'The Queen's Gambit': Is Vasily 'The Russian' Borgov a Real Person?

Thanks to Netflix’s critically acclaimed mini-series, The Queen’s Gambit, the game of chess is starting to be looked at in an entirely different way. The series follows Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), a chess prodigy, gaining recognition in the 1950s and 1960s when there were no women in the professional chess world.

One of the people that Beth dreams about playing is Vasily Borgov aka, The Russian. But is he based on a real person?

Inside Netflix’s buzz-worthy miniseries ‘The Queen’s Gambit’

The Queen’s Gambit has taken the world by storm. With over 62 million streams on Netflix in the first 28 days following its release, it has become the company’s most-watched miniseries to date.

In the drama series, Beth is abandoned at a Kentucky orphanage following her mother’s death. While living at the orphanage, she is taught chess by one of the building’s custodians.

Beth quickly becomes fascinated with the game to the point of obsession, and she quickly rises up the ranks in the professional male-dominated competitive chess world.

However, her addiction to tranquilizers and alcohol soon begin to spiral out of control.

‘The Queen’s Gambit’ is not based on a real person

The Hustler and The Color Of Money author Walter Tevis wrote The Queen’s Gambit shortly before he died from lung cancer in 1984. Tevis based Beth on some of his own personal experiences playing chess and with addiction. He told The New York Times, “In the past, many women have had to hide their brains, but not today.” However, the chess prodigy is a completely fictional character. He explained,

I first began to play chess with my sister and the kids on my block. I once won a prize of $250 and became a Class C player. I now play against a computer, so I don’t have to face a real-life opponent sneering at me—I can always pull out the plug. I’ve played well enough to know what a good game is. I can beat the average person, but I’m afraid to play those guys who set up boards in the street on Broadway.

In his personal life, Tevis became addicted to pain medication following a procedure for a heart condition when he was young.

Vasily ‘The Russian’ Borgov is sort of based on a real-life person

There are a ton of memorable characters in The Queen’s Gambit including, Benny Watts who Tevis based on Bobby Fischer, a real-life child prodigy chess genius.

Vasily Borgov, who Beth dubs “The Russian” is very loosely based on Boris Spassky, whom Fischer competed against in a 1972 match amid the Cold War. It turns out that Tevis centered Borgov around several key figures in the chess world. For The Russian, it was Boris Spassky.  In his Author’s Note for The Queen’s Gambit he wrote,

The superb chess of Grandmasters Robert Fischer, Boris Spassky, and Anatoly Karpov has been a source of delight to players like myself for years. Since The Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction, however, it seemed prudent to omit them from the cast of characters, if only to prevent contradiction of the record.

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