I wanted to like The Queen’s Gambit (1983) by Walter Tevis. Although he died in 1984, many writers list him as one of their favorite authors. (See The Writer’s Library, by Nancy Pearl and Jeff Schwager.) I’ve always wanted to learn to play chess, so was drawn to the idea of a girl/woman chess player, who rises from an orphanage to become US Champion in the 1950s or 1960s.
Content Warning: The Queen’s Gambit is terribly anti-fat biased and misogynistic, and Tevis relies on the “magical Negro” trope for Beth’s relationship to her only friend, Jolene, who also sexually abused Beth when they were both in the orphanage. I haven’t watched the Netflix series, and after reading the book, I don’t think that I will.
Beth Harmon lands up in a Kentucky orphanage at age 8 when her mother died in a car accident. She and all of the other children are given tranquilizers to keep them calm, and Beth learns to save them so she can take several at a time to help her sleep. One day, while cleaning erasers (the kind used on a chalkboard) in the basement, she sees the janitor, Mr. Shaibel, at a chessboard, and wants to learn how to play. She watches and learns, and he reluctantly agrees to teach her. She quickly bests him, and he brings the high school chess coach to play her. She promptly beats him as well, and he sets up a exhibition where she plays the entire chess club.
A new law is passed to prevent using tranquilizers in orphanages, and Beth becomes desperate. She hatches a plan to break into the infirmary to steal some pills, overdoses, and is caught. She’s not allowed to play chess any more, as punishment.
When Beth is 12 or 13, she is adopted by a Lexington couple, the Wheatleys. Mr. Wheatley immediately goes on a business trip and never returns. Beth finds a chess magazine at a drugstore while running errands for Mrs. Wheatley, and finds out that the state tournament happens soon. She enters it and wins. Mrs. Wheatley had been indifferent to Beth’s chess playing, but when she finds out that winning championships can earn a lot of money, she sets up budgets and travels with Beth around the country so she can play in tournaments. At 17, she becomes US co-champion, and Beth and Mrs. Wheatley travel to Mexico for her first international competition. There, Mrs. Wheatley dies, and, returning home, Beth experiments with alcohol, but not seriously. She wins the US championship outright, studies with her main competitor in New York, they become lovers, and then she goes to Paris for a tournament, where she loses to the World Champion, a Russian. She returns home to Lexington and goes on a bender. The only person she can think to call to help her is Jolene, who, miraculously, does. Jolene gets Beth to start exercising, not drinking, and helps her through her grief when Mr. Shaibel dies. Then Beth is ready to go to Moscow to seriously compete with the Russians.
Every time Tevis described Mr. Shaibel, he mentioned how fat he was. He didn’t describe him any other way, really, just stated he was fat and grotesque. Beth even wondered at his funeral how they were able to fit his body into a “normal”-sized coffin. Really? This is the man who introduced Beth to the game that would define her life, lead to fame, fortune, the ability to travel the world, and all Tevis could do was describe him as fat and odd and have Beth marvel at his size such that she was surprised at the size of his coffin? Beth is moved when she finds out after his death that he followed her chess career, but she has no empathy for him or wonders anything about his life outside of being the janitor.
Tevis also describes many of the fellow chess players in the Kentucky and US tournaments by how fat and unattractive most of them are. Beth believes she is “plain” until she is told at 17 or 18 that she has “become good-looking.” It was published in 1983, set in the 1950s-60s, so I suppose that is realistic for the time, but she has clearly internalized misogyny. The only time Beth feels any gratitude for her mental abilities is when she thinks she’s going to lose them because of her drinking. She loves winning more than anything, but seems to hate that most chess players are unattractive, even describing a high school player as “creepy.” She doesn’t even try to play chess in high school, or get to know anyone, since she’s already a master. I had a hard time empathizing with her isolation, as it seems that she could have attempted to make friends after she had been adopted, but she doesn’t even try.
I had a really hard time with Jolene being the person Beth turns to when she needs to get clean before the Moscow tournament. First, when Jolene was 12 and Beth 8, in the orphanage, Jolene molested Beth in her bed. The event happens, and then is glossed over. Jolene and Beth later snipe at each other, but when Beth is in withdrawal from the tranquilizers, Jolene gives her some. Beth occasionally thinks of Jolene afterwards, but not often. Only when she needs help because she has been drunk for weeks does she call the orphanage and plead with the director for Jolene’s number. And Jolene meets her for dinner and sets her up on an exercise regimen! Like they didn’t become adults, not speak for 5 years, and Jolene can fit Beth’s needs into her life even though she’s working on a Masters degree in Political Science. What?
First, without professional help, it seems like Beth was just substituting one addiction for another. She never dealt with the grief from losing two mothers, being sexually abused, having no friends, and being isolated because of the fame being US Champion has brought.
Both Mr. Shaibel and Jolene are just foils for whatever Beth needs at the time, but have no real personalities outside of that. Likewise, her relationship with sex is unhealthy and very matter of fact. She has no idea how to be intimate. She loses her virginity because it was time. She goes to bed with Beltik, the Kentucky champion, as he helps her study, but doesn’t seem to mind when he leaves. She initially wants to sleep with Benny Watts in New York as they study in preparation for Paris and Moscow, but he doesn’t. When he does, she goes along, but isn’t able to express her feelings. She doesn’t have any agency when it comes to sex, but just goes along when a prospective male partner wants to initiate it. And it never really gives her pleasure.
Tevis describes Beth’s chess playing as one of attack–she has no mercy on other players and puts them on the defensive as quickly as possible. But in her personal life, he writes her as a victim of circumstance, and, other than requesting money from Mr. Shaibel to enter her first tournament, she is buffeted by the events of losing Mrs. Wheatley and then losing critical games, such that her only recourse is to drown herself in alcohol.
The Queen’s Gambit is further proof that I need to stay away from most books written by white men because they often annoy me.