The Queen’s Gambit wasn’t only one of the most popular television series of 2020; the gripping story of troubled chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) reignited a worldwide interest in chess. The sale of chess sets increased by over 85% in the month after the show’s release, and chess books sold at over six times the normal rate. The show’s critical acclaim also earned it eleven Primetime Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series.
Based on the award-winning 1983 novel of the same name by Walter Trevis, the meticulous reimagining of chess competition and strategy from creator Scott Frank was praised by chess experts as accurate to actual gameplay. While the Harmon character herself is fictionalized, many of the show’s narrative beats were inspired by real-life events.
Harmon’s rise to prominence is loosely inspired by the life of American Chess Grandmaster Bobby Fischer. Fischer proved his aptitude for the game in his teenage years, becoming the youngest U.S. Chess Champion in history at age 14. Rising through the ranks with the only perfect score in American history, Fischer became the World Chess Champion in 1972.
Like Harmon, Fischer was tormented by personal hardships. Harmon deals with debilitating addiction issues throughout The Queen’s Gambit, and Fischer suffered from intense paranoia and schizophrenia. Both struggled to connect with their adolescent peers, and instead found mentors among older players as they perfected their craft. Fischer grew even more secluded later within his life, making inflammatory extremist statements and renouncing his U.S. citizenship.
Fischer’s climactic face off against reigning USSR Grandmaster Boris Spassky during the height of the Cold War is similar to Harmon’s match against the Russian Vasily Borgav (Marcin Dorociński) in the series finale “End Game.” Fischer and Spassky had been rivals for years, playing five prior games in which Spassky won three times and two matches resulted in draws. Spassky remains the world’s oldest living chess champion.
The events were depicted in Edward Zwick‘s 2015 biographical film Pawn Sacrifice, which starred Tobey Maguire as Fischer and Liev Schreiber as Spassky. The film depicts the intense World Championship, including Spassky’s surprise resignation and standing ovation during the sixth game in what is considered the greatest match ever played.
The Queen’s Gambit is distinguishable for its feminist perspective, and sexism remains rampant within the sport. The U.S. Women’s Chess Championship was only granted the same financial benefits as the Men’s Competition in 2019, and only 14% of US Chess Federation members are female (a record high percentage).
Chess prodigy and world champion Susan Bolgar praised The Queen’s Gambit for its depiction of “chess as something emotional and exciting,” but described Harmon’s experiences with discrimination on the show as “mild.” Polgar, who competed in the ‘70s and ‘80s, is the only player to win all six prestigious crowns, but experienced physical and emotional harassment throughout her career. She called Borgav’s gracious acceptance of defeat following the final match unrealistic.
However, the record-breaking viewership of The Queen’s Gambit has initiated a greater enthusiasm for chess among younger female players. While Frank confirmed that the show would not return for a second season or sequel film, a musical adaptation is in early development.
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