You’re a Coin With Two Sides

Beth is nine when the car crashes. The wreckage lies on a bridge — at the end of it lies the orphanage.

The janitor, Mr. Shaibel, will teach her how to play chess. A few rounds in, she’ll start teaching him, and one “simultaneous” against 12 high schoolers later, Beth will know her destiny: The chess board never lies. It’s a battlefield, and she was born to control it. But not all her battles will be fought there.

Years later, the first female US chess champion loses her adoptive mother at a tournament in Mexico. She drinks. She cries. When the pharmacist puts the narcotics on the counter, she says “más” — more. More of everything. More wins; more fame; more money. More loneliness; more alcohol; more anger.

Back in the dimly lit basement, Mr. Shaibel prophesies what no nine-year-old could understand: “People like you have a hard time.” He holds up a quarter. “Two sides of the same coin. You’ve got your gift, and you’ve got what it costs. Hard to say for you what that will be.” Balance, he warns her. Delicate balance required. “You’ll have your time in the sun, but for how long? You’ve got so much anger in you. You’ll have to be careful.”

Whatever caution Beth may once have exercised, all too soon, she’ll throw it to the wind. Then, all that’s left will be more — more of everything — and with each episode of The Queen’s Gambit, one thing will grow clearer: Beth Harmon is a black hole of “more,” and we can only guess where it ends.

“Don’t burn too bright too fast,” Mr. Shaibel seemed to say. “Watch out. Keep your balance.” Chess prodigy or high school dropout, US champion or second-draft reject — we’re all two sides of the same coin. We’ve got our gifts, and we’ve got what they cost. Competitiveness brings both wins and frustration. Gentleness invites honesty but also abuse. 

A coin is tallest when it stands on its edge, but the balance that requires is fickle. Be careful. No one knows which side they’ll fall on today. Not even the genius child, sitting across the board with unblinking eyes. All she — and we — can do is make our next move with poise and humility, but before that, we must invite the unknown with those darned two words: “Let’s play.”