By now, most fans know The Queen's Gambit is not based on a true story. And if you didn't know, now you do. The Netflix limited series is actually based on a fictional novel of the same name by author Walter Tevis, who is best known for books like The Hustle, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell To Earth. He was inspired to write the story of Beth Harmon, an orphan and chess prodigy, from his own experiences as an amateur chess player. But what about her opponents? For instance, is Vasily "The Russian" Borgov from The Queen's Gambit, a real person? The answer is a bit more complicated.
Beth Harmon may be a complete figment of Tevis' imagination, but some of the other characters in the book are pulled from real life. Her primary American opponent-turned-lover, for instance, Benny Watts, is loosely based on chess legend Bobby Fischer, who won a match dubbed "The Game of the Century" at the age of 13. By the time he was Benny's age in the show, Fischer was a semi-retired professional who competed when he felt like it (much like Watts does).
A bit of Fischer can also be seen in Beth too, though her story follows his less than Watts does. On the other hand, Beth does travel to Russia at the end of the series to compete with Vasily Borgov, who she dubs "The Russian." This tracks with Fischer's experience when he traveled to the USSR and played against Boris Spassky in a highly-publicized 1972 match treated by both sides as a proxy for the Cold War.
Borgov seems to be inspired by Spassky, but once again, the basis is loose. Both players are semi-mysterious figures who exist behind the Iron Curtain. Both cut threatening figures to their American opponents, with far more accomplished resumes. And both represent the USSR by proxy, treated by the American involved as necessary to beat for the sake of national pride.
Tevis admitted as much in his Author's Note for The Queen's Gambit.
The superb chess of Grandmasters Robert Fischer, Boris Spassky, and Anatoly Karpov has been a source of delight to players like myself for years. Since The Queen's Gambit is a work of fiction, however, it seemed prudent to omit them from the cast of characters, if only to prevent contradiction of the record.
Ironically, The Queen's Gambit wanted to cast a real-life Grandmaster in the role of Borgov. The part was initially offered to Garry Kasparov, who turned it down. Instead, he asked to be a behind-the-scenes consultant; he designed Borgov and Beth's game in the final episode.
The Queen's Gambit is on Netflix now.