"Doubled Pawns" is the third episode of The Queen's Gambit. Along with the rest of the series, it was released on Netflix on October 23, 2020.
A cold opening shows Beth as a child, watching her mother Alice Harmon swimming and diving in a lake. Snap to the present, Cincinnati, 1963, where Beth and her adoptive mother Alma Wheatley have just arrived for a chess tournament. Excited, Beth jumps onto her bed while Alma laughs.
Downstairs, Beth meets the U.S. champion Benny Watts, although he isn't playing in the Cincinnati tournament. He wishes her luck, and she goes to play her first match, who is immediately despondent when he realizes who she is. She wins her match before anyone else, and outside meets the original registrars (Matt and Mike) who attempted to put her in the beginner's tournament back in Kentucky, but are now completely friendly with her. That night she studies her matches, making sure Alma keeps the TV down so she can concentrate.
The next day Beth introduces Alma to Matt and Mike, and at breakfast she asks them about the potential prize money with Beth rising through the ranks, or even the possibility of her playing internationally. Beth then wins the Cincinnati tournament, at which point her mother asks for 10% of her after-expenses winnings as an "agent's commission", but Beth instead gives her 15%. From here, Alma flies Beth all over the country, dominating tournaments in Pittsburg and elsewhere, with Alma herself often lying about Beth being sick to cover her school absences. On one flight, Alma even shares some alcohol with Beth. As Beth's chess career progresses, she decides to take Russian classes in junior college at night, so that she can speak with the world famous Russian players like Vasily Borgov, which Alma allows with reluctance due to the number of older men there.
- They say you’re the real thing. So, can you tell the readers of Life how it feels? I mean, to be a girl among all those men?
- I don’t mind it.
- Isn’t it intimidating? I mean, when I was a girl, I wasn’t allowed to be competitive. I played with dolls.
- Chess isn’t always competitive.
- No, but you play to win.
- Yes, but chess can also be…
- — Beth's interview with Life magazineBeautiful.
Beth is later interviewed by a reporter from Life magazine, who seems inordinately focused on Beth being a girl rather than her actual chess style or tutelage. Although Beth does note that Mr. Shaibel taught her, neither this nor the fact that she plays the Sicilian makes it into the paper itself. Instead, the reporter wonders if Beth thought of the King and Queen as parental figures, which dumbfounds Beth because "they're just pieces".
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 get hurt, I only have myself to blame.Beth
The reporter finally seems to pick up on Beth's lack of emotional development from her time as an orphan, on her emotional imbalance and reliance upon chess, when she says that "creativity and psychosis often go hand in hand. Or, for that matter, genius and madness." At this point however, Alma has had enough and ushers the reporter out, leaving Beth alone. At school, Beth's fine clothes and growing fame sees her peers move away from her as she walks the hallways, and a chess club was even started at her school in her honor, who all eagerly ask for her autograph.
When Beth hears the piece about her from Life, she is thoroughly displeased at their lack of focus on her chess style or on Mr. Shaibel teaching her. She is particularly aggravated by the piece's centrality on her sex, saying "it shouldn’t be that important", although Alma points out that it grants her celebrity status. Alma herself is ailing, but dismisses Beth's concerns that alcohol is exacerbating it, saying it's time she "consummated [her] relationship" with alcohol.
Back at school, Margaret Neil surprisngly invites Beth to join the Apple Pi social club, beginning with a party at her house that night. Beth dons a fine dress and attends, where she is perturbed by the titanic intellectual gulf between herself and the other young women. Her peers are far more interested in hearing about boys and singing along to songs regarding love, than any of the things that lead Beth to genuine success. Before long, Beth sneaks out of the house, helping herself to whiskey as she leaves.
By 1966, Beth has grown into a woman. She meets Townes again, who invites her up to his hotel room, but they're interrupted by Townes' room mate before anything can happen. Afterward, Beth focuses on her current tournament, the U.S. Championship. Benny Watts, the current champion, is breezing through the ranks, facing only a single draw before he reaches Harmon herself. Before their match, Benny notes a flaw in one of her games that could have been exploited, which unsettles Beth. Prior to their match, she pushes herself hard to prepare, using tranquilizers to practice on the ceiling as she has since she was nine years old.
In the end, it wasn't enough. Beth tells Alma of how her recklessly aggressive strategy fell into Benny's hands, allowing him to win in the endgame. Due to his earlier draw and Beth's flawless rise to meet Benny, they both technically walk away as co-champions, but Beth is emotionally wrecked all the same, rocked by the prospect of losing for the first time in years. Alma comforts Beth, supports her as her mother, but Beth lashes out:
Beth leaves in anger, and even lashes out at Townes as well, when he also tries to console her. However, at the end of it all, when she drives away with her mother, she reaches out to Alma for comfort, and Alma gives it.