The Queen’s Gambit was quietly released on Netflix back in October, and scored a whopping 62 million account viewers during its first month.
Even now, all these weeks later, people continue to obsess over Scott Frank and Allan Scott’s lush seven-parter, praising the miniseries for its searing performances, emotionally-charged storyline, and gorgeous period aesthetics.
The feminist TV sensation, of course, tells the tale of orphaned chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she struggles with addiction in a quest to become the greatest chess player in the world.
What many may not realise, though, is that the series is based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name. And that Beth’s troubled childhood closely mirrors that of the author’s own.
As per The Ringer, Tevis was born in San Francisco in 1928, and learned to play chess at the age of seven.
When he was nine, though, he was diagnosed with a heart condition, abandoned by his parents, and placed in a convalescent home. During his time there, he was drugged three times daily with a barbiturate known as phenobarbital.
And, just as we see with Beth in The Queen’s Gambit, it is this that sets him on a path to dependency.
“I loved it,” he said of the drug during an interview with The San Francisco Examiner.
“That may be one reason I became a drunk.”
Eventually, Tevis’s family allowed him to come and live with them in Lexington, Kentucky. Much like Beth, though, he struggled to fit in at school and was sorely bullied by his peers.
However, while Beth found an escape via her chess obsession, Tevis sunk his time into another game: pool. And not just the game: the aesthetics of it, the culture of it, and the types of people it attracted.
“He gambled my milk money away, and the way he got it back was by selling short stories to various magazines,” his son William later explained.
As The Ringer outlines, Tevis fell back in love with chess during the last years of his life. He read Modern Chess Openings, the very same book that ignites Beth’s love of the game, from cover to cover. He began playing in local tournaments, too. And, while, he lost almost every single game he played, he found in them the inspiration for his final book, The Queen’s Gambit.
“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,” Tevis told Book Beat. “Y’know, getting rid of some of that anxiety by displacing it in something that was relatively safe.”
Beth echoes his words in The Queen’s Gambit, too, telling us: “Chess isn’t always competitive. Chess can also be beautiful. It was the board I noticed first. It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it.
“I can control it. I can dominate it. And it’s predictable, so if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame”
Sadly, Tevis died of lung cancer at the age of 56 in 1984, just a year after The Queen’s Gambit was published. And now, some 36 years later, that same story has become Netflix’s most-watched limited series.
Why? Because it speaks to the importance of perseverance. Because it reminds us that humans are nothing without some sense of love and connection. And because, above all else, it inspires us to stay true to ourselves, always.
The Queen’s Gambit is on Netflix now.