A star is pawn! Was the ‘It Girl’ of US chess in the 1980s the inspiration for Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit?
- Diana Lanni, a US chess player who struggled with addiction, believes she could be the inspiration behind the character of Beth Harmon
- Lanni knew Walter Tevis while he was writing the book on which The Queen’s Gambit is based
- She was one of the only successful women chess players at the time
It’s the unlikely hit drama exploring the world of competitive chess, with its star in line for awards after her gripping performance as the glamorous genius who destroys her opponents.
But what many of those hooked on The Queen’s Gambit won’t realise is that chess prodigy Beth Harmon is based on a real person.
Some have pondered over her true identity and many suggestions have been made – but the most plausible option has up until now been overlooked.
Diana Lanni was the ‘It Girl’ of US chess in the 1980s and a contemporary of Walter Tevis, the author of the book on which the Netflix show is based.
As well as being one of the only successful female chess players at the time, Miss Lanni also struggled with depression and an addiction to drink and drugs just as Beth – played by British actress Anya Taylor-Joy – does in the series. She even had short red hair, similar to Beth’s, early in her career.
Some have pondered over the possible inspiration behind Beth Harmon (pictured), the main character in Netflix’s hit show The Queen’s Gambit. Many suggestions have been made – but the most plausible option has up until now been overlooked
Diana Lanni (right) was the ‘It Girl’ of US chess in the 1980s and a contemporary of Walter Tevis, the author of the book on which the Netflix show is based
Tevis died in 1984, a year after The Queen’s Gambit was published, and didn’t reveal the inspiration for his leading lady.
But Miss Lanni, now in her mid-60s, is certain that the character is at least partly based on her, as is her friend and chess grandmaster Larry Kaufman.
He has drawn parallels between the two in his forthcoming memoir Chess Board Options.
Kaufman, who introduced Miss Lanni to the world of chess, is thought to be the inspiration for Harry Beltik, played by British actor Harry Melling.
As well as being one of the only successful female chess players at the time, Miss Lanni (right) also struggled with depression and an addiction to drink and drugs just as Beth does in the series. Pictured: Lanni with friend and chess grand master Larry Kaufman in 1977. Both believe Lanni is the likely inspiration for Beth Harmon
According to Miss Lanni, Tevis ‘hung out at the same places’ as she did in the early 1980s and he watched as she played at Washington Square Park.
‘I was the only woman who played daily everywhere. I think I was sort of the ‘It Girl’ in chess because there were other attractive women who played but they had careers, they had husbands and they played once a year, whereas chess was my life,’ she told Jennifer Shahade’s The Grid podcast.
Kaufman also believes Benny Watts, played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, is based on US champion Walter Browne rather than world champion Bobby Fischer, as many have speculated.
This is because Benny was only a US champion and he is portrayed as having a similar personality to Browne.
Kaufman also believes Benny Watts, played by Thomas Brodie-Sangster (left), is based on US champion Walter Browne rather than world champion Bobby Fischer, as many have speculated
Kaufman believes Benny was based on Browne (pictured) as both were US champions and Benny is portrayed as having a similar personality to Browne
Like Beth, Miss Lanni discovered chess early in life and went on to have great success, including playing in the US Women’s Championship in 1979 and 1981 and in the Olympiad in 1982. And they both suffered from substance abuse problems.
‘That’s one thing Beth and I have in common, you see how much of a loner she is and the only thing that can let her cut loose is when she drinks,’ she said. ‘And her depression when she’d lose, or when she’d start shovelling pills or booze – that’s something I’ve experienced all my life and have had to fight against.’
She added: ‘As far as the inspiration for the character goes, it just followed my life – it was the perfect timing, it was when he was writing it. I’ve gotten so many letters in the last month from old friends saying, ‘There’s a show about you on Netflix’.’
Kaufman also highlighted the parallels between Beth and Miss Lanni in an extract of his book published in New In Chess magazine. ‘Tevis must have known Diana Lanni as they frequented the same chess haunts,’ he wrote. ‘Lanni regularly played in Washington Square Park in the early 80s when Tevis was working on his book.’
British actress Miss Taylor-Joy, 24, has been nominated for a Golden Globe and an SAG award for her portrayal of Beth.
Chess Board Options: A Memoir Of Players, Games And Engines by Larry Kaufman is due to be released on April 19.
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