The Queen’s Gambit and its Puzzles: Moscow Edition

Like Russians sequestered indoors during their long, harsh winters, Americans (and likely many other parts of the world) are learning to enjoy the game of chess once again.

The NY Times cites a resurgence in chess interest in Chess (Yes, Chess) is Now a Streaming Obsession (Sept. 7, 2020 Kellen Browning), though much of it consists in watching Grandmaster superstars play rapid games (games with time limits of 5 or 10 minutes for an entire game’s moves), such as the American Haruki Namakura who has gained nearly all of his 528,000 Twitch followers since the pandemic began).

Activity at sites like is also up, though the US populace will be challenged to match the Russian enthusiasm for the game, as a report cited in Chess Life magazine a few years back cited how a stunning 43% of Russians will play at least one game of chess a year, double the rate of the closest competitor nation.

A Young Boris Spassky Chess Fans gathered outside of the Harmon-Borgov match

Note: for other games portrayed in The Queen’s Gambit, see The Queen’s Gambit and its Lesser Puzzles

For my comparison of The Queen’s Gambit themes of self-sacrificing friendships and love, and George MacDonald, see my article at AnUnexpectedJournal, “Lilith and The Queen’s Gambit: Two Ingenue Who Learn Love Through Sacrifice.” For a more Aristotelian take on it, see Joshua Herring’s excellent discussion and comparison with Walter Tevis’s original book 1983 at Public Discourse.

Women in Chess

The NetFlix series The Queen’s Gambit has precociously tapped into this opportunity, as the 7 episode series, released on October 23, 2020, has now garnered viewers from more than 50 countries, as per this comparison between QG’s Beth Harmon and American chess wunderkind from a generation or two back, Bobby Fischer, in The Queen’s Gambit: Meet the Real Beth Harmon … Bobby Fischer

However, it turns out there are Women chess Grandmasters – two at least – after whom Harmon could be considered to have been modeled. Making an appearance in The Queen’s Gambit is a young Nona Gaprindashvili, the 5th Women’s World Chess Champion (1962 – 1978), as discussed at The Calvert Journal in The real-life Queen’s Gambit: how Georgia’s [Russia] Nona Gaprindashvili conquered the chess world.
Also, Vera Menchik, the world’s first Women’s world Chess Champion (1927 – 1944) – in makes the case for Vera Menchik: the Real Life Beth Harmon .

The Queen’s Gambit follows in a tradition of not just coming-of-age movies, such as Hidden Figures, the true story of African American women mathematicians at NASA in the 1960s, but of several movies centered about the game of chess. In the genre of chess and women, psychologist and chess player Laszlo Polgar is famous for his educational experiment with his three daughters, Susan, Sofia, and Judit resulting in Judit cracking the World Top 10 rankings, and Susan achieving the title of Women’s World Chess Champion.

Chess in Film

Otherwise, the true story of Josh Waitzkin in Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993), the story of Bobby Fischer himself in Pawn Sacrifice (2014), and of course WarGames (1983) shew the mysterious grip of the game of royalty on the human soul …

Bobby Fischer sought and found; Russians love their children too
(GlobalThermoNuclear War option averted)
A number of variations were found to be less satisfying than a simple game of chess

Since the Russian association with Chess is so strong, its appearance in Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love (book 1957, film 1963) is not surprising.

Bronstein, Kronsteen …
An Aggressive King’s Gambit by Mr. Bond
Well played, Mr. Bond
Sporty Russia wear from Spy 90-60-90 Senator Biden’s Russia connection
Chess in Literature
Foolproof system for pretty flat pictures (multiple shots due to complicated assembly). More sporty patriotic wear from Mother Russia Fashions, Inc.

Most recently (before The Queen’s Gambit, of course) story of the discovery and nurture of the talent of Phiona Mutesi from the rural village of Katwe, a slum suburb of Kampala, Uganda is told in Tim Crother’s 2010 book, The Queen of Katwe: A Story of Life, Chess, and One Extraordinary Girl’s Dream of Becoming a Grandmaster, and in the 2016 Walt Disney movie, Queen of Katwe.

Phiona with her mentor Robert 2010 book Beautiful rural Uganda
Phiona executes the sac[rifice]-your-Queen-and-mate-with-a-Knight maneuver
Phiona, Robert and the actress/actor who portrayed them

The Queen’s Gambit made use of world class advice in constructing game sequences, including both prolific author Bruce Pandolfini (who appears in the film, playing one of Stan Lee’s moves) and World Champion (2000-2015) Garry Kasparov.

Chess Life October, 2020 issue celebrated and explained the
expert and world class consulting behind The Queen’s Gambit

Two puzzles from the various chess games and positions of The Queen’s Gambit stand out in particular. The first is from Beth Harmon’s match with the former World Champion Pluchenko, and the second one is her final game at the Moscow tournament against Vassily Borgov, the reigning Russian and World Champion.

Plucky Pluchenko Kerplunked (with help from Kasparov)

Pluchenko “defeated the great Alekhine when he was a boy, played to draw with Botvinnik, and crushed Bronstein in Havana [who] while no longer the tiger he once was, [is] a dangerous player when allowed to attack.” Analysis of a grandmaster’s game by Garry Kasparov provided the beautiful ending which Harmon played to defeat Pluchenko.

While in the actual game from which this position was obtained GM Arshak Petrosian v GM Vladimir Akopian, Akopian (playing Black) played 37. … Rcf7 and the game soon ended in a draw. However, analysis by World Champion Garry Kasparov revealed a daring attack possible for Black, which Harmon begins upon resuming her adjourned game with Pluchenko by playing (moves are renumbered, since adjournments occur after the 40th moves)

Adjourned position Harmon seals 41. … P-h5! , shown as played

41. … h5! sacrificing and disrupting Black’s own protective pawn wall in front of his King
42. gxh5 Kh8! Black retreats his King behind the advancing mass of White pawns(!)
43. hxg6 … Black’s King is now “safe” behind White’s unopposed and advancing pawn duo
43. … Rxh4 Black’s Rook captures a Pawn and threatens a strong check on h2
44. Rh1 Rch7 Black’s other Rook joins the attack, thanks to the earlier savvy King retreat Kh8

43. … hxg6 44. … Rch7

45. Rg1 … 45. gx(R)h7 leads to mate after Qg7 ch, as shown below

if 46. Kf1 RxRh1 ch if 46. Kf2 RxRh1
47. Kf2 Qg1 check mate 47. any Qg8 mate
or if 47. Re1 Qg6 ch wins

continuing from the main line, 47. Rg1
47. … R7h5
46. Kf1 Kg7
47. Bd7 Rd4

Beth is feeling salty after a triumphant 47. … Rd4

48. Qe3 Rd1 ch
49. Re1 Bd4
White resigns

49. … Bd4 a dagger into White’s heart “You are a marvelous player.
I resign with relief.”

Elstrom Annihilation in Moscow

Another rousing victory of Beth’s in Moscow came against the opponent Elstrom. Beth has apparently sacrificed a full Rook to setup this final mating net. Elstrom resigns the position shown, but we show what awaited him.

Qe4 ch: Elstrom (White) resigns although up by a full Rook

Elstrom could retreat Kd2 protecting his P on e2, though Qe3 ch; Kd1 or e1 meets Qd2 mate (supported by Black’s Rook at f8), so instead Kc2 Qxp(e2) ch is shown

Qe2 ch leads to Rf2 and an unstoppable mate Kb1 Qb2 or Kc3 Qd2.
Can Black deliver checkmate without moving the Rook forward?

Molotov Mauling in Moscow: Harmon vs. Borgov Finale

Beth Harmon’s final match, with the Russian World Champion Vassily Borgov in the Moscow tournament, provided a most amusing puzzle. Sporadic scenes throughout the game are shown, offering a challenge to the (morbidly? geekily?) curious to interpolate the grandmaster level moves played in between the scenes presented. Beth’s other important games with Big Boys Benny (in the US Open Championship, Las Vegas) and Borgov (in Mexico City and in Paris) are also included on this page; but first we look at her finale with Borgov in Moscow.

Harmon opens with the Queen’s Gambit the ‘gambit pawn’ is easily recovered
White gains a strong position in the center

The game starts off interestingly enough with Harmons choice of The Queen’s Gambit opening. However, in order to “get out of book” (the commonly understood opening pattern for which the opponent is likely highly prepared), Borgov deviates on move 2 with the Albin Counter Gambit, himself offering a pawn in response to Harmon’s gambit of a pawn the move before! Harmon counters with a counter-counter gambit in response …

Borgov’s Albin Counter Gambit Harmon’s own counter-counter gambit

Instead of responding conventionally to the Queen’s Gambit (2. … e6 [Pawn to e6, ‘Pawn’ is suppressed in this notation] is a standard defense of Black’s Queen Pawn instead of entertaining White’s sham offer), Borgov’s 2nd move is “a bit of a surprise … he’s gone against his won style and playing a rare line to win; he must win. Harmon’s response is a complete deviation from the Albin, and surprised him right back. whilst allowing her to get out into the open. Now, the two of them can fight it out from here, with their own wits.”

Up to here, we have the moves

Beth Harmon Vassily Borgov

  1. d4 d5 [“Pawn to <these squares>, “Pawn” or “P” omitted]
  2. c4 e5 The Albin Counter Gambit
  3. e4

The next move we see is 5. Nc3 by Harmon, but from the next position shown, we can confidently guess that the moves played were

3. … dc [Black’s pawn on d4 takes White’s pawn on c4;
“c x [takes] d” or even d5 x c4 are less compact notations]

4. Be3 Nf6 Black’s Knight [N] attacks her pawn on e4, so
5. Nc3 she moves her N to c3 to defend it, as shown below

Harmon plays 5. Nc3

The next position shown has Borgov playing Ng6, though in the meantime it is apparent that a) Harmon has recaptured the gambit pawn with B(x) c4, b) Borgov has played Nc6, then fled on horseback after c) Harmon pushed her Queen pawn with d5.
Thus, it would seem that the moves that follow must be
5. … Nc6
6. d5 Ne7
7. Bxc4 Ng6 Black moves the N since it blocks both B,Q

Borgov’s 7. …. Ng6

The next sequence, the final move of which we see being Kg2 by Harmon (White), offers the biggest challenge, as several moves have been played before we next see the board. It is apparent that
a) Borgov (Black) has maneuvered a N to exchange Harmon’s B on c4,
b) the QR (a) pawns have been traded, with Black’s P-QN4 (b5) preceding White’s N-QB5 (Nc5)
c) Harmon (White) has moved a N to c5, another N to f1, likely castled on the king side and maneuvered the KR to g1, somehow.

Three explanations are given:
1) a first, seemingly plausible but admittedly ad hoc and decidedly un-Grandmasterly stab I made,
2) a second attempt, using moves discernible (or hardly so) from the score sheet flashed on the screen at one point
3) the actual game from which the game was taken, between Grandmaster Vasyl Ivanchuk (thrice achieving rank of #2 in World Chess rankings, the World title in Rapid Chess in 2015 and in 2011 was awarded by the President of Ukraine the Order of Prince Yaroslav the Wise) and two-time US Champion Patrick Wolff. The enigmatic Ivanchuk, considered by some as the most talented player ever, is at times plagued by erratic and emotional play, interspersed with bouts of singing Ukranian poetry and (at least figurative) inhabiting of “Planet Ivanchuk,” has recently taken up checkers, achieving a world rank of 1111 (4 x #1 he might argue) in 2019. Agadmator gives the actual moves at Youtube: Better than the Original: Borgov Harmon finale

a) the Harmon-Borgov game transposes moves at the beginning for dramatic effect,
b) Ivanchuk-Wolff ended in a draw, so the Netflix chess team improvised to produce a dramatic win for Harmon, who, like Bobby Fischer before her, really liked to win.

1) (my first attempt) The moves that appear to make sense would be
8. Nf3 Bd6 9. 0-0 (castles) 0-0 10. Kh1 Nd7 11. Ng1 (to allow P-f4) Nb6
12. Qe2 Nxc4 13. Qxc4 h6 14. Na4 Qe8 (threatening P-b5 forking Q,N)
15. Nc5 b5 16. Qd3 a6 17. g3 f6 18. f4 Ne7 19. fe fe 20. a4 Rxf1
21. Rxf1 Qg6 22. ab ab 23. Kg2 achieving the next position shown.

By the time Harmon plays Kg2, a lot of pieces have moved around

However, these moves do not align with the game sheet, however briefly and
shadowily on display in this scene:

good luck with deciphering the moves …

Thus, following the decipherable moves (and Black’s moves are hardly visible), the following sequence seems to be a plausible game scenario. Moves that are discernible (mostly White’s) are given here in quotes, and in the old style notation (rather than the modern algebraic, “[p-]e4” instead “P-K4”) and an interpolated game score thus becomes

2) (my 2nd attempt, arguably better, but … ) 8. “P-B3” B-Q3
9. “Q-Q2” O-O; 10. “N-K2” this scheme of White’s typically involves Queen-side castling and an onslaught on the King side

The difficulty of proceeding consists in constructing plausible Black sequences given White’s given moves and the considerations above, a) exchange of the Black N and White B, b) exchange and advance of Black’s Q side pawns and c) White’s N landing on QB5 (c5) after the Q side pawn movements in b). Thus, we proceed from

Position after 10. N-K2

10. … P-KR3 to prevent B-KN5 pin on the NKB3, which seems destined for the other side of the board; 11. “B-N3” N-Q2; 12. “P-B4” P-KB3 pressure on Black’s center pawn and thus on his position in the center; 13. “O-O” P-QR3; 14. “QR-QB1” Q-K1

14. … QK1

15. “P-KN3” N-QB4; 16. “B-B2” N-K2; 17. “PxP” PxP; 18. “K-R1″ K-R1;”18. K-R1” is very fuzzy but we fit these in here 19. “B-Q3” … White might be trying some trickery on the QB (“queen bishop,” or “c”) file

19. B-Q3 … (WR on QB1, WB on K3 pressure BN on W’s QB5)

19. … NxB trickery avoided 20. “QxN” RxR; 21. “RxR” Q-KN3 (White’s moves become illegible here)
22. N-QR4 B-KN5 intending BxN; QxB QxKP winning a pawn

22. … B-KN5

23. N-KN1 P-QN4; 24. “N-QB5” “B-B1”; 25. P-QR4 K-N ok, fits but the Black King moves likely not quite right
26. PxP PxP; 27. K-KN2 K-KR2 <both of these moves are displayed in the film>

Once again, however, my hypothesized moves turn out quite different from those chosen by world class Grandmasters. Upon learning that the game was in fact an actual Grandmaster level game, I am thrilled to present the moves as given by Agadmator. However, it appears the opening moves were re-arranged on Netflix as an innovative Albin’s Counter Gambit, though in fact the game begins slightly more conventionally. Thus:

3) <actual moves of Ivanchuk – Wolff game>
1. d4 d5; 2.c4 dxc; 3.e4 Nc6; 4. Be3 Nf6 5. Nc3 Nf6; 6.Nc3 …
(Harmon- Borgov moves played being 1.d4 d5; 2.c4 e5; 3.e4 cxd; 4.Be3 Nf6; 5.Nc3 Nc6; 6.Nf3 etc.)

Harmon – Borgov and Ivanchuk – Wolff games aligned by 5. … Nf6 6.Nc3 (I-W game)

6. (Nc3) e5; 7.d5 Ne7; 8. Bxc4 Ng6; 9.f3 Bd6; 10.Qd2 Bd7; 11.Ne2 a6; 12.Bb3 b5; 13. a4 O-O; 14. O-O Qe7; 15.Rc1

15. … Nh5; 16. g3 h6; 17.Bc2 Rb8; 18.ab ab; 19.Ra1 Ra8; 20.Bd3 Bb4; 20.Rxa8 Rxa8; 21.Qc2 Bc5; 22.Nd1 Bd6;
23. Nf2 N(h)f5;

24. gx(N)f5 can lead to a spectacular mate of White, so Harmon declines, continuing

24. Ng1 Nx(B)d3; 25.Nxd3 f5; 26.Nc5 Bc1; 27.Rf1 Ne7; 28.Qd3 fxe; 29.fxe Qg6 pressure on e4 pawn
and we have arrived to where the Netflix game scenes pick back up, with 30. Kg2

30. Kg2 Kh7 (as shown in Harmon-Borgov game); 31. Nf3 Ng8; 32. Nh4 Qg4; 33. Nf5 Nf6;
34. h3  final move shown before adjournment is declared

In the next scene displayed, Harmon is moving her N (last seen on f1) to f5.

Harmon plays 33. Nf5 Adjourned position after Harmon’s 34. h3
Play is set to resume

Upon resumption from adjournment, we see Borgov’s sealed move is “Qg6,” so (continuing our reverting to algebraic notation) there follows

34. … Qg6; 35. Ne6 Ra4; 36. b3 chasing the Rook

35. Ne6 36. b3

36. … Rx(P)e4
37. Nx(B)d6 Bx(N) e6 if instead Borgov plays Px(d6) – seemingly winning a piece –
Harmon devastates with a Knight fork of K and Q: Nf8 check!

37. Nxd6 37. … Bxe6

38.dx(B)e cx(N)e Harmon is just down a pawn here, minor for all the trades flying about
39. e7 … and the e pawn is one square away from becoming a Queen

39. P-e7 39. … P-d5 Drama abounds!
39. e7 d5! 40. Bc5!! sequence

… d5(!) “Holy Poop, Batman!” Townes declares, “he’s not doing what he’s supposed to be doing!” Harmon goes into pieces on the ceiling hallucinogenic mode … music quickens, like a Hans Zimmer score … percussion drums even more strongly, chorus quickens further … then
40. Bc5 it is not apparent what this really accomplishes. But Beth stared long and hard at the ceiling to come up with it. Truly enigmatic, Grandmasterly play …

Move of the Millennium!! 40. Bc5 (*@&!!!)
“Oh what a feeling, when the chess pieces are dancing on the ceiling …”

… Qe8 Borgov retreats his Queen to block Harmon’s ambitious pawn from promoting. it is protected by the newly moved Bishop. truly brilliant …
41. Qf3 Qb6 Harmon slides her Highness onto the busy f file; Borgov attacks the Bishop. she was previously blocked from this before the subtle 40. Bc5.
Impressive planning …
42. b4 Qe8 Bishop defended by simple Pawn move, Borgov admits temporary
stupidity and slinks his King-Consort back to d8, blocking the expansive
e pawn from promoting

“Draw?” “un-huh” <nyet>

(though it is not his move) Borgov slyly offers a draw. “Borgov never offers draws …
“Borgov is death on endgames, he is famous for it.”
“Harmon, on the other hand, is not. She’s known for coming out early and strong,
demoralizing her opponents from the start.”
“A draw, however, is not a win.
And the one thing we know about Elizabeth Harmon is she loves to win.”

43. Qf5 ch 44. QxN a Queen “Gambit” as it were

43. Qf5 ch Kh1
44. QxN (!!) gx(Q)f Harmon “sacs” her Queen: this is truly a “Queen Gambit” now!
45. Rx(P)f6 … Harmon threatens R-f8 ch forking K+Q
… Qh5 so Borgov evacuates his leading lady
46. Rf8 ch Kg7
47. (P)e8 / promote to Queen ! Harmon has regained her Queen, and the attack. Heroic music blares.

(Clockwise) 43. Qf5 ch … 44. QxNf6 ch (!!)
45. Rxf6 Qh5 … 47. e8/Q!
White’s Queen returns!

Borgov’s next couple moves are a mystery, though he clearly pushes a piece forward a
short way, it would appear to be
48. … Re2 ch
49. Kf1 Harmon retreats, attacking the roving Black fortress (castle, or “Rook”),
49. … Qx(P)h3 ch desperate for attacking counterplay – he is down a Knight – Borgov sacs his R
for some Queen activity. On an open board with loose pieces, she can devastate.
50. Kx(R)e2 Qg2 ch In for a penny, in for a pound. Borgov continues …
51. Rf2 Qe4 ch
52. Kd2 Harmon eyes all the loose pieces about, moves and waits …

Final moves … thank you Agadmator.
“It is your game. Take it”

(I have never had anyone applaud me, or hug me after a victory. or a loss. maybe I will try it sometime, especially against a pretty redhead if possible. Sans the hugging, it is true to the Bobby Fischer legend, as Spassky applauded him after the 6th game of their 1972 world Championship match, as shown in Pawn Sacrifice. Ironically, Fischer played the Queen’s Gambit (for the first time ever in competitive play) in that game too, and did so to perfection. He was known for opening with the King’s Pawn, 1.e4, better attacking possibilities. Fischer also loved to win, not draw.)

It truly took a village
“Давай поиграем”

Beth’s previous matches with Borgov are now shown. She first plays Borgov in Mexico City, then meets him later in Paris (Episode 6: Adjournment); both are losses.

“I felt like I had already lost” in Mexico City

Very little is shown of the Beth’s game with typically Victorious Vasily (Borgov) in Mexico City, though apparently it is taken from a grandmaster game (1965 Leonard Stein v. Alexander Mehtanovich, Stein one of the top 10 players in the world, but passing away at age 38), as described by Agadmator here

Only the very beginning and ending of this interesting game was actually shown

1.e4 c5; 2.Nf3 Nc6; 3.Bb5 The relatively rare Sicilian Defense Rossolimo Attack
[Netflix version: 3. … Qb6 4.a4 a6; 5.Bxc6 Qxc6, varying slightly in move order from original game]
3. … g6; 4.c3 Qb6; 5.a4 Bg7; 6.O-O a6; 7.Bxc6 Qxc6; 8.d4

8. … d6; 9.Re1 Bg4; 10.d5 Qc7; 11.a5 Nf6; 12. N(b)d2 O-O; 13. h3 Bxf3; 14.Nxf3 Nd7; 15.Bf4 b5;

15. Bf4 17. … Qb5

16. axb en passant Qxb6; 17.Ra2 Qb5; 18.Nd2 R(f)b8; 19.Bg5 Kf8; 19.Qg4 h6; 20.Be3 Ne5;

20. Ne5 24. … Qb3

21. Qh4 g5; 22.Qh5 Nc5; 23. h4 Nxd2; 24.Nxd2 Qb3; 25. Ra1 Qc7; 26.Bc1 gxh; 27.Bxh6 Rxb2;

27. … Rxb2 29. Qg5 ch

28.Bxg7 Kxg7; 29.Qg5 ch Kf8; 30.Qxh4 Ke8?(f6!); 31.e5! dxe; 32.Rxe5 Rb1 ch; 33.Kh2 f6; 34.d6!

31. e5! 34. d6!

34. … Kd7; 35.Rxe7 ch Kc6; 36.Rxb1 Qxb1; 37.Qxf6 Qb8; 38.Rc7 ch Kb6; 39.Qf3 ch

Black is doomed, and Ra7 defense loses the Rook

Beth Battered by a Sober Borgov in Paris

After a little too much Paris night life and elan vital before her match with Borgov, Beth drops another match to the Russian champion (she had lost to him in Mexico City previously)…

Borgov plays the Sicilian Defense, which occurs in many of the games in the series:

Surprise: Another Sicilian (1.e5 c5); Beth was quite thirsty; 8.O-[O]
  1. e5 c5; 2.Nf3 d6; 3.d4 cxd; 4.Nxd4 Nf6; 5.Nc3 a6; [the Najdorf, or ‘Nay-dorf’ we learn] 6.Bc4 e6; 7.Bb3 b5;
    8.O-O [castling caught mid-move above]

    continuing, we see
    8. … Be7; 9. Qf3 O-O; 10.Qg3 Qc7; 11.Bh6 Ne8; defending g7, since simply g6 loses R for B (the ‘exchange’) 12. Rd1
12. Rd1 17. … b4

12. … Bd7 13.a3 Nc6; 14.Nxc6 Bxc6; 15. Re1 Qg7; 16.f3 a4; 17.Ne2 a5; 17. Ba2 b4.

after some more moves …

Next, we see Beth playing Q(f2)-e4, obviously several moves further into the game

then the game <later> concludes with R(g3)-b3 Bh5 and Beth resigns

<more on this later>

Trivia question: does this analysis scene flashback between Beth and Benny figure into this game at all?


“Let’s play …”
Play Beth Harmon online, at her various ages: is on the Beth Harmon train

Play Beth Harmon!

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