Is the film queen’s gambit a true story? An analysis!

The Netflix series queen’s gambit is based on a real novel written by Walter Tevis in 1983. The characters are fictional, though Beth Harmon is inspired by a real player (Bobby Fischer), and matches such as Beth vs. Borgov are based on real-life games (Ivanchuk vs. Wolff in 1993).

Several things sure fire up the interest of any chess player, perhaps a chess game, a chess buddy, and of course a good story about chess. Many people of this hobby have been waiting for a good film or two yet always fails to find it, not until today.

The exact characters and scenes in the queen’s gambit story are not based but are inspired by some real-life events, I created this article to explain such cases in order for us to appreciate the realism of this film. Without further ado, let’s begin the discussion.

Is the film queen’s gambit based on real literature?

The Netflix series Queen’s Gambit is based on a real novel written by Walter Tevis also named Queen’s Gambit (1983), where the majority of scenes and dialogues from the Netflix series are taken straight from the novel.

There is an actual book named queen’s gambit by Walter Tevis (1983) where the events in the Netflix series are based. The film on Netflix is meant to be standalone but is not directed from scratch by the production team, there’s already a novel that is used as a guide for its creation.

There are little differences between the novel and the show but ultimately does not change the outcome nor the message of the story, so it’s not a big deal. You can say that the Queen’s Gambit is a true story in the context that there’s true literature out there referencing it.

The scenes are completely identical in the novel (again, with minor differences) since the show wants to capture the original work of Walter Tevis. Even the dialogue is occasionally word by word taken from the book and just converted to be visually seen rather than imagined.

It is the reason why the queen’s gambit will probably never experience a second season since the show already fully covered what is the content of the novel where it is based.

I know this isn’t what you ask for whether it is a true story, but for novel maniacs out there hear you go, it is true writing and has a real novel.

Is the character of Beth Harmon inspired by a real chess player?

Former world champion Bobby Fischer inspired the character of Beth Harmon like how they are suffering from mental issues, they are both an e4 player, won the U.S. championship in 1967, both are fashionable, likes the Fisher-Sovin variation, and both are genius American fighting the Soviets.

Beth Harmon is not a real person, but the creation of her character is inspired by former world champion Bobby Fischer who is famous during the Queen’s gambit timeline (the mid-1950s).

The similarities are uncanny, you can say that the author created the protagonist (and the story) in a way that would resemble the legend.

First off, Fischer and Beth are both geniuses from the start of their career leading up to the win against the world champion. Every tournament that Bobby has participated in gains a lot of traction, just like with Harmon.

He was feared by many chess players across the world, Russians and non-Russians alike being well-recognized for his abilities just like with Beth.

Second, Both Harmon and Bobby don’t like to memorize even though it is such an important component of being a chess player (memorizing openings).

They were both able to overcome this and not be held back by such a burden anyway due to their sheer strength. Third, both of them came from a poor background yet later able to become a legend of chess, they are not destined for this career either.

Nobody was able to support their pursuit and have to win a tournament after tournament just to afford going into privileges competitions. This is in fact one of the challenges Bobby has to overcome (going to Russia) just like with Harmon, which is going everywhere to accumulate funds to cover the travel expenses. 

Fourth, Beth is persecuted by drugs/depression while Bobby fisher by his mental illness which has played a role in their chess abilities. It was later revealed that Harmon’s finesse is not caused by her drugs, which perhaps a parallel that Bobby is not reliant on any mental indifference as a source of his strength.

And if you’re still doubting this, then just take a look at the day that Harmon won the U.S championship (1967) which is also the same year Bobby won his. The character of Beth Harmon is clearly a parallel to the former world champion and his legacy getting in there.

Other similarities include:

  • Harmon and Fischer took fancy clothing to the next level, Bobby claimed once that he wants to collect 100-1000 suits to be the fanciest man in the world.
  • Beth and Fischer have similar, aggressive playing styles. And when playing white and facing the Sicilian Defense, they both play the same system: the Fischer-Sozin Attack.
  • Fischer and Beth are both Americans fighting against the Russians.
  • Both had to learn Russian in preparation for playing there.
  • Fischer and Beth are both e4 players that started playing d4 against the Russian champion.

In fact, the book that Mister Shaibel gives Harmon when she begins playing chess, Modern Chess Openings, was actually co-authored by Fischer’s own early mentor, Jack Collins.

It may be a teaser that starts the ball rolling on the potential reference of Bobby, by having the book teach Harmon the way Collins teaches Fischer.

Even Vasily Borgov might’ve been the representation of Boris Spassky, the world champion that Fischer has faced.

He (Borgov) might be the antagonist of the story but we all see the gentleman-like nature of his play even hugging her (Beth) after being defeated in the match, just like how Spassky applauded Fischer at one game he played artistically during their match.

So symbolically, there’s actually a true player that has experienced the same fate as Harmon in the name of Bobby. The Queen’s gambit story of course is not the story of Fischer but is definitely the real person on which the character is based.

Are there matches in the queen’s gambit that is based on real chess games?

The match between Harry Beltik and Beth Harmon for the Kentucky state championship title is based on a 1955 game played in Riga, Latvia. The finale between Beth Harmon and Vasily Borgov is based on a match between Vasily Ivanchuk and Patrick Wolff in 1993.

The game that Beth Harmon played against Harry Beltik for the Kentucky State Champion title, is derived from a 1955 game played in Riga, Latvia. There were a couple of other real games that have been portrayed in some of the matches, it is from the novel after all.

The games within the story though are not exactly moved in the same order as the real thing, some choices have been improved to fit the story. Not all games though are based on real matches but some are, especially the iconic ones that are relevant to the story.

One relevant example is the final game between Beth Harmon and Vasily Borgov was based on a real game between Vasily Ivanchuk and Patrick Wolff (1993) in the following position:

Every individual move before up until this position is exactly as the one that has occurred in the game between Vasily Ivanchuk and Patrick Wolff.

In the movie the match is adjourned moments before this position where they get to analyze, the film actually improved on Ivanchuk’s move here.

Vasily Ivanchuk is playing white (side of Harmon) and Patrick Wolff is playing black (side of Borgov) the game ended in a draw in the original game, where the original move is g4 in this position.

In the Netflix series, Ne6 was played with the help of very strong grandmasters and chess engines that created a more exciting outcome. So even though the games aren’t played by the same characters in real life (since they are fictional) it is based on real games that have been played by real people.

Is the environment of chess in the queen’s gambit accurate to real life?

The belittling attitude of the chess world to female players in Queen’s Gambit is accurate in real life. The dominance of Russians in the 1950s often collaborating with each other to maintain the status is a precise representation of the mid-1950s.

Girls being a marginalized group is a real issue in the chess world that exists even today. There have been thousands of sights where chess grandmasters exclude the ability of girls to compete in top competitions.

This has not been expressed with the same intensity as the one in reality, but definitely exists somewhere in the film. Beth Harmon’s chess capacity after all overshadows any doubt over her skill, but such criticisms are much severe in real life.

Adding to this the dominance of Russians is real specifically at the dawn of the cold war where they are trying to express supremacy, especially at chess.

This can be seen by the excessive amount of Russian world champions at the time in the name of Alexander Alekhine, Botvinnik, Vasily Smyslov, Tal, Petrosian, Spassky, Karpov, and Kasparov, only Fischer is the only non-Russian that broke the cycle.

This again is a potential parallel that has been drawn to the legend Bobby Fischer and the state of Harmon’s world (dominance of Russians). One trickery that is being employed by the Russians in the film is the potential spies for the upcoming challengers, again, realistic analogy in reality.

Russians do take chess seriously having a league of their own plus a salary from the government just to ensure their performance (which is somewhat expressed in the film).

At a moment of time where chess engines cannot prepare for the players, Russians working together just like the scene in the queen’s gambit also occurs.

This is while having the challenger analyze their games on their own and putting them at a disadvantage, they make use of every edge they can have. If it wasn’t for Harmon’s friends helping to analyze the games for example, Beth should have been brought to a precarious position.

This means that the environment players are living in the film is accurate to the one that occurred in reality, even if not exactly the same. It is similar enough to warrant claims that the atmosphere of the show has a degree of realism about the history of chess, making it somewhat realistic.

Are there real-life chess players mentioned in the queen’s gambit?

Several chess players in the likes of José Raúl Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Mikhail Botvinnik, and Boris Spassky are players in the movie that exists in real life. Paul Morphy which has been compared to Beth is a real player quoted as the pride and sorrow of chess.

José Raúl Capablanca, Alexander Alekhine, Mikhail Botvinnik, and Boris Spassky are real-world champions which the movie references. Even though they didn’t directly appear in the film they have become a part of it at some of the scenes being mentioned or drawn parallel from.

Probably the most memorable one is that of Paul Morphy, the one that Harry compared to Beth as the pride and sorrow of chess. Paul Morphy is a real player that has incredible talent but has never show the world his full potential since he died at a young age.

Beth would have been put in the same position if she had not stopped her drug and substance addiction, that’s why Harry said that. This is an interesting easter egg to be included by Walter Tevis, since we know that this is a fictional reality and yet he was still able to include real players in the mix.

Is the story of Queen’s Gambit inspired by the experiences of Walter Tevis?

Several things in the Queen’s Gambit came from Walter Tevis’s own experience of being a Class C player in the United States. He is also diagnosed with rheumatic heart taking drug doses regularly, which inspired Beth’s drug dependency in the story.

Some of the scenes in the queen’s gambit comes from the author’s own experiences, the chess scenes, for example, came from his time as a Class C competitor. 

“I first began to play chess with my sister and the kids on my block,” Tevis said. “I once won a prize of $250 and became a Class C player. I now play against a computer so I don’t have to face a real-life opponent sneering at me—I can always pull out the plug. I’ve played well enough to know what a good game is. I can beat the average person, but I’m afraid to play those guys who set up boards in the street on Broadway.”

-Walter Tevis

Beth’s drug addiction came from Tevis too

“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 told the Times. He continued, “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.”

-Walter Tevis

Clearly, the concept of having the protagonist use drugs is an inspiration from the author’s own experience, a true story in Walter’s eyes. This may even have led to the overall message of the story, which is that drug dependence does not lead to any beneficial value especially if it is used in recreation.

Overall, having a bad experience due to the overuse of drugs (even if it is medical) clearly left a distasteful stigma that may have transferred to the show.

This is because chemical drugs have not been demonstrated to help with real chess at all, yet are shown in the film, which may have been the lesson all along (don’t abuse drugs).

Do you now understand the realism behind the story Queen’s Gambit?

Even though the story does not compliment any events in history, it definitely draws some parallels in some of the scenes, games, and people. This degree of realism allows really immersed players to enjoy the show while introducing a new audience to the rich background of the game. 

I bet some of you who do not completely care about any of the historical facts (about chess) have become curious about it because of the show, the queen’s gambit effect. This film is really a breakthrough in making chess popular, something that has never been imagined before.

But ultimately we should appreciate the effort of the author to include the environment of the chess world in order for us to learn it. That is all for now, sleep well and play chess.