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Home Book Review

The Queen’s Gambit

Walter Tevis

Published : Saturday, 16 January, 2021 at 12:00 AM  Count : 1546
Reviewed by Aynun Nahar Esha

The Queen’s Gambit

The Queen’s Gambit

Girls don't play chess", that was the very response from Mr. Shaibel , the custodian, when the 8-year-old protagonist Beth Harmon wanted to learn what it is. Unfortunately this line sums up people's attitude towards the game where only men are supposed to thrive, like the king in a chessboard. It is so pathetic how we tend to forget that the queen, surrounded by "men" in the same chessboard, is the mightiest among all other pieces.
The Queen's Gambit, written by American author Walter Tevis, is hard to categorize. It surely is a "coming of age" novel. Moreover, often the events get so suspenseful and the rising tensions make it no less of a psychological thriller. Aside these, it's a sports book.
Published in 1983, The Queen's Gambit is a mesmerizing and empowering story of a young girl, Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy and her ambition of becoming the world's best chess player whilst she fights the monsters lying within- alcoholism, drug addiction, loneliness, and unconscious urge for self destruction.
Set in the late 50s and early 60s, we first encounter an 8-year-old Beth at a Kentucky orphanage. She befriends an older black girl Jolene. Beth soon discovers her astounding mind for chess, after learning it from the orphanage's janitor. She discovers something else too: addiction. Back in the 50s, it was common to use tranquilizing drugs at American orphanages to keep the children "calm" until it got banned. But it was just too late for Beth.
At the age of 13, she gets adopted and a new chapter begins. Her foster mother Mrs. Wheatley, an emotionally distant alcoholic, plays a major role being supportive to Beth's passion. However, it was the tournament prize money that attracted her as the family was going through financial hardship.
As Beth grows up, her chess becomes even stronger, so does the drug addiction. She gains attention after winning Kentucky State Championship. There she encounters potential rivals, later good friends, Harry Beltik and D.L. Townes. Young Beth participates in U.S. Open Championship. And we notice her lightning-fast ascendancy to the top of the chess world.
Beth surely is arrogant; she simply hates the idea of defeat. She loves to win. In other words, she plays to win. She sets her next grand venture: to play the Russians, the bests in the world. But soon she is struck by extremes of addiction, her isolation gets frightening. Could she beat Vasily Borgov, the current World Chess Champion? The reader must find out herself.
The character Beth seems to be a nod to American chess player Bobby Fishcher, the troubled genius and former world champion. At the beginning of the book, Walter Tevis admits taking huge inspiration from the games of great players like Bobby Fishcher, Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov. Beth's match against Vasily Borgov is yet another U.S. vs U.S.S.R. nerve wrenching moment so common during the Cold War era.
What about sexism? Chess demands aggressiveness to be played at its best and most people think girls lack that quality. Here's what so satisfying: Beth is equipped with great amount of talent and confidence. She beats her opponents much fiercely that made her so formidable.

A noteworthy aspect of the book is: its accurate depiction of chess moves. Sentences like "He played pawn to king four, and she replied with the Sicilian" may mean nothing to a non-expert but, given Mr. Tevis's skills as a writer and dramatist, one quickly catches the drift of each game without having to understand the actual chess notations. Walter Tevis himself was a "class C" player so he knew about the game a lot. The readers don't require any prior knowledge of chess yet the technicalities leave a thrill without befuddling them.
The "Queen's Gambit" is fascinating in every possible way which conveys a simple yet powerful message throughout the whole book-chess is not a boys' game and a girl can outsmart boys in anything.

The reviewer is a second year student of economics department at the University of Dhaka

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