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Book review: The queen’s gambit by Walter Tevis

Book: The Queen's Gambit
Author: Walter Tevis
Genre: Fiction, psychological thriller
Rating: 5/5 
Published: 1983

From the moment I picked up Walter Tevis’ amazing novel The Queen’s Gambit, I struggled to put it back down, and ended up finishing the book in just two days, 243 pages of it. The Queen’s Gambit is a novel first published in 1983 following the life of a chess prodigy. As boring as that may sound, the words that tell the story between the front and back cover begs to differ. The novel takes place in 1950 where women are still considered to be intellectually inferior to men. Elizabeth Harmon, is both young and also female, challenging the traditional norms of society. We are first introduced to Beth at the age of eight as an orphan with the first sentence, “Beth learned of her mother’s death from a woman with a clipboard.”

But for a moment, let’s put chess aside, and look at the story through Beth’s eyes, an eight-year-old orphan girl from Kentucky. The chaotic battlefield here, in this story is her mind. Ending up in an orphanage at the age of eight, Beth finds two ways to escape her reality; first chess which is taught to her by a creepy janitor in a dark basement, and second, taking the little green pills given to her and also the other orphans, which helps keep the children tranquilized. It doesn’t take long before her genius mind is discovered while playing a game of chess. She wins her way up the rankings, earning money, beating grandmasters. Beth is smart, maybe even too smart for her own good. In a society where women are considered inferior, she doesn’t see gender, and is often frustrated about articles written about her, focusing more on her being a young woman rather than her successful chess wins. But all that aside something is missing in her life, which leaves her mind in a state of loneliness. Leading her to swallow more green pills and drink more alcohol.

There are many quotes in this book I enjoyed and choosing a favourite is difficult, however, if I was forced to choose it would be the quote where Beth said, “It’s an entire world of just 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it; I can dominate it. And it’s predictable. So, if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”

To those who are thinking, “do I need to be a chess fan to read this book?” The answer is no. Although, the plot takes place with a girl rising up the ranks playing chess, it is also much more than that. It is also about loss, death, rejection, addiction, and even sexism. Ergo, if you believe you can relate to even one of those emotions listed, this book is for you. That’s not to say that chess is boring. It may be for some, however Tevis brings out the excitement and dramatics of chess into this book.

The book is engaging and easy to follow with the author’s straight to the point writing, “it was six days until Thursday.” It’s a book I read once and will happily go back and read again. I enjoyed The Queen’s Gambit to the point where I turned a blind eye to Beth’s gloomy future at the end of the novel. The little orphan grew up to outgrow the one thing that made her name. We may not be a prodigy but we can still understand and relate to Beth Harmon in more ways than one, which is the core of what makes this book engaging. 

You can buy your own copy on Amazon.