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The True Story Behind the Queen's Gambit

If you were alive last October, you couldn’t have missed the release of the Netflix limited series, The Queen’s Gambit, which happened to go on and win two Golden Globes at the award ceremony in February.

The series has all of the ingredients of a compelling true story: childhood tragedy, drugs, alcohol, and a prodigious adolescent with both a meteoric rise and fall. Despite millions of Google searches, however, The Queen’s Gambit is not a true story — although the show’s fictional events do closely mirror those of both real chess legends and the novel’s author himself.

The author and the novel

The Netflix limited series was based on a novel of the same name, published in 1986 by Walter Tevis. Although the child prodigy in the show was portrayed as a female, the troubled childhood, substance dependency, and abandonment depicted by actress Anya Taylor-Joy was a reflection of the experiences of Walter Tevis himself.

Born in San Francisco in 1928, Tevis learned how to play chess at the young age of seven. Two years later, however, he was diagnosed with a heart condition that caused his parents to leave him permanently at a convalescent home. Constantly drugged and alone, Tevis experienced many of the same struggles as Beth Harmon presented in the series.

Barbiturates or benzodiazepines?

Similar to Beth Harmon, the real-life creator Walter Tevis was given phenobarbital as a child. It’s attributed to inspiring one of the defining struggles of Beth’s life. During his stay at Stanford Children’s Convalescent Home, Walter was given the drug 3 times per day to treat his heart condition. Today we know the harmful side effects of the long term use of these drugs, but it caused life-long problems that led to various addictions in Tevis’s life.

Beth Harmon’s experience at the Methuen Home Orphanage unfolds in a similar fashion. The difference is she’s being given benzodiazepines, another drug with terrible side effects if used long-term.

Beth’s struggle mirrors her creator’s and throughout the series, we can see Tevis’s own struggle with his addictions. Later on in life, Tevis stopped taking the barbiturates but had trouble with alcohol abuse and was diagnosed with a gambling addiction.

Pool or chess?

Tevis and Harmon both found a game that captivated them in the same way. Where Harmon had chess, Tevis fell completely in love with pool. The aesthetics of pool were part of the appeal for him: everything from the game itself, the table, and the geometry fascinated him. In a similar fashion, viewers get to see Beth Harmon’s obsession come to life on-screen during the Netflix series.

Although pool may have been Walter Tevin’s game of choice for most of his life, later on, he rediscovered chess. He claimed to have lost nearly every game he ever played but was fascinated by it nonetheless. In the last years of his life, he entered chess tournaments which rekindled his love of the game and inspired the novel, The Queen’s Gambit.

Bobby Fischer and the chess scene mid-century

Other than the similarities to the author’s life, the series accurately captured the masculine-dominated culture of the professional chess circuit in the era it depicts. In a New York Times column, chess expert Dylan Loeb McClain claimed that the series is "one of the best and most successful screen adaptations of the game."

While Beth Harmon is a fictional character, the astounding games of chess depicted in the series are not. In this regard, the persona of Beth Harmon could also be said to have been based on the real-life world-renowned chess champion, Bobby Fischer.

The resemblance in experience is uncanny and definitely not a coincidence. Beth Harmon wins the US Chess Championship title in 1967, the same year that Bobby Fisher did; Fischer becomes a chess champion at the age of 14, two years earlier than Harmon does in the show. Harmon teaches herself Russian to prepare for competitions just as Fischer did — and for both, it paid off. Harmon won her bout in Moscow and Fischer scored a huge win against the USSR’s Boris Spassky in 1972.

Despite the likenesses, that’s where the comparison ends. Although Fischer too was plagued by personal struggles (mental illness rather than substance addiction), he was known to be rude, misogynistic, and an arrogant diva that made life hell for his fellow players and tournament officials. 

Equality in the game

It may be that Tevis took elements of his life and features of Bobby Fischer’s chess career, combining them within a strong female character in a decidedly male-dominated field and era to make a point about the need for equality in the game.

In an interview with The Times, Walter Tevis explained that he wanted The Queen's Gambit to be a "tribute to brainy women" like his daughter, Julie. Dramatic, smart, moving, and a challenge to presumptions, The Queen’s Gambit has certainly proved to be more than meets the eye.

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