The Queen's Gambit
by Walter Tevis

Review by
Robert Wilfred Franson

Random House: New York, 1983
243 pages

March 2005

Visualizing the chessboard

The continuation she found on the nineteenth move was a beautiful and subtle wonder. It sprang to her mind full-blown, with half a dozen moves as clear as if they were projected on a screen in front of her, her rook, bishop and knight dancing together down in his king's corner of the board. Yet there was no checkmate in it or even an advantage in material.

... she traded rook and knight for rook and knight and brought her king to queen three. Although the pieces and pawns were equal, it was only a matter of counting moves. It would take twelve for him to get a pawn to the eighth rank and queen it, while she could do it in ten.

There is a special mini-genre of stories concerning the royal game, chess. Some are mysteries where murder is committed during a game, or fantasies where the pieces have personalities, even a few where plot and characters painstakingly correspond to the moves and pieces of an entire game describable in chess notation.

The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis is a novel about a chess prodigy, a fictional American girl who learns chess from the janitor in a Kentucky orphanage in the 1950s.

After her very first game with the janitor, she's re-thinking the game while in bed in the orphanage:

She blinked and looked at the dark ceiling overhead and forced herself to see the chessboard with its green and white squares. Then she put the pieces on their home squares: rook, knight, bishop, queen, king, and the row of pawns in front of them. Then she moved White's king pawn up to the fourth row. She pushed Black's up. She could do this! It was simple. She went on, beginning to replay the game she had lost.

Beth is eight years old. She does not often lose thereafter. The janitor's early gift of Modern Chess Openings (a classic of many editions) opens to her the world of chess scholarship.

Empathizing with the chessplayer

A chess player needs to have something of a monomania for the game to play it really well; to play at grandmaster level, monomania is an inadequate term. The development, and sometimes malformation, of Beth's character as she grows with her chess skills, is a major theme of the novel. It's a good story.

You do not need to be a chess expert to enjoy the novel. I am a very casual player myself. You should know the names of the pieces and their moves, and understanding descriptive notation such as Pawn to Queen's Bishop Four (P-QB4) is helpful.

We should be clear that The Queen's Gambit is not a history of fictional games, but a novel of a young chess player, with a number of her games and tournaments discussed in more or less detail as the plot requires. The suspense builds along with Beth's chess opportunities and challenges.

We gain some insight into the development and exercise of Beth's mental abilities, the tremendous focus and clarity of mind that certain people can bring to a rather abstract endeavor. Mastering chess involves shifting progressively deeper into a realm of symbols and rules. The chessboard is just sort of a notepad or erasable slate upon which are jotted down successive states of the players' inner processes.

In chess we may observe this in schematic; whereas abstract thinking in laboratory, battlefield, even desk-work in philosophy or music, there usually are many obscuring factors. Tevis' descriptions of how Beth visualizes her chessboard, the material of pieces, their situation, and (as she matures) the dynamic lines of force growing out of their positions and powers, I find clear and compelling.

Trade-offs for the queen

To keep The Queen's Gambit from becoming entangled in the real history of famous chess masters of this era, then-current grandmasters do not appear, and Beth's partners and opponents are fictional. Chess has a beloved and well-studied history, though, and the characters are well aware of earlier great names, household words of chess: Morphy, Lasker, Capablanca.

The Queen's Gambit is a specific opening maneuver in chess, one of the earliest studied, and now part of the repertoire. In general:

gambit, an opening in which one player offers to give up material, usually a pawn, sometimes a piece or more, in the expectation of gaining a positional advantage. Sometimes used loosely, especially in general literature, for any opening, the word is derived from the Italian gambetta, a wrestling term for tripping up the heels, and was first used in its chess sense by Ruy Lopez in 1561. ...

Queen's Gambit ... In the world championship match, 1927, all but 2 of the 34 games began with this opening. ...

David Hooper & Kenneth Whyld
The Oxford Companion to Chess

Beth is not a material girl. She is a chess player.


© 2005 Robert Wilfred Franson

The contrast is striking (socially, not in technique)
for modern girls growing up in chess:
Alexandra Kosteniuk,
or her page on Facebook: chessqueen

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