Friday, January 29, 2021

The Queen's Gambit - Walter Tevis

I still find it hard to believe that until a few weeks ago I had never heard of Walter Tevis. After all, two of Tevis’s six novels, The Man Who Fell to Earth and The Hustler, were turned into two of the more memorable films from the seventies, and late last year Netflix released a wonderful mini-series based on his 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit. It didn’t help, I suppose, that Tevis died at the relatively young age of 56 in 1984 or that his body of work consists entirely of six novels and a collection of short stories, but still I wonder how I missed him for so long. 

The Queen’s Gambit is Beth Harmon’s story. Beth spends her childhood years in an orphanage after the tragic death of her mother. If that were not sad enough already, this is the kind of orphanage that feeds tranquilizers to the children every day because that makes them easier for staff to handle. Beth is one of the unfortunate children who develops a lifelong addiction to the pills, and who suffers terribly after the orphanage is forced by authorities to stop illegally drugging it wards. The same pills, however, allow Beth to focus her mind in a dramatic new way, an ability that changes her life after she learns the game of chess from the orphanage janitor, a gruff man who only reluctantly begins to teach her the game after she starts coming  down to the basement to clean classroom erasers. 


Soon enough, eight-year-old Beth is outplaying her chess tutor and anyone else she gets a chance to compete against, including the local high school’s entire chess team - which she defeats in simultaneous matches. Everyone is astounded by the little girl’s talent except the orphanage director, a woman who delights in punishing Beth by refusing to let her play the game. That all changes finally when Beth, at age 13, is adopted. Chess becomes her life, although it is a life she will spend battling her addictions, and in a few years Beth Harmon may just become the most famous chess player not only in the United States, but in the entire world.


With The Queen’s Gambit, Walter Tevis does the seemingly impossible for non-chess players. He makes the life of tournament chess come alive in a way that makes it all as exciting as the Super Bowl, the World Series, or March Madness can be for rabid sports fans. Tevis’s revelations concerning “inside chess,” along with his explanations of the various offenses and defenses used by the masters of the game are fascinating enough. But Tevis tops himself by making his move-by-move descriptions of key matches so interesting that even a non-chess-playing reader ends up holding his breath to see which player will finally be caught in an inescapable trap. 


Bottom Line: The Queen’s Gambit is great fun on several levels. The side story of who Beth Harmon is and how she got to be the young woman she becomes by the end of the novel is both entertaining and, at times, heartbreaking. The chess tournament scenes, dry as the subject may at first sound, are equally fascinating because Tevis begins them with all the preparation, strategy, and gamesmanship involved. But the biggest surprise of all, is that the non-player comes away from The Queen’s Gambit with an above average sense of how how the game really works - and why some people are able to play it a such a high level at such an early age. If you haven’t read this one yet, you need to fix that. It’s really very, very good. 


Walter Tevis

16 comments:

  1. Tom watched the tv version, and really liked it.

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    1. The TV version is excellent, I think. The actress playing Beth has an unusual look about her and that alone gave the character an immediate depth that most TV doesn't come close to.

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  2. Wow, the author died young and left only a small body of works. I haven't read his novels, but the TV series is brilliant.

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    1. I agree about the TV series...really enjoyed it.

      He did die tragically young. He was never particularly healthy from what I gather, as he had rheumatic fever as a boy. But his novels are all interesting, and I'm hoping to read some of the other five this year.

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  3. We watched the first episode of the series as our daughter recommended it. Neither of us liked the way it was filmed and we haven't seen any more. Suspect I might get on a 'lot' better with the book somehow. I'd never heard of the author either and had no idea he wrote The Man Who Fell to Earth. (Wasn't David Bowie in that?)

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    1. That, indeed, was the David Bowie movie, Cath. I never connected it to a novel for some reason...suppose it just seemed too strange to me at the time to be a book.

      What was it about the way that it was filmed that you didn't like? I'm trying to recall, but wasn't the first episode mostly, if not entirely, an orphanage one? I do think you would enjoy the book more than the series, but I'm like a broken record about that.

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    2. I wish I could put my finger on why I didn't like the way it was filmed. It was like it was stark and unemotional somehow, 'dark'. I realise the girl's situation was pretty awful, yes in the orphanage, but this modern way of filming does not appeal to me at all and I see it quite a lot now. I will try the book at some stage anyway.

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    3. I think I see what you mean. This one had such a 1950s look to it that I guess I kind of absorbed that "look" as part of what they were trying to say about the decade. The book doesn't have quite the same tone as the series, so you probably would do better with it if you are interested in this one anymore.

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  4. I think I would really like to read this. I don't play chess (tried to learn when I was a teen and didn't grasp it well) but I watched the series w/my husband and we both really enjoyed it. It made the chess plays seem riveting, though I kept asking my husband (who does play) if he could follow the moves on the board? sometimes from the angles it was hard to tell, but the ones in the tournaments he could and it was fascinating.

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    1. I would love to hear what someone familiar with the game, as you and your husband are, think about the book. I know that it was well-researched and that Tevis had it vetted by some very good players of the game. The amazing thing is that a reader can come into this with no chess knowledge at all, and come away with a good idea of strategies, variations, etc. without being able to play the game a lick.

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  5. This is not a book I'd ever heard of, but I'm intrigued by Beth as a character and the whole chess thing, too. (I love playing chess; I'm not super good at it, but I love it.) Best of all? The Salt Lake County library system actually has 17 copies of this one. Of course, there are 24 holds, but hey, at least they have it. I look forward to reading it. :)

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    1. Looking forward to what you have to say about it, Lark. As a player yourself, you are likely to have aa different enough perspective to see some things in the story that I missed.

      Wow...that's a lot of copies of one novel. Netflix does seem to sell a lot of books. LOL

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  6. I fell in love with the Netflix series, and I hope to read this book in the not-too-distant future.

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    1. I'll look forward to hearing what you think of it. I'm thinking about reading one of the two that Tevis wrote on the game of pool, probably The Hustler. It's another game I know very little about, so I'm curious to see what Tevis has to teach me about it.

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  7. My husband has been enjoying this series on Netflix. I usually read while he watches it, so I have no idea what it's even about, really. The book sounds interesting, though, even though I'm not a fan of chess. Too much thinking is required and I'm not a good strategist at all :)

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    1. I'm not a fan of the game either...for the same reasons you mentioned. I just don't have the patience. But I have to tell you that I really got caught up in the strategy and gamesmanship, etc. that goes on in those professional chess tournaments. The characters are all uniques and well-developed, and the overall story about an orphan girl becoming chess champion of the world is just amazing.

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