Chess has enjoyed a surge in popularity since The Queen’s Gambit debuted on Netflix in late October, 2020, with reports of chess sets selling out and record numbers googling how to play chess.
The combination of rags-to-riches drama, 1960s aesthetic, and fine acting from lead Anya Taylor-Joy, amongst others, helped make The Queen’s Gambit both a commercial and critical success.
But what about the protagonist – the mercurial Beth Harmon – who spent her early years in an orphanage, learning the rules of chess from the janitor whom she would later sneak away to play? Her obsession with understanding the game, with winning, her success as a lone wolf, a woman in a man’s world – was she merely a fictional creation or was she based on a real person?
In short, is The Queen’s Gambit a true story, and who is the real Beth Harmon of chess?
There are, in my opinion, two stand-out candidates. But let’s go back to the Queen’s Gambit’s roots first.
Walter Tevis and his influences for Beth Harmon
The Queen’s Gambit Netflix mini-series is the televised adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name. Walter was, in addition to being a successful writer, a C-class chess player, rated somewhere between 1400-1600. He took the competitive experiences he gained from local tournaments and his fascination for the game as it was played on the world stage, and created his story as “a tribute to brainy women”.
Considering the time period he was active in, Walter’s influences will come as no surprise. He mentions in the Author’s Notes to The Queen’s Gambit book that “the superb chess of Grandmasters Robert Fischer, Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov has been a source of delight to players like myself for years.”
Bobby Fischer: The inspiration for Beth Harmon?
For players and writers of any era, Robert “Bobby” Fischer’s one man assault on the Soviets’ chess domination was so mythic, such a hero’s journey, that incorporating elements into their story would be hard to resist.
And while Bruce Pandolfini – Tevis’ advisor for the chess aspects of his book – insists that Walter had “no intention” of basing Beth Harmon on Bobby Fischer, the similarities are numerous.
Beth Harmon was born in 1948, 5 years after Bobby, and never knew her father. When her mother dies in a car accident, she is sent to an orphanage. Fischer also had an absent father and his mother, while living until her mid-eighties, was rarely around when he was growing up. It was Joan, Bobby’s older sister, who bought him a chess set, taught him the moves, and later escorted him to tournaments abroad.
Beth Harmon is a voracious reader, devouring all the chess books she can get her hands on, starting with a copy of Modern Chess Openings gifted to her. And when her friend brings her a pile of books to study, she tells him she’s already read nearly all of them. Later, to further her ambitions, Beth takes up Russian, using it to eavesdrop on her rivals at a tournament.
Likewise, Bobby Fischer learned Russian so he could learn from their extensive literature. Whilst at an international tournament, Mikhail Tal asked him what he thought of the current crop of female chess players and was stunned when Bobby started giving his verdict on a number of players that were thought to be unknown outside of the USSR. Fischer had read about them in Soviet chess magazines.
It seemed there was nothing chess-related that Bobby hadn’t read: even old texts by Howard Staunton and Wilhelm Steinitz. His analysis of these books helped him discover obscure opening ideas such as 9.Nh3 in the Italian Game/Giuco Piano.
Bobby Fischer became the US champion at 14, still the youngest to do so. Beth also won the national title as a teenager, aged 18. In real life, only Bobby, Gata Kamsky (17), and Hikaru Nakamura (17) have won the title at a younger age.
Bobby and Beth are both seen as the West’s great hope against “the Russians”, although Beth’s attention is focused on one World Champion, Vasily Borgov, while for Fischer there were no less than five Soviet World Champions during his career (Botvinnik, Tal, Smyslov, Petrosian, and Spassky).
Beth Harmon vs. Vasily Borgov – A familiar rivalry
Nevertheless, in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, the character of Vasily Borgov is thought to have been inspired by Boris Spassky, not least because of the parallels between Harmon-Borgov and Fischer-Spassky.
In their first meeting, an intimidated Beth loses to Borgov. Fischer famously lost his first game against Spassky, playing Black against Boris’ King’s Gambit. While we don’t know whether Bobby was intimidated by his opponent, he probably wasn’t expecting 2.f4!
Beth’s last meeting with Borgov is in the final round of the Moscow Invitational. She goes into this game with no wins against her rival – just as Fischer did against Spassky in their 1972 World Championship match. Beth breaks from her normal opening repertoire, surprising Borgov with a Queen’s Gambit. Fischer also sprung an opening surprise in the famous Game 6 by playing 1.c4 instead of his traditional 1.e4 and transitioning to a… Queen’s Gambit!
When (spoiler alert!) Beth wins, Borgov joins the crowd in giving her a standing ovation – just as Spassky did for Fischer after Game 6. It can also be noted that the Harmon-Borgov game featured an adjournment and it was after an adjournment in Game 21 of Fischer-Spassky that Boris resigned his world title.
Beth Harmon’s visions on the ceiling.
In terms of age, background, and achievements, it’s hard to argue against Bobby Fischer being the inspiration for Beth Harmon. But there are other parts of her life that don’t match with Bobby’s.
One is Beth’s addiction to tranquilizers. This comes from the author’s dependency on drugs given to him after a heart operation. Tevis went on to have problems with alcohol which Beth inherited too. Walter Tevis openly stated that having his character work through these addictions was a cathartic process for him.
These tranquilizers lead to Beth experiencing visions of chess on her bedroom ceiling. She sees the board, the pieces, and moves, with the suggestion that she gets stronger at the game through this mental practice.
While this may seem fantastical to some, many strong players are capable of visualising the board and analysing positions in their head. Whether Beth’s visions were a consequence of her innate ability, the tranquilizers, or a combination is up for speculation, but she is far from unique.
World Champion Magnus Carlsen says he is nearly always thinking about chess, analysing positions in his head even while he is talking to somebody. He has put on simultaneous exhibitions, beating all ten of his opponents while blindfolded – and recalled the games move by move afterwards.
Of course, in top-level chess this ability is almost commonplace. Perhaps more spooky is Henrik Carlsen’s revelation – in the 2016 documentary ‘Magnus’ – that his son would play with Lego for hours as a young child, then sit, staring at the ceiling, processing what he had built, how the pieces combined and so on.
This is, perhaps, the closest real world example to the hallucinations and visions Beth experiences in Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit.
The Queen’s gambit? A woman winning in a man’s world.
But the lives of Bobby Fischer and Walter Tevis have little influence on one of the biggest themes of the life and career of Beth Harmon: succeeding as a woman in a man’s world.
While gender inequality is still prevalent today, things were worse sixty years ago. The Queen’s Gambit was a literary attempt at addressing the balance. “I like Beth for her bravery and intelligence. In the past, many women have had to hide their brains, but not today,” Tevis said in an interview.
So it’s time to take a look at the trailblazers – the women who crashed into a male-dominated world and smashed down barriers for future generations.
Vera Menchik: The original Beth Harmon.
Vera Menchik was the first female to make a significant impact on the world of chess. Born in the present-day Czech Republic, Vera’s family moved to England when she was 15. Already a strong chess player, it was serendipitous that they happened to move to Hastings, home of the famous chess club and congress.
Over the next few years, she competed in the Hastings Congress and won two unofficial matches against the British Ladies’ Champion, Edith Price, overtaking her in the public eye as the strongest female player in the country.
Menchik went on to dominate the women’s game for the rest of her – tragically short – life, winning the first Women’s World Chess Championship and the following six too, with an incredible 94% score (W78, D4, L1).
Vera Menchik competed against and with the stars of the day too, appearing on the same team as Capablanca and Rubinstein in the 1929 Ramsgate team tournament, and as part of a field of 20 in the Moscow 1935 chess tournament. This later event featured two former world champions (Lasker and Capablanca) and one future (Botvinnik). Menchik didn’t have her best event – scoring only four draws from nineteen games – but it was still a first for a lady to be competing at this level.
You can read more about Vera Menchik and see one of her games in Malcolm Pein’s post for Chessable here.
Nona Gaprindashvili: Women’s World Chess Champion in the 1960s.
What about female chess players active in the time The Queen’s Gambit Netflix show is set, the 1960s? The standout player was the Georgian, Nona Gaprindashvili, the first woman to receive the full Grandmaster title.
Nona won her first Women’s World Championship in 1962, crushing the incumbent champion 9-2. Gaprindashvili kept her title for 16 years, defending it four times during that period.
Nona is actually mentioned by name in The Queen’s Gambit, with one player claiming – incorrectly – that she didn’t play against men. On the contrary, Nona Gaprindashvili regularly played in strong chess tournaments and drew against Paul Keres – as Black, no less – at Hastings 1964/65.
However, she stopped short of beating a world champion. For that, we have to look to another prominent player.
Judit Polgar: The strongest female chess player of all-time.
In Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon becomes recognised as one of the world’s strongest players and beats the current World Champion. Only one female chess player can claim the same in the real world.
Judit Polgar is the strongest female chess player of all-time, with a peak rating of 2735 Elo and a peak ranking of number 8 in the world. Judit reached this rank in the July 2005 FIDE list, ahead of people like Levon Aronian and Boris Gelfand. The fact that only two other women (Maia Chiburdanidze and Hou Yifan) have ever got in the top 100 player list underscores the significance of this achievement.
Judit Polgar more than matches Beth Harmon when it comes to beating World Champions too, defeating seven of the classical champions in either standard or rapid time controls. Magnus Carlsen, Vishy Anand, Vladimir Kramnik, Garry Kasparov, Anatoly Karpov, Boris Spassky, and Vasily Smyslov have all been defeated by Judit.
Of course, Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit was written before Judit Polgar joined the world elite, but no-one before or since has so closely matched Beth Harmon’s success as a woman beating men at “their” game.
Anya Taylor-Joy, who plays Beth Harmon on the Netflix show, actually had a video chat with Judit Polgar recently where they discussed the similarities of Beth and Judit’s careers.
Final verdict: Who is the real Beth Harmon?
So, while The Queen’s Gambit isn’t a true story, it does a great job of staying faithful to the highs, lows, and peculiarities of competitive chess, and the character of Beth Harmon is all the more believable because of that.
As to who the real Beth Harmon is, it’s pretty clear that Bobby Fischer was a major influence on the creation of Walter Tevis’ protagonist. But it was Judit Polgar who came along and made the dream a reality.
Ultimately, we can be glad that The Queen’s Gambit has got people talking about chess and interested in the game again. Long may it continue.