21 November 2021

Character References

Queen's Gambit, girl and chessboard

The Netflix miniseries Queen’s Gambit led me to check out the novel from my local library. I was charmed. Walter Tevis chronicles the professional life of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, an orphan who rises above her expectations.

Her journey reminds me of the vicissitudes of Bobby Fischer, America’s erratic genius. When Fischer faced off against his friend and relentless Russian competitor Boris Spassky in Reykjav√≠k, for the first time the US saw Fischer and Spassky’s battle televised move for move. Those of us with an interest in chess enjoyed the showdown.

When Queen’s Gambit appeared on Netflix, those days came back to me. I was immediately captivated. I’m going to preach heresy– I liked the series slightly better than the novel.

Film has advantages over words on a page and one here was the portrayal of chess on the ceiling. (You have to see it to get what I mean.) Beyond that, the miniseries offered a few subtle enhancements. For example, Beth learns Russian and happens to overhear an opinion about her… a critical opinion that gives her a chance to assess the destructive path she’s taking.

Top chess players often suffer a touch of madness, Fischer among them. The great Paul Morphy committed suicide. Few women play. It might be sexism or women may be too smart to pursue chess. The actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, perfectly portrays that touch of something not-quite-right and does it in an endearing way.

In both book and on screen, the players (her competitors), her mentors, and especially her step-mother are well drawn. Unfortunately, the novel’s sketch of her primary Soviet opponent reminds one of a boar-like Leonid Brezhnev. The movie version opted for a sophisticated, elegantly dressed family man, which carries much better.

The series outlines that male habit of being cautious of interlopers until they prove themselves. Beth’s biggest fans become those she defeats. She earns their respect, unstinting admiration and, in one case even love.

The ending of the miniseries is well done, a fitting ending to a poignant story.


In both book and film, I level a criticism about a small but important lost opportunity. The story opens with Beth’s mother crashing her car into a steel bridge. Later, her childhood friend Jolene asks, “What’s the last thing your mother said to you?”

Beth answers, “Close your eyes.”

Absolutely chilling, or it would have been except both the book and the film felt they had to add background, diluting that simple answer down to nothing. Therein, I thought, lay a lesson.

Oh, the cover, Queen’s Gambit… sheer genius.

chessboard with bottles of booze and pills


  1. I'm another fan of the TV series which was uniformly well acted. I'd like to read some of Walter Tevis's other novels, at least a couple of which were, I think, also filmed.

    1. He's had 3 or 4 novels brought to the screen, Janice, such as the Hustler and The Color of Money. The Man Who Fell to Earth sounds terribly depressing, so I probably won't watch it.

  2. I'm late to the game, but I do plan to watch Queen's Gambit very soon!

    1. I think you'll enjoy it, Eve. Harmon is a striking character.

  3. What I remember about Fischer-Spassky was watching Shelby Lyman, the chief TV chess commentator. At the beginning he was terrible at it and we got to watch him learn his craft day by day. People like me who didn't understand or care much about chess would tune in just to watch Shelby. I remember he would turn to the low-tech chess diagram to show us what was going on and get so fascinated with possibilities he would forget to talk... Charming.

  4. Oh, I know I will, Leigh. Back in the day I was kind of a chess hustler myself. Most guys in the 1970s believed that women couldn't play, or not play well. What they didn't know was that my father was a Master level chessplayer, and he taught me to play. In order to survive in a game I had to come up with all kinds of unorthodox moved, some of which worked. I had fun.

  5. Queen's Gambit, which has long been on my to-watch list, is now head of the queue after today's intriguing taste test - many thanks.

    1. I love chess, and loved The Queen's Gambit.

      Enjoyed the column, Leigh!

  6. Sorry, no The. Just Queen's Gambit.


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