Walter Tevis: The Queen’s Gambit

"The Queen's Gambit" by Walter Tevis is an inspirational novel for intellectuals. It concerns the ever-more-successful career of Beth Harmon, from her early days in the Methuen Home orphanage, an institution as garishly oppressive as Dotheboys Hall in Dickens's "Nicholas Nickleby," to her still-youthful triumph over the Russian grandmaster of chess, Vasily Borgov.
Walter Tevis: The Queen's Gambit

by Thomas M. Disch

The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis is an inspirational novel for intellectuals. It concerns the ever-more-successful career of Beth Harmon, from her early days in the Methuen Home orphanage, an institution as garishly oppressive as Dotheboys Hall in Dickens’s Nicholas Nickleby, to her still-youthful triumph over the Russian grandmaster of chess, Vasily Borgov. The vicarious satisfaction of following Ms. Harmon’s ascent to chess greatness, on the wings of her own (largely unassisted) genius, can be savored equally by readers with a passion for the game and by those like myself who would sooner play Scrabble or Othello. Only a knowledgeable chessplayer (Tevis’s jacket copy says he is a class C player, which must be good enough to brag about!) could have depicted the heroine’s growing mastery of the game in such persuasive detail, but only an artist could have informed that detail with drama so unfailingly compelling. Chess, by virtue of its involuted intricacy, is an interesting game but not a likely subject for dramatic treatment, yet The Queen’s Gambit is one of those books that will make you put the rest of your life on hold until you’ve reached the last page, and it does this without lever embroidering its basic theme with extraneous melodrama.

That theme is self-mastery under conditions of extreme adversity. Beth’s first adversary is the orphanage, where her youthful genius, though discovered, is ignored, and where she is addicted, at the age of eight, to the use of tranquilizers. (The novel begins in the fifties, when Librium was almost as common as fluoridated water.) Beth’s potential for drug dependency acts as a Damoclean sword, ready to come, crashing down at any moment of crisis. When she grows older, the problem is compounded by a proclivity for alchoholic bingeing. Tevis’s depiction of Beth’s delicate balance between youthful fame and incipient self-destruction is all the more convincing because she never steps out of character. As one might expect of a chess prodigy (and an alumna of Methuen Home), Beth runs a low emotional temperature. She negotiates the various crises of her life carefully and usually with success, but her only passion is for chess. When she gets a chance to join her high school’s “elite Apple Pi” sorority (after becoming a national celebrity), she experiences an astonishment of boredom and taxis home early to read The Middle Game in Chess. Later she arranges her sexual defloration in much the same spirit one might take a driving exam.

The book’s best coup de théâtre is Beth’s relationship with her adoptive mother, Mrs. Wheatley, whose transformation, under Beth’s relentless pressure, from a morose slattern into her adoptive daughter’s agent is the stuff that Academy Awards are made of. (Two of Tevis’s earlier novels became classic movies; The Hustler, with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason dueling with pool cues; and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Another sf novel, Mockingbird, is said to be in production.)

While The Queen’s Gambit is not in any sense science-fictional, its appeal is similar to that of such sf classics as More than Human or Flowers for Algernon, both effective wish-fulfillment fantasies for those whose organ-of-preference is the brain. Intellectuals rarely get a chance to read inspirational novels — leastways, not ones that cater to their daydreams. Jocks have Rocky and housewives have Silhouette Romances, fictional fare tailored for the specific purpose of ego reinforcement and the better morale of the troops. But intellectuals — that is, people determined to be bright and knowledgeable — are generally expected to read books that will make them worry more. Books that can do this are accounted Serious Literature; those that can’t, or choose not to, aren’t. So, though The Queen’s Gambit won’t enhance your reputation for Seriousness, it’s a delightful book, and a guaranteed antidote to the blues, the blahs, and many forms of non-chronic depression. However, if such troubles persist, you’re advised to see a physician.

The Twilight Zone Magazine, April 1984

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