For many viewers who know little about the world of chess, The Queen's Gambit is an eye-opener — not just in how thrilling the sport can be, but also in the reality of its history. Considering the tight focus on the topic of chess and Beth Harmon's life story, same fans were surprised to learn The Queen's Gambit is a work of fiction, based on author Walter Tevis' 1983 novel of the same name. But is anyone in the series based in fact? For instance, is Benny Watts from The Queen's Gambit a real person? Unlike Beth, there was a real-life inspiration for this character.
The Queen's Gambit was one of Tevis' last works; his other well-known titles include The Hustler and The Color Of Money. The Queen's Gambit is a particular favorite among his fans because it tackles not just how society treats genius, but female genius. Beth's success in the very male-dominated sport of chess also lets the reader (and now, the viewer) experience how women are conditioned to view themselves and how Beth struggles against that mold.
One of Beth's most important relationships is with Benny Watts, a fellow chess prodigy. Like Beth, he had a knack for the game as a child, but unlike her, he was given opportunities to succeed from an early age. By the time the two meet, he's a seasoned champion who doesn't bother to compete half the time, and she's still working her way up the ranks.
It turns out, Tevis had a model on which to base Watts: Bobby Fischer. A real-life child prodigy chess genius, by the time Fischer was a teenager, he was going up against Grandmasters three to four times his age, and beating them. In 1956, at the age of 13, he won a match dubbed "The Game of the Century." At 20, he set a record at the U.S. Chess Championship, with 11 wins in 11 games. At age 29, he beat Boris Spassky of the USSR, which was viewed as a proxy fight for the Cold War, and was one of the most publicized chess matches in history.
But by his mid-30s, Fischer had retired after reports of erratic behavior surfaced, and by the time Tevis was writing this novel, he had disappeared from public view. Watts was Tevis' semi-tribute to Fischer, creating a version of the real-world champion for Harmon to take on and beat, both in heart and mind.
The Queen's Gambit is on Netflix now.