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9781400030606Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit is my first chess novel. And, like any good novel, it purports to be about chess, but it’s really about its characters. And it’s damn good.

It’s opening is as good an starting line as I’ve ever seen. “Eight year old Beth Harmon leaned of her parents’ death from a woman with a clipboard.”  Right away, we know we’re dealing with an orphan, and we’re ready to follow her wherever she leads us. And she leads us into places most of us have never been.

Beth’s headstrong, invites punishment, and is sent to the basement, where she encounters a custodian who has a chessboard set up for his own amusement. The whole idea intrigues her. She begs to learn. He refuses. She begs some more. He finally relents,and it’s game on. Before long, she beats him. Then she starts beating everyone in sight, including the entire high school chess club at once–while she’s still in elementary school.

Walter and Jamie Tevis

While all this is going on, the orphanage is feeding its students a tranquilizer a day along with their vitamins as a way of keeping them manageable. Then the state stops the practice. Too late for  Beth. She’s hooked. She contrives ways upon ways to get more, and her addictive personality becomes first a sidelight, then a major focus of the action.

There are hurdles, of course, but she’s soon playing on the world stage. The latest prodigy. Problem is, she knows and cares for almost nothing except chess. Add in all the insane complexities of chess strategy, and you have a coming of age novel like no other I’ve ever read. Plenty of pain, power, and joy, and a read like no other.

sitting up clapping

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