Is the Netflix show based on a true story? Let's go through all those key details and more.
If you're still buzzing from Beth Harmon's triumph in The Queen's Gambit on Netflix, let's dive even further into the excellent miniseries. We'll hopefully have all your questions covered, from whether the show's based on a true story of a chess prodigy to what a "Queen's Gambit" is exactly.
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While The Queen's Gambit comes across as an inspirational sports story, it's an adaptation of a 1983 fictional coming-of-age novel of the same name written by American novelist Walter Tevis. Tevis was a chess player himself and consulted real-life chess masters to ensure he accurately depicted the intricacies and rules of professional chess. So no, Elizabeth Harmon isn't based on a real orphaned chess prodigy from the '50s and '60s. But if you're looking for a female chess player to read up on, Judit Polgar of Hungary is generally considered the strongest female chess player ever.
In chess, a gambit is an opening move in which the player will sacrifice pieces to later gain a positive position. According to The Chess Website, "The Queen's Gambit is probably the most popular gambit and although most gambits are said to be unsound against perfect play the Queen's Gambit is said to be the exception." It's the move Beth uses in her final winning match against Vasily Borgov, the Russian world champion. "The objective of the queen's gambit is to temporarily sacrifice a pawn to gain control of the center of the board."
When Beth was 9, her real mother Alice committed suicide by driving into an oncoming vehicle. She first drives to Beth's father's house, where his new wife answers with their young son. Alice asks Paul for help with taking care of Beth, but Paul frantically rushes her away from his new family. He says she can come back another time and they'll talk, but it's been five years since they last saw each other and he's clearly moved on. With nowhere to take Beth, Alice attempts to kill them both in the crash. Beth miraculously survives, but suffers from emotional issues throughout her life.
At Beth's orphanage, the Methuen Home for Girls, the children are given tranquillizer pills to make them compliant. When a law is passed forbidding this and Beth's pills are taken away, she suffers withdrawals and continues to struggle with her addiction to the drug.
After her whirlwind romance with pen pal Manuel in Mexico City ends, Mrs. Wheatley doesn't show up to Beth's match with Borgov. Beth returns to her hotel room to discover Mrs. Wheatley dead. The coroner expects it was hepatitis, an inflammatory condition of the liver. Mrs. Wheatley was an alcoholic, running up a huge bill on margaritas at the hotel.
The first time Beth plays Benny Watts, the reigning US champion, at the US Open in Las Vegas, he defeats her. Later, with the help of ex-Kentucky state champion Harry Beltik, Beth learns to study her opponents and the big games in their careers, instead of just relying on her intuition and improvising in the moment. She buys a copy of Chess Review with a feature on Watts and asks him questions about himself in person, like why he carries around a knife (he says it's protection from "whatever"). In the final match of the US Championship in Ohio, Beth swiftly defeats him in 30 moves. She allows him to play the same move he played to defeat her the first time -- trading queens -- but this time she's prepared.
When Beth plays her final match against Borgov in Russia, he requests they adjourn until the next day. This means he must write his next move on a piece of paper and seal it in an envelope. The director will then kick off the next session with the prepared move. This ensures neither player knows what the board will look like when it's their next turn.
In the final match between Beth and Borgov at the Moscow Invitational, Beth appears to be the more tired of the two, after playing several long matches in a row. But it's Borgov who requests they end the session and pick up the following day. This decision could point to Borgov's interview in a tape Beth watches while training with Harry, where Borgov talks about coming up against people half his age, like Beth, and doesn't know how long he can continue winning. "I can fight against anyone but time." It's possible he too is tired and calls the adjournment, something a player could do after the first 40 moves have been played. Before the arrival of chess-playing computer programs that can be used to analyze adjourned positions, games that didn't finish within 5 hours were adjourned automatically. Borgov, possibly already feeling threatened he'll lose, probably retreats to consult the other Russian players -- Beth stumbled upon Borgov helping previous world champion Luchenko in the adjournment of their match a day or two before.
The highly detailed chess sequences were put together by chess coach Bruce Pandolfini (who consulted on the original novel), with advice from Russian grandmaster Garry Kasparov. They likely used chess engines, computer programs that analyze chess positions and generate a list of strongest moves, as well as faithfully matching scenarios in the book and drawing from real games. For example, Beth and Borgov's final match, up until a point, is based on a game between Ukrainian Vasyl Ivanchuk and American Patrick Wolff at the Biel Interzonal chess tournament in Switzerland in 1993, according to chess YouTube channel agadmator. While that game ended in a draw, Beth ends up finding a different move that leads to her win. Borgov's standing to applaud Beth after she wins is a reference to a famous match between defending champion Russian Boris Spassky and American opponent Bobby Fischer at the 1972 World Championship in Iceland, depicted in the 2014 film Pawn Sacrifice. When Fischer wins, Spassky joins in with the audience's applause.
The Queen's Gambit has been generally praised by critics. Though it's received good reviews from chess players, a criticism has been aimed at the exclusive use of men's games as the basis for its fictional contests. "The Queen's Gambit is so brilliant but using some women's games would have been awesome," former US Women's Chess Champion Jennifer Shahade tweeted.
According to chess master Irina Berezina, The Queen's Gambit does an impressively accurate job of depicting chess games. But there's one thing it takes artistic license with: talking during chess matches. Normally, the etiquette is that you talk only to say check, checkmate or offer a draw. Beth has a little more to say than that, making sure to tell Harry Beltik, for example, that she doesn't think he can escape checkmate. "Maybe. If you'd gotten here on time."
The Queen's Gambit is dedicated to Iepe Rubingh, the inventor of chess boxing, who died aged 45 in May this year of unknown causes. Chess boxing is a hybrid sport, where competitors compete in alternating rounds of chess and boxing.
Beth overcomes her demons to finally defeat her greatest rival, bringing her story to a satisfying conclusion and not seeming to tee up more for a second season. Though the actors, including Anya Taylor-Joy, have said they're open and willing to return to their characters in future episodes, showrunner Scott Frank, whose adaptation of Tevis' book finishes at the same point as the source material, doesn't sound like he has ideas in mind for more material.
"This was the single best experience I've had in a 30-some-odd year career full of really nice experiences. So it's saying a lot," the writer-director told Entertainment Weekly. "I have no idea how people are going to take it, but it's the first time I'm willing to admit just how happy I am. Normally I'm afraid to ever say that."
"Maybe we can just let the audience imagine what comes next," Executive Producer William Horberg told Town & Country.
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