Is The Queen’s Gambit a true story? Inspiration for the Netflix series explained - and was Beth Harmon a real chess player?

Elizabeth Harmon is said to be partly based on chess sensation Robert Fischer

Wednesday, 9th December 2020, 4:32 pm
The Queen's Gambit centres around the life of genius chess player Elizabeth Harmon (Netflix)
The Queen's Gambit centres around the life of genius chess player Elizabeth Harmon (Netflix)

Queen’s Gambit: the series on the minds of every self-respecting binge-watcher.

Hosted on Netflix, the seven-episode series follows the life and career of prodigious chess player Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Harmon, injecting life into the tortured genius sub-genre, and sparking an interest in the mind sport.

Anya Taylor-Joy has captivated as the lead character, while creators Scott Frank and Allan Scott have been praised for their stylistic take on Walter Tevis' novel of the same name.

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Unsurprisingly, viewers are querying how much of the tale is based on a true story, and whether Elizabeth Harmon is based on a real person.

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Is Elizabeth Harmon a real person?

Elizabeth Harmon is a work of fiction though the careers of a number of legendary chess players inspired author Walter Tevis.

In an Author’s Note, Tevis cited three chess grandmasters as inspiration for the protagonist.

He wrote: “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.”

The most striking similarities can be drawn between Harmon and Fischer. Fischer was a child chess prodigy who rose to fame in 1950s and 1960s America, becoming a national champion aged just 14 (Tevis’ character claimed the title at 16).

In 1972 he, like Harmon, emerged victorious in Moscow, defeating grandmaster Boris Spassky - a likely inspiration for Valeriy Borgov.

Like Harmon, Fischer was something of an outsider, described by contemporaries as socially awkward. The legendary player is also said to have suffered a strained relationship with his mother.

Aspects of Harmon’s life were directly inspired by Tevis’ life, according to the author, including her experience with drugs.

Speaking to the New York Times, Tevis explained: ''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.''

What is the Queen’s Gambit?

The novel and TV series takes its name from a classic opening routine of moves in a game of chess, with its origins date back to the 15th century.

A successful execution of the move involves white playing their queen pawn to the middle of the board and subsequently sacrificing their adjacent pawn. The move can give a player control of the centre of the board, but it is seen as a high risk strategy.

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