The Queen’s Gambit

By Walter Tevis

Like many of you, I began watching the Netflix series, The Queen’s Gambit a few months ago.  I don’t typically binge watch dramas, so I have a few more episodes to watch.  And while I do typically prefer to read the book prior to watching a show, the show piqued my interest enough midstream to cause me to pick up the book and I am glad I did.

I want to share some information on the author, and you will soon see how some of the author’s personal experiences have been integrated into the book.  The Queen’s Gambit is written by the late Walter Tevis.  Tevis developed a rheumatic heart condition as a child and his parents placed him in a convalescent home where the patients were given sedatives.  During this stay at the home, Tevis’s parents moved to Kentucky and Tevis was reunited with them a year later.

Tevis learned how to play pool in high school through a friend who went on to own a pool hall. You’ll see why this bit of information matters in a minute.  Tevis attended college at the University of Kentucky and received a Master’s Degree in English Literature from the University.  Tevis played chess and he was an alcoholic.

Tevis taught in a Kentucky High School as well as the University of Northern Kentucky and then at Ohio University.  He wrote several successful novels that you will recognize including: The Hustler, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell to Earth.  Impressive to say the least.

For those of you who have not watched the Netflix series, the Queen’s Gambit is a coming-of-age story about Beth Harmon, a young girl who is also a chess prodigy.  Beth is orphaned when her mother dies in a car wreck.  Beth is sent to an orphanage which provides the children sedatives daily.  Apparently, this was legal at the time.  Beth learns how to play chess from the janitor at the orphanage and she steals away to the basement as often as she can to play the game that has captivated her.  The janitor quickly realizes that Beth is talented and asks the local high school chess club teacher to play a game of chess with Beth.  Seeing Beth’s talent, the chess club teacher invites Beth to play chess with the members of the club.  As one would hope, Beth beats every other player in the chess club and then goes on to win several tournaments.

When it is no longer legal to give the children a daily sedative, Beth steals some pills from the orphanage pharmacy and overdoses.  While she recovers, her punishment is that she may no longer play chess.  A year later, Beth is adopted by Mr. and Mrs. Wheatley who live in Lexington (a nod to Tevis’s time at the University of Kentucky).  The reader quickly learns that Beth was adopted to be a companion to Mrs. Wheatley since her husband travels for work.  But the marriage is floundering, and the couple soon separate.  While far from perfect, Mrs. Wheatley is a kind woman and desires to be a good mother to Beth. 

Upon realizing that Beth is a good player, Mrs. Wheatley sees Beth’s talent as a way to keep herself and Beth afloat financially.  Mrs. Wheatley arranges all the travel and Beth plays chess.  The book takes the reader to tournaments in Mexico, Las Vegas, Paris and eventually Russia for the ultimate test.  Tevis shows us some interesting characters along the way and gives us a glimpse into the Russian fascination with chess.  He also helps us understand what it must be like to intuitively comprehend such a complex game and be in love with the game.

While the book covers many scenes where Beth is playing chess, in her head, while practicing or at a tournament, I didn’t find this as a deterrent for someone who doesn’t know the game.  In fact, I found these scenes to be riveting.  I have read that the sales of chess sets have gone through the roof since the release of the Queen’s Gambit on Netflix and I can certainly appreciate people’s enthusiasm for the game.  Whether you choose to read the book, watch the series or both, the Queen’s Gambit will move you and stay with you for a long time.