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Is prodigy Judit Polgar the real life Beth from The Queen’s Gambit?

Bruno Cooke November 3, 2020
judit polgar
Photo by Hector Vivas/Jam Media/LatinContent via Getty Images

Besides being the “greatest female chess player of all time”, Judit Polgar has entered the mainstream recently. Viewers of Netflix miniseries The Queen’s Gambit are asking: is chess prodigy Judit Polgar the real life Beth?

Who is Judit Polgar?

Born 1976 in Budapest, Hungary, Judit Polgar is generally regarded as the best female chess player of all time. While she has been inactive as a competitive chess player since 2015, she has retained her illustrious reputation.

Polgar started playing chess at five years old. A great lover of challenges, she says the game of chess is perfectly suited to her personality. 

She recalls beating 15 players at 15 separate games in the main square of a small Hungarian town, all simultaneously. She was seven years old. 

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Polgar’s international success

Later, she would beat adults while wearing a blindfold. Age 12, in 1988, Polgar played in Greece for the Hungarian women’s international team. 

The team broke the 30-year competitive chess hegemony of the Soviet Union by winning gold for Hungary for the first time. At just 15, Polgar became the youngest chess grandmaster ever. 

Polgar says “practice, perseverance and passion” are the pillars of her success. She has beaten 11 world champions, while overcoming all sorts of contrary expectations about the role of women in chess

Is Judit Polgar the real life Beth from The Queen’s Gambit?

There are several major differences between the lives of Judit Polgar and The Queen’s Gambit’s Beth Harmon

For example, Polgar is Hungarian, and rose to prominence in the 1990s and 2000s. Beth Harmon, on the other hand, is an American orphan struggling with drug and alcohol dependency. The show follows her during the 1950s and 1960s while trying to become the world’s greatest chess player

But there are also some striking similarities. Both women fought against massive odds to become chess champions. The novel, upon which the TV series is based, also addresses how male-dominated competitive chess is.

What can we learn from Judit Polgar?

Besides being a chess prodigy, champion, advocate and legend, Polgar has some useful advice for anyone struggling uphill. Her aggressive chess playing style is characterised by “creating opportunities from nothing”.

Her advice, in a nutshell, is to “make good moves, set your goals high, and reach the impossible”. 

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Bruno is a novelist, amateur screenwriter and journalist with interests in digital media, storytelling, film and politics. He’s lived in France, China, Sri Lanka and the Philippines, but returned to the UK for a degree (and because of the pandemic) in 2020. His articles have appeared in Groundviews, Forge Press and The Friday Poem, and most are readable on Medium or onurbicycle.com.