Was Beth Harmon a Real Person?

Fri, 2021-01-15 15:48 -- Tom

After the success of the Queen’s Gambit Netflix series many people have asked whether Beth Harmon was based on a real chess player, or if it was even possible for a player with that talent to exist. How realistic is the Queen’s Gambit in it’s representation of chess?


Beth Harmon in the Netflix series ‘The Queen’s Gambit’.

A first point of confusion for many viewers is that many of the players referenced in the series such as Paul Morphy, Jose Raul Capablanca, or Alexander Alekhine did in fact exist. Opening moves referenced such as the Sicilian Defense (1.e4 c5), or the opening the show is named after, the Queen’s Gambit (1.d4 d5 2.c4), do actually exist as well.


Alexander Alekhine (left) vs Jose Raul Capablana (right) in 1914.

While the main characters of the Queen’s Gambit series such as Harmon and Borgov are not historical figures, they are actually inspired by real players who lived in that time period.

Beth Harmon’s character was largely inspired by American World Champion Robert ‘Bobby’ Fischer.

Many small details were included in the story to depict this connection, but before discussing them we can note the most significant comparison. Throughout the 60’s Bobby Fischer was the only real competitor to the immense collection of strong chess players in the USSR. The USSR government put sizable resources into developing strong players. This is reflected in the Queen’s Gambit, where Borgov is shown as being monitored by government escorts to ensure that he does not ‘run away’.

Similarly, in the Netflix series, Beth Harmon was American and depicted as the only threat to the USSR chess machine. Beth Harmons main antagonist, Borgov, is based on Fischer’s famous rivalry with Boris Spassky, whom he eventually won the World Championship title from in 1972. This is also reflected in the choice of openings, and their playing styles.

There are many more small similarities in the series suggesting this link. Let’s look at some other similarities.

One of the most interesting links is that Beth Harmon was given the book ‘Modern Chess Openings’ by the janitor while she was at the orphanage. This is a book which was written by one of Bobby FIscher’s early mentors. Whether this book was chosen randomly by the writer, or if it was deliberately a nod toward Bobby Fischer’s influence on the series remains a mystery.

From this opening book she begins playing openings such as the Sicilian Defense, famously a favourite of Bobby Fischer. Funnily, Bobby Fischer was not a big fan of the Queen’s gambit or 1.d4 as a whole. A small intricacy that many people may have missed is that Beth Harmon usually played 1.e4, like Fischer, but at one stage in the series uncharacteristically plays the move 1.c4, the English opening. There is a famous game by Bobby Fischer where he, similarly, played the English opening, an outlier from his famous dedication to 1.e4 which he claimed was “best by test”.

Beth Harmon and Bobby Fischer both won the US Chess Championship as teenagers. Bobby Fischer won the championship at the age of 14, while in the series Beth Harmon won the title at the age of 16. While there have been a number of chess prodigies which may have been the inspiration for Beth Harmon’s character, it is still uncommon that these prodigies win national championships this young. This once again suggests that the story and it’s protagonist were heavily influenced by the life of Bobby Fischer.


Article on Bobby Fischer, 13 years old, after he beat one of the strongest US chess players.

Seeking access to the writings of world class chess players and coaches, Bobby Fischer learnt Russian so that he was able to read their chess books and articles. This equally served as a nice plot device during the series to illustrate the dedication and obsession with the game to the extent of learning an entirely new language solely for the purpose of improving at it.

It is likely that the Queen’s Gambit is filled with references to Bobby Fischer and other famous players of the time. Did you notice something we didn’t? Leave a comment below