Book Review: The Queen's Gambit, by Walter Tevis
Updated: 10 hours ago
I've never been one to sit down and play a game of chess. I would say that I'm not intelligent enough to, but that sounds incredibly attention-seeking and simplistic. Chess takes more than brains – according to The Queen's Gambit, it takes determination, strategy, tenacity and hours of study.
Despite my ignorance, I could not put this book down. It gripped me with its quiet bitterness and fury, its commentary on international relations, people, class, alcoholism and money.
Maddy holds a copy of The Queen's Gambit up to the light of her window in Melbourne. Image: Madeleine Corbel, 2022.
Beth, an orphan and chess prodigy, is one of my favourite characters I've ever read. This genuinely surprised me – I'm not usually a fan of bitterness, rudeness and self-elevation in characters. Books are an escape for me from the stress and anxiety of people in real life, so why would I want my imaginary friends to be difficult to understand?
But Beth kept me reading. She was one of the most tangible and real characters I've ever read, and I think that's because of her determination and circumstance. Her life doesn't seem to be an easy one; she is plagued by a lot of dark thoughts and addiction, and suffers a tonne of loss throughout the book. But she knows what she's good at and she knows how to find self-worth – chess.
Beth is an isolated woman in a sea of men. Competition after competition around the world has her being constantly underestimated, feared and misunderstood by male players. Despite beating them consistently, Beth is portrayed by the media in the book as predominantly a female – she is even compared to virtually the only other historical female chess player (despite her comparability with the highest male player in the world) and is also asked about her romantic interests and dating life. Where is that question in the interviews with men?
This book is a really intimate portrait of a young woman's experience with passion, fame, sex and growth. When I realised that it was written by a man, I was nervous – I wondered if there would be gratuitous scenes of teenage girls 'finding themselves', or some unrealistic 'feminine' character flaw, like a soppy love story or unnecessarily gendered and divisive dialogue. But nope, this guy knew what he was doing – though I still think women can tell better stories about women than men can, not once did Beth feel defined by her gender, aside from when society pointed it out in the story. Beth wasn't over-kind and smiley to men (or anyone) when she didn't feel the urge to be, and she was mostly interested in herself as a player and competitor.
These issues of gender were a big turn-on for me because they speak to a greater worldwide problem. There's no doubt that this book is a love letter to chess, but it taps into a huge network of social issues that still plague women with platforms today.
I take my hat off to you Walter Tevis, you did good.
The Rotten Tomatoes trailer for the Netflix adaption of Walter Tevis's book, The Queen's Gambit. Video: YouTube, 2020.
Plot & writing style
There's no doubt about it, for me I found the plot quite circular and repetitive. How else can you define a book about a chess prodigy than to have the protagonist play tournament after tournament? Win some, lose some?
I found myself drawn in though, and I'm a serial DNF-er. I couldn't wait to get to the end and find out how far Beth gets, how much acclaim she earns. It was clever – Tevis uses a bunch of technical jargon to explain the individual moves that made up each game, but I never got bored. If you're a chess legend (not me), I'm sure you could whip out your chess board and outline each game to relive Beth's experience. If you're the furthest thing from a chess legend (me), you could follow along and feel the stress, the moments of tension and relief as she played each move. It was brilliantly written, and I was totally taken in.
Ultimately, this book was not a hopeful one. It was full of grim grit, loss, substance abuse and pain. But Beth's determination and passion, the way she learns to find joy in other people and their game, was beautiful.
Thanks a bunch for reading with me,