It was the spring of 1983. On a long plane trip, I started THE
QUEEN'S GAMBIT by Walter Tevis, a just-published novel I'd bought
on impulse. And I was gobsmacked. Tevis --- author of THE MAN WHO
FELL TO EARTH and THE HUSTLER (and, later, THE COLOR OF MONEY) ---
had written a book that, very simply, could not be put down. The
woman who would become my first wife tried to talk to me; 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.
When I got off the plane, I called the publisher about the film
rights. A few months later, I was writing the greatest script I
will probably ever undertake. Everyone wanted to star in it,
everyone 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 will never get the film
made. The book went out of print.
In 1986, when we started bookreporter.com, we decided to serialize
a novel. Inevitably, we chose THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT. We had to pay
$500, a fortune for us. But the payoff was huge. Our readers loved
it --- we got scores of e-mails from people who'd printed the
chapters out and put them into binders so they could pass it on to
friends. We sent some of these letters to publishers. But the book
stayed out of print.
Two decades later, it's available again --- there is, at long last,
a paperback edition.
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.
I tell you: THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT is "Rocky" for smart people.
I tell you: You will care about Beth Harmon more than any fictional
character you've encountered in years and years.
I tell you: You will grasp the wrench of loneliness --- and the
power of love --- as if this book were happening to you.
Do you need to know anything about chess? Nope. Nothing. Tevis was
a storyteller whose genius was to tell great stories; there's
nothing between you and the people.
Suggestion for a memorable evening: Buy two copies. Pick a friend
or relative who loves to read. Hand him/her the book (and a box of
Kleenex.). Start reading in the same room. See what happens.
My bet: You too 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 wimps play.
Reviewed by Jesse Kornbluth on January 23, 2011
The Queen's Gambit