It was the spring of 1983. On a long plane trip, I started reading “The Queen’s Gambit.” The author was Walter Tevis, who had also written “The Man Who Fell to Earth” and “The Hustler” (and who would later write “The Color of Money”). I had read none of those books. Nor had I seen the movies made from them. I just had a hunch.
I was never smarter — this is a novel that, very simply, cannot be put down. The woman who would become my first wife tried to make conversation; I shushed her. A meal came; I pushed it aside. All I could do was read, straight to the end — weeping, cheering, punching the air.
I got off the plane and optioned the film rights to “Queen’s Gambit,” and was soon at work on the greatest script I will probably ever undertake. Every young actress wanted to star in it, a half dozen “hot” directors wanted to direct it. Then the parade moved on. I couldn’t afford to keep the option. Walter Tevis died. His widow, needing money, sold the movie rights to people who, in 25 years, have not been able to get the film made. The book went out of print.
What’s the fuss about? An eight-year-old orphan named Beth Harmon. Who turns out to be the Mozart of chess. Which brings her joy (she wins! people notice her!) and misery (she’s alone and unloved and incapable of asking for help). So she gets addicted to pills. She drinks. She loses. And then, as 17-year-old Beth starts pulling herself together, she must face the biggest challenge of all — a match with the world champion, a Russian of scary brilliance.
You think: This is thrilling? You think: chess? You think: Must be an “arty” novel, full of interior scenes.
Wrong. All wrong. “The Queen’s Gambit” is “Rocky.”
But here is the catch. Although this is a very adult book — what is more grown up than the realization that we cannot really succeed in life, no matter how “gifted” we may be, if we are alone and unloved? — it is so artlessly written it seems almost to have no style. This is the dream novel: 100% story.
Here, for example, is Beth, freshly orphaned, breaking through her shyness to confront the silent giant of a custodian who spends his days playing solitary chess in the orphanage’s furnace room:
”Will you teach me?”
Mr. Shaibel said nothing, did not even register the question with a movement of his head. Distant voices from above were singing “Bringing in the Sheaves.”
She waited for several minutes. Her voice almost broke with the effort of her words, but she pushed them out, anyway: “I want to learn to play chess.”
Mr. Shaibel reached out a fat hand to one of the larger black pieces, picked it up deftly by its head and set it down on a square at the other side of the board. He brought the hand back and folded his arms across his chest. He still did not look at Beth. “I don’t play strangers.”
The flat voice had the effect of a slap in the face. Beth turned and left, walking upstairs with the bad taste in her mouth.
“I’m not a stranger,” she said to him two days later. “I live here.” Behind her head a small moth circled the bare bulb, and its pale shadow crossed the board at regular intervals. “You can teach me. I already know some of it, from watching.”
“Girls don’t play chess.” Mr. Shaibel’s voice was flat.
She steeled herself and took a step closer, pointing at, but not touching, one of the cylindrical pieces that she had already labeled a cannon in her imagination. “This one moves up and down or back and forth. All the way, if there’s space to move in.
Mr. Shaibel was silent for a while. Then he pointed at the one with what looked like a slashed lemon on top. “And this one?”
Her heart leapt. “On the diagonals.”
See? You don’t need to know anything about chess. Tevis was a storyteller whose genius was to tell great stories; there’s nothing between you and the people.
I believe that you will care about Beth Harmon more than any fictional character you’ve encountered in years and years.
I believe that you will grasp the wrench of loneliness — and the power of love — as if this book were happening to you.
And I believe that you will weep, and cheer, and, at the end, raise your fist like a fool for a little girl who never existed and a game only nerds play.
If you don’t love it, I’ll buy it from you.
This article originally appeared on The Head Butler
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