.

6. Financial Independence

From the start, Beth Harmon is fiercely independent and fits a different mold.  Women during the 1950s and 1960s were financially dependent on their husbands. As a successful chess player,  Beth Harmon became a role model for her adoptive mother, Alma. Alma was an accomplished pianist on her own but suffered from stage fright. She was never encouraged to play the piano, even in her home. Her estranged husband was unaware of his wife’s talent until Beth Harmon confronted him about abandoning his family without financial support.

As a result of Beth Harmon’s winnings and her rising star, she became financially independent and supported her mother.

Beth invested in herself. She used her earnings to buy chess books, a travel chess set, and magazines to learn about the games’ strategy.  She shared her winnings and encouraged her mother to travel to the tournaments in different markets. Beth and her mother became very close, supporting one another.

At times, Beth was concerned about overspending on the hotels, meals, drinks, and snacks. After all, she was footing the bill for everything.

7. Risks And Rewards

 Throughout the series, Beth Harmon discusses the specifics of chess with the friends who mentor her. The discussions are intense, intuitiveness,  energetic, and displays of genius among these avid players. They know chess well. To the amateur or non-player like myself (who enjoyed the series), it was most intriguing how they played a psychological game of wits.

Each player has only one option: to win this existential game as survival of the fittest. Risks and rewards hang in the balance as they discuss the opening move of the game.

Opening Moves

The Queen’s Gambit, the series, is named for one of the oldest openings that are still commonly played today. This opening move secures control over the center of the board. Garry Kasparov, the Russian grandmaster, consulted for the series, lending authenticity to the game. The chess pieces are the player’s possessions; they use their skills, time, energy, tactics, and patience to win this game. You can almost feel the brain waves make sounds.

Chess is like watching two people negotiate at the bargaining table. The stakes are high for each to battle the other. Risks rise with each chess win, along with the rewards of the game. As you win at one table, you move on to a stronger player until the tournament’s two strongest players are left to play.

Chess And Investments Require Discipline

Making investments are similar. You can start with a small amount of money to get the feel of investing in stocks. The stakes increase as you add more money to your investments, but you can lower your risk by diversifying your portfolio rather than investing in individual stocks. However, diversification in a pool of stocks through an indexed mutual fund reduces your risk and returns. When you make investments, you need to remain disciplined to lessen your losses.

 

8. Be Confident But Don’t Fall Prey To Overconfidence

“The key is not to be tentative. You have to play with absolute confidence.” Benny Watts

From the beginning, you recognize Beth Harmon’s confidence in herself and her game. Tested, she occasionally falters. The viewer cheers her on, as do her competitors, who she quickly demolishes. Beth gains energy from her passion for becoming the greatest chess player in the world. Those she competes with are soon in awe of her.

Beth defeats Harry Beltik, a champion player, in her first tournament at the high school. Later, he mentors her, bringing the best chess books to find out she read most of them. Later, Benny Watts, the reigning US chess champion, becomes her mentor and friend as she moves onto higher ground. These friends identify Beth’s self-destruction streak, which nearly costs her health, reputation, and life.

 

9. Fighting Demons As Her Genius Becomes Her Burden 

A confluence of factors–alcoholism, drugs, and a paralyzing loss–nearly destroy Beth. On the road with her mother, she adds alcohol to the sedatives she continues to take to help visualize the game. When she travels to Paris, her goal is to win the game if she can play Vasily Borgov, the current Russian world champion chess player. From Paris, she plans her ultimate target, to play in the Soviet Union, become the world chess master, defeating all the Soviet players, and ultimately, Borgov.

In a rare departure from her typical discipline, Beth goes for drinks with a friend the night before her Paris match and stays out late. Overly confident and distraught over her mother’s death, she cannot perform up to her standards. She loses the game badly. Upon returning to Kentucky alone, Beth Harmon is a physical and emotional basketcase.

Jolene, her friend at the orphanage, scooped her up and restored her to her former winning self.  Jolene said, “Looks like you are at the bottom of a f*cking hold. And it’s looking like you dug it yourself. My advice? Stop digging.”

Her male mentors worried about her and added their support. Harmon gained substantially through her friendships and mentoring they provided

Failure Is Possible For The Most Successful

How often, after feeling the thrill of success, do we all get tested in our professional lives? Failure is possible for the most successful. We all falter in our careers. I know I have had that experience in my profession.

It can happen when you are the pinnacle of your success and can do no wrong in the eyes of your employees, your clients, and others. Maybe that sounds like an exaggeration, and to some extent, it may be. What do you do if your product rollout is a bomb or your stock recommendation turns out to be a dud? You recognize it for the failure it is, dusting yourself off, and start again. We overthink our mistakes, but it is better to move forward.

10. Stick With Your Convictions

As a chess player, Beth Harmon stuck with her convictions. Her friends often criticized her style of playing, which was “an all-out attack.” Later, Benny Watts tells her, “You play what’s best for you.”

Two women from a Christian group offered to pay for Harmon’s trip to the Soviet Union. However, there was a catch. They asked Beth to endorse the group’s statement as an American against the policies of the Soviet Union. Beth refused to do so and returned the group’s money. She stood by her principles to avoid politics rather than compromising her position for the sake of money she needed to travel.

11. Earning Income From Chess 

Many chess players support themselves by remaining on the chess tournament circuit. The intensity of the game may be challenging to envision chess as a means of earning passive income. If you enjoy the game, there are ways to become a professional player. Winners of the world championship typically win $1-2 million. Top events can yield prize money in the $50,000 range. Other ways to earn some money are playing at clubs, tutoring, sponsorships, making presentations, and writing books.

Final Thoughts

The Queen’s Gambit is Netflix’s winning series about the rise of an orphaned prodigy in the world of chess in the mid 20th century. There is much to learn about the chess game and its 11 valuable lessons about life and money.

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