'The Queen's Gambit' Explained: Is Beth Harmon Based on a Real Person?

Beth Harmon's rise to stardom while struggling with a narcotic addiction is at the heart of The Queen's Gambit. The limited Netflix series, which is based on the novel The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis and stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Harmon, is about pushing both personal and societal boundaries in the 1960s.

In the show, Harmon, an orphan from Kentucky, "discovers an astonishing talent for chess while developing an addiction to tranquilizers provided by the state as a sedative for the children," as per Netflix. She rises to fame in a male-dominated world of competitive chess while battling her inner demons.

As much as viewers and fans of the book would love to believe otherwise, Harmon is not a real person. In reality, a woman never won the Chess World Championship (but it would be a huge deal if it did happen).

Queen's Gambit
Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in "The Queens Gambit." Courtesy of Netflix

In a 1983 interview with The New York Times, Tevis admitted that he was inspired to write a book about outsiders and "dazzling games," such as chess.

"I consider The Queen's Gambit a tribute to brainy women. I like Beth for her bravery and intelligence. In the past, many women have had to hide their brains, but not today."

There weren't many world-famous female chess players from the era chronicled in both novel and series that inspired Tevis. Bobby Fischer, Boris Spassky, and Anatoly Karpov were famous grandmasters who did, though Tevis deliberately didn't include any of them in his work.

But, teenage female champions like Judit Polgár and Hou Yifan, along with Irina Krush, Nona Gaprindashvili, and Vera Menchik (significant grandmasters) are comparable to Harmon. However, they also weren't real-life characters that Harmon interacted with during the series.

As far as the drug dependency portrayed in the series, chess champion Jennifer Shahade told The New York Times in October that someone playing chess brilliantly while doped seemed far-fetched. "I can't tell you I've ever heard of a chess player performing on Valium," the two-time United States Women's Champion remarked.

Tevis also revealed that Harmon's drug dependency was similar to one with which he struggled. "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," he said. "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 Queen's Gambit is now available to stream on Netflix.