The Queen’s Gambit and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Disclaimer: This post has spoilers regarding The Queen’s Gambit. It also touches on topics including substance abuse, self-harm, and suicide.

I found The Queen’s Gambit to be a pretty touching series. I think part of the reason I found it to be so touching is because the series follows main character Beth Harmon as she slowly finds her needs fulfilled.

To illustrate this, I will use Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Maslow’s (original) hierarchy of needs is an idea in developmental psychology which describes how certain needs must be met before other needs can be met. (Though, more modern versions of this idea have changed the categories and acknowledge overlap between these categories as needs are met.) First are physiological needs such as food, water, shelter, and sleep. Second are safety needs. Then belonging needs, esteem from others, self-esteem, and then a state called self-actualizing (ie. a state where a person is realizing their full potential).

Early in Beth’s life, to me it’s unclear whether her physiological needs are met. Beth lives with her mother, Alice Harmon, in a trailer. At one point, Alice visits her ex-husband Paul and pleads for help, worried that she’s unable to support Beth. I don’t know that they ever reveal enough in the series as to whether Beth always had adequate food, water, etc.

In either case, her safety needs aren’t met in her early childhood either. Beth’s parents get divorced, Alice struggled with her own mental health and coping strategies, and in a scene where Alice goes diving in a lake, it is revealed that Beth is aware and fearful of her mother’s history with self-harm and/or suicide attempts.

I think Beth starts to realize her safety needs being met when her adoptive mother, Alma Wheatley, admits that “Though I’m no longer a wife, except by a legal fiction, I believe I can learn to be a mother.” Here, Alma acknowledges that she hasn’t been a great mother, but that she’s willing to try to improve. Until this point in time, I’m under the impression that Beth didn’t feel very secure in the household–neither Alma nor her husband, Allston, seemed particularly interested in Beth, and Alma credited the desire for Beth’s adoption to be rooted in Allston (and Allston said the same thing about Alma). I imagine this could have left Beth feeling like there was a decent chance that she would be sent back to Methuen Home (an orphanage for girls).

It is around this same time where Beth starts to realize her belonging needs being met as she develops friendships with Alma, as well as Matt and Mike–twin college students she meets at her first chess tournament. Although she arguably has earlier friends in Jolene and William Shaibel at Methuen Home, I don’t know that she regarded them as friends until later on in her development. (I suspect that earlier on, she may have seen them as something like tools for survival.)

As Beth continues to dominate at various chess tournaments, she starts to realize esteem from others. She gains a reputation amongst other players and she’s featured in newspaper and magazine articles. When she plays in the Moscow Invitational, she also starts to see some of her fan base, as cheering fans surround her each day she finishes her games.

I think Beth starts to realize her self-esteem when she’s preparing for her game with Vasily Borgov in the Moscow Invitational. Although she struggles with it at times, she realizes that she doesn’t need pills, alcohol, or her other coping mechanisms to win against Borgov. She starts to see her ability to win using her own abilities and the relationships she has developed over the years.

Finally, I think Beth starts to reach moments of self-actualizing around the time of the Moscow Invitational. I think she definitely feels this when Luchenko acknowledges her mastery of the game, when Benny Watts, Harry Beltik, et al. support her over the phone with her game against Borgov, and when she is acknowledged by the Russian chess players who play outdoors in the closing scene of the series. Although there are also earlier opportunities to see her impact on others (eg. Jolene following her success through chess tournaments across the years, Annette Packer recognizing her representation of women in the game), I didn’t get the sense that Beth was able to really grasp her impact at those times.

All-in-all, The Queen’s Gambit shows the evolution of Beth Harmon from feeling stuck and powerless to being successful and having a positive impact on many people around her. I suspect I found the series to be touching because I also aspire to having more of my needs met.

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