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Is The Queen’s Gambit a True Story? The ‘Real’ Beth Harmon Revealed

Is The Queen’s Gambit a true story? It might be nearly two years since we fell in love with the story of Beth Harmon and her rise to chess greatness, but it has us thinking… was the whole thing made up? Or is there some truth to the compelling tale?

Is The Queens Gambit a True Story?Image from imdb.com.

The Queen’s Gambit was a surprise smash for Netflix when it debuted on the platform in October 2020. In just four weeks, it became Netflix’s most-watched scripted miniseries ever and won itself a treasure trove of awards including 11 Primetime Emmys and 2 Golden Globes – one being Best Actress In a Miniseries or Television Film for the show’s main star Anya Taylor-Joy. The show’s success sent shockwaves throughout the chess community. Inspired by Beth’s story, people all over the globe discovered or rediscovered their love for one of the world’s oldest games. Demand for chess sets hit an all-time high (and came rather unexpected for the team here at Regency Chess!) According to US figures, in the three weeks following the show’s debut, unit sales of chess sets jumped 87% and chess book sales rose a whopping 603%. But is the Queen’s Gambit a true story?

Is The Queen’s Gambit Based On a True Story?

No… but kind of. The character of Beth Harmon and her story is fictional. It came from the mind of writer Walter Tevis (1928 – 1984) way back in 1983 when the novel ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ was first published. At the time of release, there was fervent speculation on the inspiration for Beth Harmon. In a New York Times interview, Tevis denied that Beth was based on anyone in the chess community and considered ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ to be his ‘tribute to brainy women. That’s not to say the show isn’t infused with real-life elements. Chess experts have praised the quality of the playing and have noted that many of Beth’s moves have even been modelled off of famous contests.

But what about Beth herself?

Beth & Bobby

Tevis was a keen chess player himself. In the acknowledgements of The Queen’s Gambit, the author mentions how he was inspired by the chess greats of the time, notably the Grandmasters Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky, and Anatoly Karpov. Tevis writes: 

“The superb chess of Grandmasters Robert Fischer, Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov has been a source of delight to players like myself for years. Since The Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction, however, it seemed prudent to omit them from the cast of characters, if only to prevent contradiction of the record.”

Of all the chess legends who inspire Beth’s character and career, it’s Fischer who had the most obvious influence. Both had a difficult start in life and would become self-sufficient teens. Although Fischer didn’t grow up in an orphanage, he and his sister were raised by their single mother – who was homeless at the time of Bobby’s birth – and was shuttled to different schools as his mother sought ways to support her young family. Career-wise, there are also notable similarities. Both Fischer and Beth won the U.S. Championship whilst still in their teens (in the same year, 1967, no less.) Beth would have been 18 while Fischer became the youngest ever U.S. Champion at 14 years and 10 months. The last match we see Beth play is against the USSR’s Borgov in Moscow. The contest closely imitates Fischer’s 1972 ‘Match of the Century’ against Boris Spassky, also from the USSR. What’s more, both Fischer and Beth took time to learn Russian to prepare for their quest for chess greatness. That’s where the similarities end. Although Bobby Fischer had his demons (that would be a whole other article!) the reclusive Grandmaster isn’t known to have struggled with drugs or alcohol addiction. 

Who influenced Beth’s addiction struggles?

Beth’s addiction to the fictional drug xanzolam, after being introduced to it as a child in an orphanage, is an important theme throughout the novel and series – and rather than a chess great, her issues with narcotics were inspired by non-other than her creator himself. In the 1983 New York Times article, Tevis admits to mixing a certain part of his background to form the Beth character. He says:

”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.” 

Tevis goes on to explain how cathartic it was to express this difficult experience through Beth:

“Writing about her was purgative. There was some pain – I did a lot of dreaming while writing that part of the story. But artistically, I didn’t allow myself to be self-indulgent.”

The endgame

Although a work of fiction, The Queen’s Gambit is littered with real-life elements and inspiration from the greats of chess. This ‘true feel’ has no doubt helped the show and its stars enjoy the enormous success it has achieved.  While we wait (and hope!) for season two, we have time to reflect on Beth’s journey and improve our own chess game!

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