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Is The Queen’s Gambit a True Story?

October 23, 2020
4 min read

Created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, Netflix’s ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is a drama series that revolves around a gifted but troubled young female chess player, Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). Having lost both her parents when she was quite young, Beth spends her early life in an orphanage. Her quiet and gloomy existence goes through a drastic transformation when she discovers chess. She starts demonstrating how prodigiously talented she is in the game, which garners her much attention.

The game, in turn, helps her assert a sense of control in her own life. She also develops addictions to both drugs and alcohol. As she pursues the elusive Grandmaster rank, her path inevitably crosses with that of the Russian champion, Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski), arguably the greatest player in the world, at the height of the Cold War. If the historical setting of the show and its flawed and complex characters have got you wondering whether it is based on real-life events, this is the article for you.

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

No, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is not based on a true story. It is a web adaptation of author Walter Tevis’ 1983 namesake novel. The title refers to one of the oldest and most popular opening moves in chess. Like the book series, the critics have a hard time categorizing the Netflix series to a particular genre. On one hand, it’s a coming of age story, while it also has enough elements of suspense to be classified as a thriller. And of course, it can easily be considered a sports-drama.

While writing the book, Tevis included multiple real-world elements in his story to give it more depth and urgency. Shortly after the novel’s publication, Tevis spoke in an interview about the prevalent theme in his works and how it is also present in ‘The Queen’s Gambit’. ”I write about losers and loners – if there’s a common theme in my work, that’s it,” he said. “In one way or another, I’m obsessed with the struggle between winning and losing. In ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ my heroine is an outsider.”

Tevis, who was an avid chess player, started by playing the game with his sister and other children in the neighborhood. He referred to the novel as his “tribute to brainy women,” adding that Beth is one of his favorites because of her “bravery and intelligence.” According to him, he had been surrounded by strong and brilliant women all his life, including his sister, the aunt who gifted him his first chess set, his wife, daughter, and editor.

While creating Beth, Tevis drew on his own struggles but was careful not to impose too much of himself on the story. “I was born in San Francisco, he said. “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.”

One of the most important parts of the story is Beth’s game with Vasily in the backdrop of the Cold War, but the showrunners didn’t want to focus exclusively on that. This is why they made a miniseries and not a film, as it was originally conceptualized. As Frank noted, “If you did it as a movie, it becomes a sports movie: ‘Is she going to beat the Russian guy?’ And that’s not what the book is about. For me, it’s about the pain and cost of being so gifted.”

Former champion Garry Kasparov served as the consultant on the show. Speaking of Beth, he said that she and he have certain similarities. “Chess is her language, she lives for the game,” he explained. “And that’s how I played.”

Read More: Where Was The Queen’s Gambit Filmed?

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