- The Queen's Gambit -How Accurate Is ‘The Queen’s Gambit’? Real-Life Inspirations Created A Fictional Story
As played by Anya Taylor-Joy, The Queen's Gambit's Beth Harmon is so nuanced and richly drawn that she feels as if she must be inspired by a real person. However, the orphan turned chess prodigy at the center of Netflix's new seven-episode miniseries is the literary invention of author Walter Tevis.
Tevis, who famously wrote The Hustler and The Man Who Fell to Earth — both of which were adapted into successful movies — did imbue the character of Beth with bits of his own personality, as well as that of the chess champions he knew in real life. But in many ways, Beth's rise to the top of the male-dominated world of chess during the Cold War is pure fantasy.
A Chess Prodigy
It's no coincidence that Beth, who comes from humble beginnings to take on a Russian champ, embarks on a journey that's remarkably similar to that of Bobby Fischer's. On September 1, 1972, Fischer became the first American to win the World Chess Championship when he defeated Russia's Boris Spassky.
Like Beth, he was also a prodigy with no formal training or wealthy family to nurture his gifts. He was also known for being temperamental, reclusive, and demanding (later in life, he was also blatantly anti-Semitic, as The New York Times pointed out in his obituary). Still, he became the most famous chess player in the world, and one whom Tevis himself was acquainted with.
Beth feels like a loose facsimile of Fischer, but one far more deserving of the hero worship he received. In a 1983 interview with the Times, Tevis offered some insight about the socially awkward, yet brilliant character at the center of his slight 243 page novel The Queen's Gambit.
"In The Queen's Gambit, my heroine is an outsider," he said. "Pool is a dazzling game, a loner's game, and so is chess. They aren't team sports... Actually, I consider The Queen's Gambit a tribute to brainy women. I like Beth for her bravery and intelligence."
The Author's Own Experience
While she is a genius who excels at toppling the many men who underestimate her throughout the novel and the Netflix series, Beth isn't presented as a perfect person. Not only does she struggle with forming human connections, she also becomes addicted to tranquilizers that the orphanage gives to the young girls in their care to keep them calm. Tevis never experienced what it was like to be a ward of the state, but he did share with the Times that a childhood illness at a young age led to an intimate knowledge of what it's like to be overmedicated.
"When I was young, I was diagnosed as having a rheumatic heart and given heavy drug doses in a hospital. That's where Beth's drug dependency comes from in the novel. Writing about her was purgative," he admitted to the publication.
The World Of Chess For Women
As much as Beth's characterization is rooted in Tevis' own experiences, as well as in the reality of what it was like to play chess professionally in the Cold War era, her rise to the top of the game was unattainable for the real life female champions of the time. Until 1986, The World Chess Championship was known as The Men's World Chess Championship. The name was only changed after chess champ Susan Polgar fought to qualify for the championship.
Polger won that battle, but chess remains a baffling gendered sport, where the payout for women's championship awards is significantly less than the men's, according to Sports Illustrated. In the era in which Beth comes of age, women who didn't come from privileged backgrounds struggled to gain a foothold in the world of competitive chess, no matter their skill level, because there was no money in the sport for female competitors.
The most famous female chess player in the '60s, and perhaps of all time, was Lisa Lane, who in 1963 opened The Queen's Pawn, a chess club in Greenwich Village. Much like Beth, she was a natural talent — but she possessed none of the social awkwardness. Lane began playing the game in her teens, and by the time she turned 21 in 1959, she had won the women's national champion. By 1961, she was renowned not only for her skills as chess player, but for her personality, too, and her celebrity was acknowledged when she became the first chess player to ever appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Despite her fame, Lane found that she faced barriers in the world of competitive chess no matter where she turned. The press focused on her beauty, while she struggled to raise enough money to pay the entrance fees for tournaments. In 1963, the same year she opened her club, she wasn't offered a spot on the national team for the Women's Chess Olympiad because she couldn't pay for her own travel expenses.
Ultimately, Lane left the world of competitive chess behind in 1967, but her story is a familiar reality that female chess players still face today. As satisfying as it is to watch Beth squash the competition in The Queen's Gambit, it's also not entirely reflective of the experience of female chess players then or now. It's not that Beth doesn't struggle to be taken seriously, because she does, it's that ultimately she triumphs anyway. Meanwhile, the Times noted that in '83 when the book was published some critics found the idea that a woman could dominate the game as thoroughly as Beth does to be improbable.
Sadly, those attitudes still persist in some circles, but maybe stories like The Queen's Gambit can in some small way inspire change by putting female chess players at the forefront of the conversation. In a perfect world, Beth's story wouldn't be just a triumphant work of fiction — it would also be a lived reality for the women who devote their lives to the sport of chess. For now at least it's an aspirational fantasy of what the world of chess could look like with a slightly more even playing field.
Credit: Ken Woroner/Netflix