Anya Taylor-Joy’s character in The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix is a master of two things: chess and winged eyeliner. If you have enough Youtube tutorials to help you with the latter but the former has you wanting more information, let’s get into the chess of it all. Tragically, The Queen’s Gambit is not based on a true story or a real female prodigy. We can stan Beth Harmon and her rock and roll approach to an historically geeky game all we want, but we’re stanning a fictional character. Whomp whomp.
The series is based on the book The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis.
According to a 1983 interview with The New York Times, Tevis was inspired to create the character of Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy who develops a tranquilizer addiction at a young age, by his own experiences in the world of competitive chess and juvenile drug dependency.
In real life, a woman has never won the chess World Championship.
There is a Women’s World Championship and there have been a handful of notable female prodigies throughout history, however, but that glass ceiling remains intact. I recommend checking out the chess careers of women like Judit Polgár and Hou Yifan, who were both winning titles as young teenagers, as well as notable grandmasters like Irina Krush, Nona Gaprindashvili, and Vera Menchik. They’re the closest we have to Beth IRL.
Other players that Beth faces in The Queen’s Gambit are made up, too. This isn’t a Marvelous Mrs. Maisel situation that’s mixing it up by making fictional characters interact with real historical figures. There are some things in the series that are true, however; like the Modern Chess Openings book that Beth is gifted by her janitor mentor in the first episode. That’s a real book you can read and study if you’re so inclined. So is Chess Review Magazine, though it never had Beth Harmon or Benny Watts — the character played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster from Love Actually and Game of Thrones — on the cover.
Also, the Chess World Championship is as big of a deal in real life as it is on the show.
It certainly was in the mid to late 20th century when The Queen’s Gambit takes place. While real-world chess grandmasters like Bobby Fischer aren’t directly referenced in The Queen’s Gambit, Fischer’s 1972 match again the Russian grandmaster Boris Spassky was known as “the Match of the Century” and cited in the history books as a major event in the Cold War. Seriously!
If a young girl from the United States like Beth Harmon had gone up against a Russian grandmaster and actually beat him at the World Championship years earlier, it would have been a huge deal. Even those of us, myself regrettably included, who don’t really follow or play chess would at least know the name Beth Harmon vaguely… the way you know Olympic athletes who play obscure winter sports or how I vaguely remember that someone was once Searching for Bobby Fischer.
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