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Small Details About The History Of Chess That ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ Brought To Light

December 23, 2020 13.3k views12 items

The Queen's Gambit may be fictional, but the popular Netflix series draws from the actual history of chess to tell a compelling story. Packed with references to legendary chess masters, beloved guides, and the drama of Cold War-era tournaments, The Queen's Gambit on Netflix doesn't skimp on the history of the chess game.

Set in the United States and abroad in the 1950s and 1960s, The Queen's Gambit follows Beth Harmon, a young orphan from Kentucky, as she grows from child chess prodigy to world-class master in a male-dominated sport. Along the way, she makes friends, finds lovers, and struggles to overcome her addiction. All of this happens against the backdrop of the Cold War, when the stakes couldn't have been higher for American and Soviet players.

While Beth's story is made up, there are plenty of truths that ground The Queen's Gambit in history. From historical chess matches that inspired some of Beth's moves to characters who have clear historical analogs, the past is more than a pawn in The Queen's Gambit.

  • Beth Harmon, The Queen's Gambit's main protagonist, is fictional. But her story draws from an actual chess prodigy.

    Bobby Fischer's chess heyday was in the 1950s and 1960s, which is also The Queen's Gambit's setting. As chess expert Dylan Loeb McClain notes, Beth's story overlaps with Fischer's in significant ways: Both were young prodigies with a troubled family life, had a similar style of play, and learned Russian to keep up with Soviet chess. Like Beth, Fischer also left school to pursue chess full-time.

    But that is where their similarities end. In adulthood, Fischer became, in writer J.C. Hallman's words, "a paranoid, misogynistic, antisemitic cultist," while Beth becomes more grounded by the end of the series.

  • The Show Recreates Actual Chess Games From The Past

    The Show Recreates Actual Chess Games From The Past
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Chess experts have praised The Queen's Gambit for its relatively accurate portrayal of chess games. One reason the show succeeded is that it used two experts as consultants: grandmaster Garry Kasparov and chess teacher Bruce Pandolfini. Both men proposed historical games from the past for the series to recreate and repurpose for Beth's matches.

    Some of the games featured are period-appropriate, such as a Latvian game from 1955 that is reimagined as a duel between Beth Harmon and Harry Beltik. Beth's speed-chess game with Benny also has its roots in reality: It's a recreation of an actual game from 1858 when an American master defeated a French duke. 

  • Beth Shares Similarities With Lisa Lane And Susan Polgar, Both Of Whom Made A Splash In The Male-Dominated Chess World

    Beth Harmon is largely, but not exclusively, drawn from chess legend Bobby Fischer, and her fictional story shares similarities with other real-life chess legends.

    One of the defining elements of Beth's story is that she is a woman in a man's world, and that lines up with the experiences of several pioneering female chess players. Lisa Lane was a popular celebrity player in the 1960s who, like Beth, graced the cover of magazines. Similar to Beth's glass-ceiling-breaking spirit, Susan Polgar was the first woman to compete in the World Chess Championship in 1986. 

  • Chess Was One Kind Of Proxy War For The US And USSR During The Cold War

    Chess Was One Kind Of Proxy War For The US And USSR During The Cold War
    Photo: The Queen's Gambit / Netflix

    To finance a trip to the Soviet Union to play in the Moscow Invitational tournament, Beth Harmon initially accepts sponsorship from a religious organization. The organization aims to take a stand against the perceived godlessness of the secular Soviet Union. This depiction is on the mark: The tournament wasn't about the game, per se; rather, many saw it as an opportunity for two world systems to go head-to-head.

    Chess was highly politicized in the context of the Cold War, or the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. Like other sports, chess served as a proxy war in the decades-long conflict: Since the two global superpowers weren't outright at war, they could duel with one another in the rink or over a chessboard. As journalist and historian Daniel Johnson has explained, "Chess provided a mega-metaphor" for the Cold War, since it is a game of strategy and intellect. Recognizing the international value of their chess players, the Soviet government supported and stage-managed their masters.

    The most high-profile match-up happened in 1972 when American Bobby Fischer beat Russian Boris Spassky at the World Chess Championship.