The Queen’s Gambit: Small girl, Big game

The Queen’s Gambit: Small girl, Big game

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A modern classic about a troubled chess prodigy and her battle to survive --- a coming of age story of feminism, chess and addiction

I picked up the novel The Queen’s Gambit (by Walter Tevis, published originally in 1983) after the Netflix series with the namesake amassed tremendous reviews. 

The story is of Beth, an orphan child, with jaw-dropping prowess in chess. The first thing Beth is told about chess is that women don’t play chess. Yet she falls in love with the game at the first sight and is stubborn to learn. Her janitor would teach her new moves only if she excelled, which she does. Later Beth gets adopted and travails to find her niche amidst people who never reckoned a girl playing chess. At the tender age of twelve, she plays against men who are twice her age and have formal ratings and of course, wins. From there, Beth doesn’t look back. She travels along with her mom to all her tournaments, smashing down champions with awe-inspiring talent. 

After losing her mom at around 18, Beth trains along with another player. She strides forward to defeat a world Champion and becomes closer to him. They both discuss, practice, analyse vigorously and hone their game. However, she ends up losing two significant games and has a tiff with her adopted father as well. She spends days locked inside her house doing nothing but drink. Because Beth was engrossed in chess, she had no hobby or pastime. It affects her game as her concentration and physical health deteriorate. 

How she recuperates from the trauma and emerges the winner, forms the rest of the story. She plays The Queen’s Gambit, a strategic sequence of moves in chess, to win against the very player she lost to. 

Beth Harmon is focused, skilled and resolute. In a game where she is often the only female player, she makes her indelible mark. Such is her game that men not only accept defeat but also encourage her. She keeps winning and that’s how she shuts those who think chess is a men’s game. Beth’s journey is a paradigm to the saying, Work hard in silence; let your success make the noise. In any field that was male-dominated for ages, women have thus birthed a change; by winning and showing the gender roles their place. 

We unknowingly become Beth’s cheerleaders in her picturesque journey. The ending leaves us wanting for more of Beth’s success, her game and of course her personal growth. The author takes us through the life of a teenager, which isn’t a smooth road for anyone. Teenage comes with alluring addictions, be it relationships, alcohol or drugs. Beth is at a crossroad of chess, relationships, fame and addiction. She finds her path and keeps moving from victory to victory. 

In chess, it is the queen that rules over the 64 squares. The queen is omnipotent and can attack from any direction. That’s what Beth is in her life – a queen. For someone who loves chess, Beth could be an inspiration, for nothing can take her hand away from the black and white battlefield. Beth lives and breathes chess. She plays games in her mind before sleeping and revises moves while doing almost anything. Such determination comes only from ardent love and passion for the game. Chess lovers will relate to that surge of excitement on seeing a new set of pieces, on learning a new set of moves or on revisiting past games and finding solutions. 

The story also explores themes like adoption, addictions and orphanage life, secondarily. Beth initially calls her mom as Madam. A particular scene where she uses “Mother” for the first time is so unadorned and straight out of the heart. She shares an adorable relationship with her mother, or rather, friend. It isn’t easy for a grownup orphan to accept her family, especially for an introvert like Beth. 

Beth’s haughty father, her friend from the orphanage, her orphanage staff and the other players, who are male, are all a part of her journey, in their own way. Beth has something to learn from each of them. She had a unique relationship with each of them; nevertheless, her staunchest relationship was with chess. 

I have nothing to say about the writing style – it is flawless and has a simple language. The female perspective in a largely male-dominated game (then) deserves recognition. The Queen’s Gambit is an intense and outstanding ode to one of the most intellectual games in history. 

A must, must read, especially for anyone who likes or plays chess.

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