Reviewed by Kate Jackson
The Queen’s Gambit is an opening move in chess used by the player of the white pieces. The objective of the move is to temporarily sacrifice a pawn to gain control of the center of the board. The book by Walter Tevis of the same name chronicles the journey of a young chess prodigy as she becomes the center of the fictional world of competitive chess in the 1960’s. The title is emblematic of the personal sacrifice required by the intensity of competitive chess at the highest level.
Loneliness, genius, and obsession are at the core of this portrait of Beth Harmon who loses her mother at the age of eight and is taken to the Methuen Home for orphans. There she discovers an affinity for the tranquilizers supplied daily by the school and a love for the game of chess. She learns chess by watching and by playing against the school janitor, Mr. Shaibel, who recognizes her talent and introduces her to competitive chess. Her only friend and mentor at the home is Jolene, an older black girl who assumes a pivotal role later in Beth’s life. Their dialogues provide a window into issues about race and privilege relevant then and now.
At the age of 13, Beth is adopted by a couple who soon separate. She is mothered by Mrs. Wheatley, a lonely woman with her own addiction, in this case, to alcohol. At school, Beth is an outsider with little connection to her peers. Her gift for playing chess offers another life as she begins to win at state and regional tournaments. Her mother realizes the potential for money and travel offered by these competitions and revels in the celebrity status Beth achieves due both to her age and gender in a game dominated by males.
Beth’s story illuminates the utter discipline and commitment it takes to become a chess champion. She lives in virtual bubble dominated by studying, thinking about, and constantly playing chess. Devotees of chess will appreciate the discussion of classic moves and strategies taken from actual games.
If you watched the Netflix miniseries based on the book, you may wonder why you would want to read the book. Yes, the story is basically the same with some significant changes in the film adaptation. But the written version skillfully develops the inner voice of the main character and suggests that the gift of genius comes at a heavy price.