So who, you will ask, is the real-life Beth Harmon and why does this bother me?
First, I want to put into a few words the premise of the Netflix series for those readers of this post who have not seen it. In a nutshell, Beth Harmon is the fictional character in the novel of the same name as the series, written by Walter Tevis, an American novelist, and published in 1983. It is the coming of age story of a girl whose father has abandoned her, whose mother dies, and who ends up in an orphanage and discovers the game of chess through the janitor. She finds she has a talent for it, and she goes on to build a career in the game, rising to win the U.S. national championships, and culminating in a tournament in Moscow against the top players in the world.Beth Harmon also has another essential aspect to her character, which is her addiction to drugs and alcohol, which began with her force feeding of various medications at the orphanage. In another nutshell, I want to say that while I loved the series – watching it became my own short-lived addiction – there were some fundamental parts to it that were indeed pure fiction. No drug addict under the influence is going to play chess the way Beth Harmon did. (And while this made her character interesting for fiction, it is questionable as an example for other young women seeking to find themselves in today’s world, where drugs are more accessible than in the fictional day of the 1950s and 1960s in which Beth Harmon lived.) Beth’s rise quickly through the ranks without actually having any chess teachers or coaches of any note was another aspect to the fiction that was farfetched. Also, there was a huge mismatch between the player rating level (called an Elo) we heard she had at one point – something like 1800 – and the kinds of players she was supposed be beating. The top players at the time were already pushing for the 2700s. The final outstanding aspect of this fictional character is that she is a kind of drop-dead gorgeous woman, portraying a kind of man-beating femme fatale of the chess world.
While the chess world is excited to see attention paid to it like nothing since when Garry Kasparov played – and lost – to the Deep Blue computer more than 20 years ago, and while it is being reported that the Netflix series has led to a massive new demand for chess sets, books, and people playing the game online (at sites like Chess.com or Lichess.org ), there is another way in which coverage of this Netflix series is doing no good at all.How so? First, my shock: In those almost daily articles about “Meet the real Beth Harmon,” the subject of the articles is usually not only a million miles away from ever having achieved any of the exploits of the fictional character, but worse, the subject of the article is rarely even within the Top 100 of rated women chess players in the world (or even the Top 100 “girls,” which is for women under 20 years old). I had considered naming names and putting up links to some of the subjects of these stories, who hail from countries all over the world – every country is seeking to show its very own “real Beth Harmon” – but the goal of this blog item is not to point the finger at any one particular person or media. Let me just continue outlining the broad brush strokes of this con game. Every time I have found an article about the latest “real Beth Harmon” I have started by doing research to find out what the “phenom”‘s rating is. Most of the time, as I said, the women are not even close to the Top 100 lists of women players – which may be found on the site of the world chess federation, at FIDE.com – and in many cases, the women do not even HAVE an international rating.
What they do almost invariably have, is a great presence on the social media, with photos of their undeniably feminine good looks – à la Beth Harmon. They are usually featured looking sexy sitting over a chess board, often in clothes that match the black and white squares of the game, or some other chess-related image. They have online followings and their image is more important than their chess success. Still, some of them did have at some point in their lives periods playing the game at local, or even national level, and met with some success in tournaments, even if they never achieved any kind of internationally recognized results or ratings.
What am I getting at? What’s the problem with all of this? Certainly it is great publicity for the game of chess to be talked about more than it has perhaps, in fact, since the biggest international battle of wits in the early 1970s Cold War match between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer. Certainly, for the noble, intelligent game of chess that helps form young minds to be learned and discovered by more people than ever before is a great thing.
But what bothers me here is that another of the themes of almost every one of these articles about the “real Beth Harmon” is that the women are invariably asked to speak about how difficult it all was as a woman in a man’s world, and how much sexism they faced by paternalistic male players who could not accept being beaten by a woman. Fine. Judit Polgar – who in fact is as close to being the “real Beth Harmon” as any woman could be, since she was the top woman player for decades, and also sat within the top 10 amongst men players for many many years – has spoken about her own encounters with such sexism. So, yes, this is a natural subject. If only the articles would not be hypocritical on another level….
In my description of the “real Beth Harmon” that I discover almost daily, you will have noticed that all of the women are beautiful, that they flaunt that beauty, they flaunt the femme fatale aspect of their image, as well as their social media image popularity. But on the other side of all of this is those lists I have mentioned of the world’s current Top 100 woman and girl players. Very few of those players are using their feminine attractiveness to sell their image. They are devoting their lives to learning how to play and win the game of chess. And they are succeeding. The Top 100 women players – lightyears ahead of the vast majority of the “real Beth Harmons” that I am reading about in the media (including many, many reputable, traditional media) – are great chess players, women or not. But they are being, for the most part, ignored by the media that wants to exploit the image that the Netflix series is exploiting: Beautiful, sexy, fashion-model-like woman beats man at man’s game.
Therein lies the problem for me – one of the two main problems – which is that in the guise of saying that women are equal to men and not being reduced to their physical attributes, these articles are doing the very opposite. They are only presenting us with the woman whose image is that of Beth Harmon – sexy young women looking like fashion models and with a great social media presence – rather than showing us the REAL REAL BETH HARMONS! Those Top 100 at most, but really, say, the Top 20 women or “girls” in the world. Let me introduce to you Hou Yifan. She is currently No. 1, and a little like the Judit Polgar of our day – as Polgar has been retired for several years – by being far ahead of the second placed woman player in rating.
So what is actually happening here is that the media is indeed again using women’s beauty, women’s physical attributes, their image, their sexiness, as the thing that makes them worth talking about or not. These media are not sticking to the reality of whether or not these social media objects are actually great chess players by the standard of the world’s top-rated players!
This now leads me to the higher level point of this whole rant: It is again and clearly the kind of shorthand that passes for a story in today’s media that is actually leading to what in another area would be referred to as “fake news.” People are reading mainstream media – as well as less mainstream, but perhaps just as popular – media and if they know nothing about chess, then they cannot know that what they are reading is fake news. The woman being portrayed as a “real life Beth Harmon” is nothing close to a real life version of the fictional mastermind, BUT…but…but… a little more honesty would reveal that there are indeed many other real life Beth Harmons who are NOT being written about because they do not flaunt their bodies, faces, images, online in social media or otherwise talk about themselves as women men-beating geniuses.
So I take this to the final level: It is only because chess is a world that I am very close to, and very familiar with – I have a very low international rating, and I have played online for years as an addiction, but my son was a highly-placed national player in France for years until he quit age 15 – that I am not being duped by all these stories about the “real life Beth Harmon.” But what does this mean for all the other aspects of world politics, science, geography and social life that I know nothing about and which I am spoon-fed untruths or exaggerations daily without realizing it?
I hate to think what the answer to that might really be.