The “Queen’s Gambit” is one of the oldest opening moves recorded in the history of chess, dating back to the fifteenth century. It entails White moving its queen’s pawn to the middle of the board and then sacrificing its adjacent pawn on the next move. The “gambit” is to trade a piece for control of the board’s center. It’s a risk with a potentially high reward. Walter Tevis chose the move as the title of his coming-of-age story—now adapted into the Netflix series of the same name—The Queen’s Gambit.
The Queen’s Gambit follows chess prodigy Beth Harmon from orphanage through the upper echelon’s of competitive chess—all while she battles drug addiction. The novel was praised for its accuracy in depicting both chess competition and the prodigies often at its competitive core.
The Netflix series (Starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon) depicts an equally intense competitive atmosphere and retains much of the sports realism.
But how much of the story is actually true? Did Tevis base Harmon off a real female chess prodigy?
Who is Beth Harmon based on?
Harmon herself is fictional, though in his Author’s Note, Tevis named some historical personages behind the novel’s protagonist.
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.
Tevis also noted Beth’s similarity to himself and said her experience in competitive chess was partially inspired by his own. Tevis reached the level of class C—an amateur ranking more advanced than beginner. (The ranking for class C—by the Elo rating system—is between 1400-1599; for comparison, a beginner is generally ranked at 800 and a grandmaster above 2400. Current world number 1, Magnus Carlsen, holds a 2875 rating.)
Tevis also based much of Beth’s other characteristics on himself. As he told the Times,
”I was born in San Francisco. 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. 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.”
In general, Tevis said that throughout his literary career, he wrote about “losers and loners.” “I’m obsessed with the struggle between winning and losing,” he said. “In The Queen’s Gambit, my heroine is an outsider.”
But Beth isn’t just an outsider based on Tevis. Beth is also a prodigy chasing chess history. For this, she shares similarities with a real-life prodigy.
Beth Harmon and Bobby Fischer
Maybe the most likely real-life chess correlate to Beth is Chess Grandmaster and last American World Chess Champion, Bobby Fischer. Both Fischer and Beth were rising through competitions in the 1960s. Fischer became U.S. Chess Champion in 1957 at the age of 14. (In the novel, Beth accomplishes this feat at 16.) Throughout the 1960s Fischer continued to dominate, though it wasn’t until 1972 that Fischer captured the World Chess Championship in his historic match with the USSR’s Boris Spassky.
Fischer doesn’t share Beth’s narcotics problems, but he is a typical Tevis-like outsider. He was expelled from school and then dropped out. He had a strained relationship with his mother and grew up independent. Some described Fischer as lacking social skills and that “in spite of his genius, he was socially awkward, provocative, argumentative and unhappy.”
Writing for the Pacific Standard, psychologist Joseph G. Ponterrotto suggests Fischer might have suffered from Asperger’s Disorder.
Beth’s growing isolation as a chess prodigy likely best imitates Fischer’s. And while the description is often cliche, for the cases of Beth and Fischer, it remains apt: “tortured genius.”
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