Beth Harmon (alias Elizabeth Harmon) is a fictional character from the American novelist Water Tevis’ book ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ which was adapted for the miniseries of the same name that aired on Netflix.
The Queen’s Gambit (Novel)
The novelist and short-story writer Walter Tevis wrote the book ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ which was published by Random House in 1983. The book is a bildungsroman and coming of age story and is themed around feminism, drug addiction, and alcoholism. It chronicles the life of Beth Harmon, who is a fictional female chess prodigy.
The Queen’s Gambit (Miniseries)
On October 23, 2020, Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit was repacked into series of the same name and released on Netflix. The seven-episode series is written and directed by Scott Frank (American filmmaker and author) and Allan Scott (American producer and screenwriter) and stars Argentine-British actress Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon. The American child artists Isla Johnston (teen Beth) and Annabeth Kelly (five-year-old Beth) played younger versions of Beth.
The series might be the first adaption of the book, but a few attempts have been made earlier to produce the book into series. The American author, journalist, and screenwriter Jesse Kornbluth made his first attempt at converting the book to the series but failed; later, Australian actor Heath Ledger was working on the film to make his directorial debut, but couldn’t due to his death in 2008.
Beth Harmon is a Lexington, Kentucky-based chess prodigy who ruled the game of chess in the 1950s and 60s, a time where the chess world was dominated by males. When she was eight years old, her mother died in a traffic collision, and she was sent to a female Christian orphanage Methuen Home in Mount Sterling. At the orphanage, the children were given tranquilizer pills to help them ease their anxiety. She also received it twice a day but found herself getting addicted to it. She was good at studies especially mathematics, history, and science, and graduated from Fairfield High School in Kentucky.
Height (approx.): 5′ 7″
Eye Color: Hazel
Hair Color: Auburn
Family & Relationships
Her biological parents are Alice Harmon and Paul. During her teen years in 1963, she was adopted by Alma and Allston Wheatley after Alma lost her biological child. The loss of her child led Alma to alcoholism, which was an influence on Beth.
She was in an intimate relationship with Harry Beltik with whom she separated eventually.
She also had a one-night-stand with Benny Watts, a chess player who mentored Beth after she discovered her weak points in chess.
Benny not only helped her in fixing her flaws in chess but also made her realize that she could play without sedatives. She also had a fling with D.L. Townes, a fellow chess player and journalist.
At the end of the story, Beth remains single.
During her days in the orphanage, she was sent to the basement to clean blackboard erasers, where Beth witnessed William Shaibel, the janitor, sitting alone and moving his fingers on the green-and-white checkered board. When she asked Shaibel what was it, he told her that it was chess and also told details on how the game’s played. When she asked Shaibel if he could teach her, he declined and told her that it was not a girl’s game. She then began learning chess by herself, and due to the effects of tranquilizers, she became better at it as she began hallucinating of her playing chess (on her ceiling). She then found out that she could play better when she was under influence. At the same time, Shaibel agreed to play with her. He began teaching Beth new tactics.
Sometime in the future, she played against Mr. Ganz, owner of two chess clubs near the orphanage, and won. Mr. Ganz then had her play a match with twelve of the best players of one of his club Duncan High School and lost to her again. With time, it became difficult for her to play without the administration of tranquilizers, and had to take them before her matches to remain focused. Subsequently, she participated in her first chess tournament and earned local fame. Three years after her adoption, she participated in the US Championship, where she lost in the finals and was dubbed the US co-champion. She soon became a known face after she won several chess tournaments including Las Vegas U.S. Open Chess Championship (1966), Moscow Invitational (1968), and Kentucky State Championships. Even after becoming a sensation, she feared Vasily Borgov, Soviet-Russian world champion chess player and Beth’s strongest competitor. It was her ultimate aim to defeat Borgov, which wasn’t easy as she lost in many face-offs against him. At the end of the story, she played against Borgov in the finals of Moscow International and made him taste defeat after refusing a draw offer.
Real Life Adaptations
After The Queen’s Gambit became one of the most-watched series on Netflix, the question about Beth Harmon’s existence also surfaced online. Beth might be a fictional character but there are many speculations about who could be the real-life Beth Harmon.
Walter Tevis: The Author
Walter Tevis was born in 1928 in San Francisco, California. He grew up in Kentucky, the hometown of Beth. He served in the Pacific Theater as a Navy carpenter’s mate on board the USS Hamilton near the end of World War II and gained his Master of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Kentucky. In 1959, his first novel ‘The Hustler’ was published. In an interview with the New York Times after the release of the book The Queen’s Gambit, Walter admitted that some of his personal experiences had been placed in parts of the story. In the 1980s, Tevis started playing chess with his sister and neighborhood children. He was even ranked a Class C player (amateur ranking starts with A and goes down the alphabet). According to him,
I first began to play chess with my sister and the kids on my block. I once won a prize of $250 and became a Class C player. I now play against a computer so I don’t have to face a real-life opponent sneering at me—I can always pull out the plug. I’ve played well enough to know what a good game is. I can beat the average person, but I’m afraid to play those guys who set up boards in the street on Broadway.”
Apart from that, the drug addiction and alcoholism in the story came from his real-life struggles with drugs. Trevis recounted,
When I was young, I was diagnosed as having a rheumatic heart and given heavy drug doses in a hospital. That’s where Beth’s drug dependency comes from in the novel, Writing about her was purgative. There was some pain—I did a lot of dreaming while writing that part of the story. But artistically, I didn’t allow myself to be self-indulgent.”
In another interview with the San Francisco Examiner, he explained his condition, stating that while recovering from his heart condition in a convalescent home, he was given phenobarbital three times a day. The feeling was such that he could not take himself away from it, which led him to concentrate on chess as a distraction. He added,
I loved it. … That may be one reason I became a drunk. I think that most people take up the game of chess in a very serious way if they have personality problems. When they’re trying to stay away from something else in life. Y’know, getting rid of some of that anxiety by displacing it in something that was relatively safe.”
Talking about Beth’s character in the same interview, he stated that Beth was a tribute to brainy women like his daughter, Julie, and aunt (who gave him his first chess as a present when he was seven). Tevis said,
I like Beth for her bravery and intelligence. In the past, many women have had to hide their brains, but not today”
Vera Menchik was born in 1906 in Moscow in an affluent family of mill owners. However, in the course of the Russian Revolution (1917-23), her family’s mill was confiscated, and her family had to share their house with other people. Eventually, her family was forced to give up the ownership of their house. Vera had to switch schools against her will. According to her,
During the winter of 1919-20 the school I attended was for some time without water, heating or electric light, yet the classes went on and the students, clad in their fur-lined coats and hats, read by the light of a few flickering candles or an oil lamp, and then perhaps had an hour’s walk home through the snow, for all traffic stopped after working hours.”
In times of turmoil, she found solace in chess, a game that her father had taught her when she was nine years old. To top that, her parents divorced that left her shaken as she immigrated with her mother to England with her sister, Olga. She joined a local chess club in England, where she challenged the best men players of that time. In her letter to Chess Magazine, she wrote,
I have often been asked, what made me think seriously about chess? It would appear that the atmosphere of silence and heavy smoking is not appropriate for a young lady. That’s true! In other life circumstances, it would not occur to me to spend time in such a way, but chess is a quiet game and therefore the best hobby for a person who cannot speak the language properly.”
Soon, she gained fame by winning in local and regional matches to national and international matches. In 1927, she won the Women’s World Chess Championship, a tournament that had happened for the first time. However, victory seemed incomplete to her even after winning against women, so she challenged in men’s tournaments and won them. At the age of 23 in 1929, she tied in a chess match with Akiba Rubenstein, a Polish grandmaster, and garnered international popularity. Later that year, she played in a famous tournament that was cited by Chess Magazine as “the strongest chess tournament since the end of World War I.” The tournament received worldwide extensive media coverage after the top Austrian player Albert Becker, in mockery, suggested forming a club named after Vera; Players who lose would become a member of the club while the players who draw would be standing in for the membership. Albert became the first one to join the club.
At the height of the Second World War, and a year after her husband’s death, she died at the hands of war while playing in a chess tournament.
Water Tevis in the acknowledgment of The Queen’s Gambit (1983) stated that he was inspired by the grandmasters Robert Fischer, Boris Spassky, and Anatoly Karpov, the players active in the chess scene in the ’60s. Born in 1943 in Chicago, Illinois, Bobby is a chess prodigy whose chess career matches more with Beth Harmon’s career. The chess expert Dylan Loeb McClain, in an article in The New York Times, talked about the similarities between Beth and Bobby. According to him,
Beth and Fischer have similar, aggressive playing styles and when playing white and facing the Sicilian Defense, they both play the same system: the Fischer-Sozin Attack.”
Both of them became the winners of the U.S. championship at a young age.
They both started supporting themselves financially as a teen, learned Russian to compete against Soviet chess players, made their living as chess players (a very rare feat), and spent a lot on fancy clothes. The book Modern Chess Openings was co-authored by Jack Collins, who was Bobby’s early mentor, and the same book was gifted to Beth by Shaibel, an early mentor of Beth.