#18. ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ by Walter Tevis

The Queen’s Gambit was published in 1983, one year before Tevis death. It took almost forty years for this title to become the most researched one, and all thanks to Netflix adaptation of the story that was released this year. Both, the novel and series are great. It is one of those books that you want to finish at one seating and all because of Beth Harmon chess player character that you will not easily forget.  

Beth Harmon – Chess Player

We meet Beth in 1960s when she was eight years old and admitted to the Methuen Home in Kentucky, following her mother’s tragic car accident. She is quiet, sullen and not interested in making friends with other children. Another girl, Jolene who is black and twelve years old take an interest in Beth from day one, asking her quite boldly whether she is an orphan or a bastard. Beth terrified, could not say a word but eventually Jolene and she became closer. The day Beth was asked to clean the erasers shaped her future. She went to the basement to do as asked and saw Mr Shaibel (the janitor) who was playing chess all by himself. She became obsessed and determined to learn everything about this game. At first, she was quietly observing the janitor each time she was going to “clean the erasers”, but in due course, Mr Shaibel invited her to play with him. 

Childhood Addiction

At Methuen Home, children were given tranquillizers every day. Beth became addicted to them and whenever possible she was storing them in her toothbrush cup next to her bed, taking two or several at times to help her sleep. She spends her time reading Modern Chess Openings and soon enough Mr Shaibel could not beat her. He said to her she was “astounding”. Shortly after she was invited to play several older players at once in the local high school. You can only imagine how that ended. 

Chess Career

During her teenage years, Beth is adopted and enters numerous chess tournaments across the country. The local newspapers call her ‘the chess prodigy’. Not only she is so young and a female but she cannot loose. Beth’s only ambition is to become the best female chessplayer in the world. Mrs Wheatley (Beth’s adoptive mother) struggles with alcohol and drugs addiction, she is often very sick but she did everything to support Beth in her chess career. It was Mrs Wheatley who gave her the first beer while touring around the world and soon enough Beth could not stop herself. Her dangerous game with drugs and alcohol led to many problems on her way to the top.

Determination

Reading Queen’s Gambit is like watching an action movie; all because of Tevis’s writing style. Sentences are short and to the point, it’s almost as if he was rushing to write it and I mean it as a good thing. I truly could not put this novel down. He experiments with the characters and let them make mistakes. You can almost feel Beth’s determination, strength and passion for something that was not very popular among females in 1970s. She is a strong female figure that inspires and brakes stereotypes. I highly recommend it!

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