Facts about Chess, ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ and the Real-life Inspiration
Chess is having a great year after the Netflix series “The Queen’s Gambit” made the subject mesmerizing. It became Netflix’s most-watched scripted limited series in November 2020, with 62 million viewers.
Chess, the two-player strategy board game, has been around in some form since ancient times. Today, thanks in part to the series, it’s more popular than ever. As more people stay at home due to the pandemic, there is also more time to play board games.
Chess Set Sales Are Skyrocketing
According to The Guardian, chess sets are chess clocks like those featured in the Netflix series, are selling like crazy.
“The online retailer eBay said US sales of chess sets have soared by 60% since last year as more people spend time at home. And since the release of The Queen’s Gambit, sales of chess sets and accessories shot up by nearly 215%.
Wooden chess sets are the most popular, and vintage sets are also in demand. Sales of chess clocks and timers have risen 45% since last month and score pads by 300%.”
Amid the COVID-19 lockdown, playing chess is a welcome pastime.
Meanwhile, internet chess sites are also seeing a dramatic spike in players. At Chess.com, they have seen over 24,000 new members since October 2020.
International grandmaster Maurice Ashley says that chess has become a veritable frenzy:
“The frenzy around it is crazy … All of a sudden, it’s an incredible awareness and excitement around the game, and a lot of the same people are now taking up chess and starting to play. So it’s really had a pretty surprising, wonderful, electrifying effect on the fanbase, particularly of non-players.”
Actress Anya Taylor-Joy
A big part of the appeal of The Queen’s Gambit is actress Anya Taylor-Joy.
Anya Taylor-Joy was born in the United States in Miami but was raised to age six in Argentina, speaking Spanish. She is the youngest of six siblings. Then, she learned English at age eight after moving to London. However, she refused to speak English for two years, hoping her family would return to Argentina.
Sarah Doukas, a talent scout who discovered model Kate Moss, spotted Taylor-Joy at age 17 on the street. She was practicing walking in her mother’s heels as she walked her dog beside the English department store Harrod’s.
While walking, she noticed a car following her, and she thought she was about to be kidnapped. Then someone said, “If you stop, you won’t regret it.” Inside was Doukas, who handed her a business card and advised her not to talk to strangers again.
As a successful model and then actress, it’s notable that kids bullied Taylor-Joy in school due to her widely-set eyes, causing her to drop out. From there, she moved to New York to focus on becoming an actress.
See facts about Anya Taylor-Joy from Star Fun Facts:
Thousands Have Played A Chess Bot Named Beth Harmon
By the end of November, over 100,000 players in America played a bot named Beth Harmon on Chess.com. Harmon is the fictional chess genius in The Queen’s Gambit, played by Anya Taylor-Joy.
The actress gave voice to a Gelfling princess name Brea in the canceled Netflix show: the Dark Crystal, Age of Resistance.
See the bot below from ChessNetwork:
Fictional Beth Harmon Based On Real-Life Bobby Fischer
The real-life inspiration for the fictional character of Beth Harmon is an American chess prodigy and Brooklynite, Bobby Fischer.
He has been called one of the greatest chess players in history. Fischer is himself subject of the 2015 film, Pawn Sacrifice. In the movie, Tobey Maguire stars as Fischer and focuses on his early years as a chess champion. Later in life, Fischer became a controversial figure, as we’ll see next.
See the trailer for Pawn Sacrifice below:
Bobby Fischer Versus Beth Harmon
As a boy, Fischer started playing at age six and played professionally at age eight. By age 15, he became the world’s youngest international grandmaster. Both Harmon and Fischer become teenage chess prodigies.
During the Cold War in the 1960s, teenage Fischer taught himself, Russian, to learn about his chess rivals. Russia held the world title as home of the world chess masters for 35 years.
In 1972, Fischer went on to take the crown of reigning world champion Boris Spassky in a chess game called “the match of the century.” Thus, he was the first American to win the World Chess Championship since its inception in 1866.
Although Harmon is now inspiring women everywhere to take up chess, Fischer once said he could beat any woman, even if they had “knight odds,” meaning a headstart. Since he isn’t alive today, it’s impossible to know what he would think of The Queen’s Gambit.
In real life, actress Anya Taylor-Joy and Bobby Fischer both dropped out of school to pursue their dreams. For Taylor-Joy, that meant pursuing an acting career in New York. For Fischer, that meant pursuing a chess career in New York.
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The Ballad of Bobby Fischer
Due to the popularity of The Queen’s Gambit, there could be a sequel. However, if it takes after Fischer’s life, the storyline could be tragic. According to GQ:
“Fischer died in Iceland in 2008 aged 64 from kidney failure after refusing medical treatment. Some believe he is the greatest chess player in history. Certainly, he is the most enigmatic. During his later years, he was bedeviled with psychological problems. There is a theory that chess drove him mad. Others say it helped keep him sane.”
Nevertheless, Fischer was a pop culture phenomenon and the subject of a song, “The Ballad of Bobby Fischer.”
Winning Against Spassky After 20 Years
Mike Wallace profiled Bobby Fischer, who was then only 29 years old and training for the Cold War showdown against Russian Boris Spassky.
According to History.com, Fischer viewed the match as a political showdown at the time.
“Fischer had already accused the Soviets of rigging the tournament system and didn’t mince words in his feelings about them, saying the match was “really the free world against the lying, cheating, hypocritical Russians … They always suggest that the world’s leaders should fight it out hand to hand. And that is the kind of thing we are doing.”
Indeed, Henry Kissinger, the national security assistant for President Nixon, may have persuaded Fischer to play. “America wants you to go over there to beat the Russians,” he reportedly told Fischer.
The prize was $156,250, then the highest prize for any head-to-head sport except for Boxing, according to Wallace. However, by 1975, Fischer forfeited his title after refusing to play Soviet Anatoly Karpov in Manila.
He would not go after the competition’s governing body failed to meet all his demands. Afterward, he would not play publicly again for 20 years.
The Controversial Rematch and Final Years
Then, in 1992, he challenged Spassky to a rematch, which he won. Unfortunately, the rematch defied UN sanctions on the former Yugoslavia. As a result, Fischer became a fugitive from his native United States and eventually moved to Iceland, where he became a citizen in 2004.
After he died in 2008, Reuters reported that Fischer, who was Jewish, “often made anti-Semitic remarks and said after the September 11 attacks he wanted to see his the United States wiped out.”
Amazingly, his old rival Boris Spassky visited his grave in Iceland, where he bent and dusted away the snow.
“Do you think the spot next to him is available,” he joked to reporters afterward, adding, “We will see what happens.”
Although they may have been rivals, Spassky had apparently come to see Fischer with deep respect after all.
See the interview from 60 Minutes below:
Featured image: Bobby Fisher by Anefo via Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0) with Beth Harmon via Queen’s Gambit trailer, screenshot via YouTube