The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

thequeensgambitBeth Harmon, orphaned at eight, finds institutional life at Methuen Home tedious but the chess game the janitor plays in the basement intriguing, and begins sneaking down there during chapel time to learn more.  Mr. Shaibel the janitor is at first annoyed and then surprised by her growing adroitness with the game.

Chess soon becomes Beth’s reason of being – that, and the comfort of the tranquilizers the staff at Methuen Home give to the kids there to keep them quiet.

When staff there catch Beth breaking into the orphanage pharmacy,  her discovered chess sessions are forbidden to her until the Wheatleys, an unlikely couple, adopt her when she is nearly thirteen.

“Unlikely” becomes even more apparent when Beth goes to live with them.  The husband goes on an interminable business trip that largely drops him out of the picture.  Mrs. Wheatley is nice enough, but has a tad of a drinking issue and is often oblivious to Beth’s needs.

Her interest in chess is such that she filches money from her adoptive mother and schoolmates to buy literature about the game and to pay the entrance fees to a nearby tournament, which she wins.

Her mother takes much more notice of Beth, particularly as finances are dicey from the absent husband, and arranges for Beth to play in even more lucrative tournaments across the country and beyond.

Beth’s fame as a prodigy spreads, so that by the age of nineteen, she is a U.S. champion and ready to compete with the best of the internationals in Moscow.  Will she lose to the Russians, or play their own game better than them?

The Queen’s Gambit is a re-imagining of the world of chess competition circa the 1960s, in which someone like Beth would have been a shock to its cloistered men-oriented circles.

Interestingly enough, the author Walter Tevis wrote The Hustler years before he wrote this one.

I found out about The Queen’s Gambit through a recommendation in the New York Times “By The Book” column; this one was in an interview with Ayelet Waldman.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

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