"I could relate to Beth a lot," says 22-year-old female chess Grandmaster Dorsa Derakhshani of The Queen's Gambit

By Wendy Grossman Kantor
December 18, 2020 12:01 PM

Dorsa Derakhshani swore off watching Netflix until after she takes the MCATS – but the 22-year-old Saint Louis University senior couldn’t resist binge-watching new hit series The Queen’s Gambit, because it’s almost the story of her life.

In The Queen's Gambit, orphan Beth (portrayed by Anya Taylor-Joy) excels at chess while battling personal demons, often defeating men twice her age.

“I could relate to Beth a lot,” says Derakhshani, who is an international chess Grandmaster, in this week's issue of PEOPLE.

Born in Tehran, Derakhshani’s father is a physician and her mother is a psychologist. A precocious child, she learned to read at age 2. By 6, she started chess lessons. Two years later, at 8, she accepted her chess National Championship award wearing a princess gown and tiara.

Dorsa Derakhshani, The Queen's Gambit, Anya Taylor-Joy
The Queen's Gambit star Anya Taylor-Joy (left) and Dorsa Derakhshani
| Credit: Phil Bray/Netflix; Ophelia Wynne/Camera Press/Redux

“When I started playing chess, I really enjoyed the idea that I could play anybody, anywhere, and beat them,” Derakhshani says. “I was just showing off my brain.”

She made national news in 2017, and the Wall Street Journal called her one of the world’s bravest feminists when the Iranian Chess Federation publicly kicked her off the team for not wearing a hijab.

Dorsa Derakhshani
Dorsa Derakhshani, age 8, in Tehran winning the girls under 8 National Championship
| Credit: Courtesy Dorsa Derakhshani
Dorsa Derakhshani
Dorsa Derakhshani with her family in 2003
| Credit: Courtesy Dorsa Derakhshani

“Having that freedom to wear what I want, and just be who I want, was a big thing,” Derakhshani says.

For more on Dorsa Derakhshani, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday, or subscribe here.

After graduating high school, she played chess competitively for a year in Spain, before moving to the U.S. to attend Saint Louis University on a chess scholarship.

In between studying, she competes (now over Zoom) as a member of the U.S. Chess Federation, and teaches chess classes to encourage other women to play.

“Chess is not just a man’s game,” she says. “I like the fight.”

Still, much like the star of The Queen’s Gambit, she’s encountered sexism at chess tournaments too.

“I feel like Beth and I both grew up surviving in this society, and having to fight to get respect and equality — me in Iran, and Beth in '60s," she says. "But I hope that my kids don't have to go through this, and my kids don't have to feel the need to fight and to gain respect. That's the one thing that I wish for.”