The unfamiliar story of chess’s genuine Beth Harmon

T hese are boom times for chess. Boards are offered out. Bookstores can’t keep how-tos on the shelves.

The factor: Beth Harmon, a Kentucky orphan turned chess prodigy, who in the 1950s and ’60s, controlled the normally male-dominated video game, beating one grandmaster after another.

Really, Harmon does not exist. She is the imaginary star of The Queen’s Gambit, the hit Netflix series based upon a 1983 novel by Walter Tevis that has chess fanatics remembering, in Chess.com’s words, “The real-life Beth Harmon.”.

Her name was Vera Menchik.

She was born in the winter of 1906, in Moscow. Unlike Harmon, who invested her girlhood years residing in a trailer park, Menchik’s household was thriving. They owned a mill. Menchik attended an all-girls independent school.

Then came the Russian Transformation.

” Whatever altered,” according to a 2019 Chess Magazine article stating her life. “The Menchiks found themselves in the middle of a civil war and living under a program which dealt with even moderate wealth with suspicion. The mill was confiscated. The family was needed to share their home with others and eventually lost it completely.”.

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Menchik was forced to switch schools. It was quite a modification, as she explained later in a 1943 letter to Chess Publication: “Throughout the winter of 1919-20 the school I went to was for a long time without water, heating or electric light, yet the classes went on and the students, outfitted in their fur-lined coats and hats, checked out by the light of a few flickering candle lights or an oil lamp, and after that perhaps had an hour’s walk house through the snow, for all traffic stopped after working hours.”.

For convenience, she relied on chess, a game her dad taught her at age 9. But by now, it wasn’t just the fallout of the Russian Revolution that left Menchik heavy-hearted. Her moms and dads divorced. Her daddy, a native Czech, moved back to Czechoslovakia. Her mother, a native of England, returned there with Vera and her sibling Olga.

Menchik might not speak English, so she tossed herself into chess, joining a regional club and taking private lessons. The game matched her failure to interact. In her letter to Chess Publication, she wrote: “I have frequently been asked, what made me think seriously about chess? It would appear that the environment of silence and heavy smoking is not suitable for a girl. That’s true! In other life circumstances it would not strike me to spend time in such a method, however chess is a peaceful game and therefore the best hobby for an individual who can not speak the language properly.”.

She instantly stood out, first in local matches, then regionally, then nationally, then worldwide. When the very first Women’s World Chess Champion was kept in 1927, Menchik won. When she kept winning women’s matches, typically very easily, she set her sights on guys, becoming the very first lady to play in male competitions.

Menchik beat them, too.

In 1929, at 23, she drew global attention after she tied Akiba Rubenstein, a Polish grandmaster. Still, lots of leading male players were dismissive of her. Later that year, she played in what Chess Magazine called “the greatest chess competition because completion of World War I”.

At the event, a top Austrian player called Albert Becker was quite arrogant before playing Menchik.

” Gentlemen, I have a great idea,” Becker informed some pals before the match. “I recommend forming a club named after Vera Menchik. Those who will manage to lose a game to her will end up being complete members of the club. Those who draw will only be thought about as prospects for subscription.”.

Becker became the club’s first member.

Newspapers around the globe covered her matches.

Playing in more than 3 dozen male competitions, Menchick continued to beat a number of the leading gamers. Though she had difficulty with the super-elite Russians, her accomplishments were amazing.

” Menchik has actually achieved something that was unthinkable at the time– challenging the very best guys gamers of the time in chess,” Chess.com wrote in a short article celebrating a lady who is “all however forgotten today.”.

Her death was tragic.

In 1937, Menchick wed Rufus Henry Streatfeild Stevenson.

” He was a chess personality of moderate strength in play,” composed Robert B Tanner, in Vera Menchik: A Biography of the First Women’s World Chess Champion.

It was Stevenson’s second marital relationship to a female chess star. (His very first better half, Agnes Lawson Stevenson, died after unintentionally walking into a spinning airplane propeller.) Stevenson remained in poor health and Vera invested substantial time taking care of him, frequently at the expense of playing in tournaments.

He died in 1943, at the height of the Second World War.

A year later on, Vera was playing in a competition when her own life was claimed by the war.

” It was a removal tournament and she had actually won her very first three games, receiving the semi-finals,” Tanner wrote. “Her next video game was to have actually been played on June 27th.”.

On 26 June, 1944, there was a Nazi air raid on London. Vera was coping with her mom and sister in a London suburban area. A rocket hit their house, instantly eliminating all of them.

” Not just was the household wiped out,” Tanner wrote, “however so were her prizes.”.

She was 38.

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