Beyond Beth Harmon – The Real Women Who Changed Chess

By Jerome Chappell-Tay.

The Netflix show The Queen’s Gambit took the world by storm and brought chess to a whole new audience. Set in the 1950s and 60s, it features a young orphan, Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy) in her quest to become the World Chess Champion, while battling her substance abuse. It is a gripping and inspiring story, although it arguably feels like a fantasy; critics and female chess players have noted it is unrealistic how easily Beth is able to overcome the deeply entrenched sexism of chess world, and the male players who quickly warm to her as soon as she demonstrates her ability. The show is ultimately an incredibly entertaining piece of revisionist history, and a refreshing portrayal of a genius who achieves great things, who just happens to be a woman. It has also led to a significant rise in interest in chess, especially among women, which will hopefully lead to a larger number of female chess players pursuing the sport professionally. While the character of Beth Harmon is not based on a real-life female chess player (in fact, her story is more closely linked to that of American World Chess Champion, Bobby Fischer), there have been greatly influential female chess players who forever changed the way the sport was played, as well as our understanding of educational psychology. 

Illustration of Beth Harmon, The Queen’s Gambit

The Polgár sisters were the daughters of Hungarian psychologist László Polgár and his wife Klara. László believed that any child could be brought up to be a genius in a specialised field. With his wife on board, he began what can be viewed as one of the most remarkable and successful psychological experiments in history, on his own three daughters. All became chess prodigies and went on to achieve remarkable things at a young age.

The eldest daughter, Susan (born in 1969), showed an interest in chess by the age of 4, which led to chess becoming the specialised field of all three daughters. Very quickly, Susan, with the teaching and encouragement of her parents, was able to beat veterans at the game. She became the top ranked female player in the world at the age of 15, as well as the third woman ever to achieve the Grandmaster title, the highest title that any chess player can obtain. Susan had to fight to play in male only tournaments, something her father encouraged; he argued that as chess was an intellectual pursuit, there was no reason for why women should compete in separate tournaments. Despite this, Susan did become the Women’s World Champion and held the title between 1996 and 1999. As well as having a highly successful professional chess career, Susan has gone on to become the director of various chess organisations, and her foundation sponsors many chess tournaments for children.

Sofia, the second oldest sister, was born in 1974, and while not as successful as her other sisters due to pursuing other interests, still became an exceptional chess player, becoming the 6th strongest female chess player for a period. Her most impressive achievement, however, was her performance at a tournament in Rome in 1989. At the age of 14, she beat multiple Grandmasters (winning 8 and a half games out of 9) and had a performance rating of 2879, one of the best performances in the history of chess (for reference, the current World Chess Champion, Magnus Carlsen, had a peak overall rating of 2882, which is the highest in history). The tournament became coined as the “Sack of Rome” due to Sofia’s performance, proving her father right and much of the chess world wrong – women could do more than hold their own on the same playing field as men, they were instead capable of complete dominance.

The youngest Polgár sister, Judit, was born in 1976 and is considered the undisputed best female chess player of all time, peaking at the eighth best player of any gender in the world. She followed in her sisters’ footsteps and far surpassed their impressive achievements, becoming the youngest chess Grandmaster at the time, at the age of 15. She is still the only woman to have been a candidate for World Chess Champion and to date, has beaten 11 current or former World Chess Champions in her career, including her famous rival Gary Kasparov. She is known for her aggressive playstyle to the point where Jennifer Shahade, a US women’s chess champion, has credited her for the reason why women tend to play more aggressively than men. Kasparov even famously said:

“if to ‘play like a girl’ meant anything in chess, it would mean relentless aggression”.

Judit’s story, along with her sisters’, had an undeniable impact on the world of chess. They showed that gender should not be a barrier to success in any intellectual field, and that anyone can be brought up to achieve great things. The fact that all of the sisters became chess prodigies, with no clear biological reason for it, also greatly supports the idea that upbringing is ultimately more important than natural talent, and that skills can be mastered by anyone with enough hard work. However, the fact that Judit remains the only woman to have come close to being World Chess Champion shows that there are still significant barriers preventing women from reaching the upper echelon of chess players.

At the writing of this article, the highest rated female player is Hou Yifan and she is currently rated 86th in the world; she has said that she views chess as a hobby instead of a career so it is unlikely she would reach the level of play that Judit did, or indeed any of the world champions. But why are there so few women at the top of the chess world? As of September 2020, there are 1721 Grandmasters, and only 37 are women. There are multiple factors, and their impact is difficult to measure. There has been a history of discrimination and negative stereotyping that has only recently started to change. Bobby Fischer said in an interview “they’re all weak, all women. They’re stupid compared to men. They shouldn’t play chess, you know”. Even in 2007, International Master Anna Rudolf was falsely accused of cheating by her opponents in a tournament by hiding a microcomputer in her lip balm. These attitudes have only recently started changing, due to women like the Polgár sisters, and it is reflected in the numbers of female chess players at the top level; as of 2020, the number of female internationally rated chess players has risen to over 15% (https://theconversation.com/whats-behind-the-gender-imbalance-in-top-level-chess-150637). As more and more women are encouraged to get into chess, this should hopefully result in more women playing at the top level. Cultural phenomenons like The Queen’s Gambit should feel less like a fantastical ‘what if?’, but a reflection of a world in which barriers to individuals achieving their potential are removed. As Kasparov once said after losing a game to Judit in 2002, having previously made disparaging comments about women in chess:

“The Polgárs showed that there are no inherent limitations to their aptitude—an idea that many male players refused to accept until they had unceremoniously been crushed by a twelve-year-old with a ponytail”.

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