The True Story Behind Chess Prodigy And Style Icon Beth Harmon From ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

And the sexism that still exists in the world of chess

With just about every book-to-TV adaption—from Unorthodox to You—it’s safe to say that there are endless amounts of symbolism and metaphors sprinkled throughout.

And for their latest release The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix certainly hasn’t disappointed us.

Based on a 1983 novel of the same name, the series follows the story of Beth Harmon, who starts her life at an orphanage, where she is fed tranquillisers and soon builds an addiction to the drugs, but also unlocks a hidden talent while learning to play chess from the facility’s custodian. Over time, she must deal with her addiction while pursuing her dream of becoming a chess grandmaster.

But while Anya Taylor-Joy’s character is a work of fiction, there are some truths that inspired the character.

Before (or after) you dive into your newest binge-watching obsession, we’ve unpacked the truth behind Beth Harmon, from her real life persona to the truth behind the world of chess.

Queen's Gambit
(Credit: Netflix)

What Inspired The Plot Of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit?

Based on a 1983 book of the same name by Walter Tevis, the series was apparently based on his own experiences, according to an interview with The New York Times.

Using the chess scenes as an example, the show’s inspiration came from Tevis’ 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.”

But that wasn’t the only plotline drawn from Tevis’ real life experiences. Apparently, Beth’s drug addiction came from Tevis’ past struggles with a rheumatic heart condition he had as a child.

“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.”

What Is The True Story Behind Beth Harmon?

While we know that Beth Harmon is a fictional character, created to mirror Tevis’ own life, this isn’t the first time her story has been brought to the screen.

With the book nearing its 40 year anniversary, it’s hard to believe that Netflix’s iteration was the first time many of us had heard of the story. Prior to the streaming service’s rendition, there was a script by Jesse Kornbluth, an author, journalist, and screenwriter. But more famously, there was a version starring Australia’s own Heath Ledger (who was battling addiction and was a chess whiz himself), starring Ellen Page as the Beth, that was set to start production right before his untimely death in 2008.

Queen's Gambit
(Credit: Netflix)

Are Chess Championships Really That Big Of A Deal?

They definitely are. Taking place from the mid to late 20th Century, The Queen’s Gambit is seemingly set around an event known as “The Match of the Century”, basically the Olympics of the chess world.

The 1972 real-life event featured world chess grandmaster Bobby Fischer who went up against Russian grandmaster Boris Spassk in a match that was cited in the history books as a major event of the Cold War.

It’s safe to say—even for those who aren’t familiar with the chess world—that if a young American girl, like Beth Harmon, were to take out the World Championship, it would have been a huge deal.

Queen's Gambit
(Credit: Netflix)

Did Women Ever Win The Chess World Championship?

While there certainly is a women’s World Championship, there’s also a very solid glass ceiling when it comes to women taking on men.

There have been a handful of notable female prodigies throughout the years, like Hou Yifan and Judit Polgár, who both won titles as young teenagers. Notable grandmasters like Irina Krush, Nona Gaprindashvili and Vera Menchik are all very similar to Beth, and could have formed as inspiration for her character.

However, there are some aspects of the series that are definitely real. For example, the Modern Chess Openings book that Beth is gifted by her janitor mentor in the first episode is a real book that you can read and study from. As is the Chess Review Magazine, although it never had either Beth Harmon or Benny Watts on the cover.

Still craving more from The Queen’s Gambit? Take a look at the novel below, while you patiently await season two:

The Queen's Gambit

The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis, $23.80 from

Or in the meantime, you can rewatch the first season of The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix here.

Related stories