It seems EVERYONE is watching Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit and raving about it.
I for one, loved it and recommended it to friends straight away. The unlikely story of a young female chess prodigy is riveting in part because of Anya Taylor-Joy‘s mesmerizing performance, the direction by co-creator’s Scott Frank and Alan Scott, as well as the art direction, locations, costumes and cinematography, all top-notch.
But the feminist pop icon Beth Harmon is now was created in 1983 by Walter Tevis, author of the book by the same name. He also wrote a few other screen-adapted books you might have heard of; The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Hustler and The Color of Money.
According to The Ringer;
“At the time of the book’s publication, Walter Tevis, despite having been a celebrated and successful writer in the early 60s, had vanished from public life for 17 years.
Tevis was born in San Francisco in 1928, and learned to play chess at the age of 7. When he was 9 he was diagnosed with rheumatic heart and Sydenham’s chorea and was placed in a convalescent home for a year. While he was committed there, his parents abandoned him and moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where they were originally from.
Beth Harmon’s fictional life mirrors Tevis’s own. She grows up in an orphanage, where at the age of 8 she learns the game of chess from a janitor. She becomes addicted to tranquilizers given to her and the other children in order to keep them calm and subdued. The young Tevis was drugged in the convalescent home three times daily with phenobarbital.
Eventually, Tevis’s family sent him a train ticket to Kentucky, paid for by a family friend. His parents were strict.”
Tevis says of his own childhood,
“I was brought up by a very castrating mother.”
My father was an alcoholic, too, but he wouldn’t admit it, and my mother wouldn’t acknowledge the problem.”
Tevis told The San Francisco Examiner that life in Kentucky made him feel like he had
“come from outer space.”
(*See The Man Who Fell to Earth)
Tevis found comfort in playing pool. (*See The Hustler & The Color of Money)
“The Lexington poolrooms rescued me.”
Tevis wrote a book titled This Lovely Green, but after his agent sold the book, he worried it would be mistaken for a book on gardening, so they retitled it The Hustler.
Tevis used the movie money to move his young family to Mexico and work on his follow-up (a science-fiction novel about an alien who winds up in Kentucky…)
It was in Mexico that Tevis started drinking heavily,
“I grabbed the money that I made from the movie and I went to live in Mexico and I discovered that you could get gin for 80 cents a liter.
I stayed drunk for eight months.”
He didn’t write another book for nearly two decades. What he did do was drink and play chess. (* See The Queen’s Gambit)
Tevis devoted himself to studying chess with the book Modern Chess Openings, the one Beth reads in the orphanage that ignites her love of the game. He started playing in local tournaments… and lost every game.
But all was not lost. In addition to writing a magazine article about his experience, he hung out in Vegas and found inspiration for The Queen’s Gambit.
In the early 70s chess was popular in the U.S, due mostly to the young Bobby Fischer winning the World Championship two years before. Tevis always loved chess as an intellectual pursuit, but hadn’t fully appreciated its competitive flamboyance and rebelliousness until seeing Fischer. In a piece he wrote for Atlantic Monthly he said,
“I’ve never seen a clearer case of the killer instinct written on a young man’s face. … I’ve seen the Nashville Bear shoot pool; I’ve watched Wimpy Lassiter, Rags Ragland … I’ve watched the Ufala Kid shoot nine ball for 20 hours straight in Lexington, Kentucky. Those men are all killers—born winners—and I’ve tried a few of them on a table. But I wouldn’t play croquet with Bobby Fischer.”
A book about chess seems as an unlikely choice for a book then as a Netflix series about the subject does now. By 1983 the 70s burning obsession for the game was just an ember. But his inspiration for it didn’t stop at the game. Tevis said,
“Many players [of both chess and pool] are loners trying to escape from personal problem. I like writing about people who are somewhat outcasts from society. … Highly intelligent, out of place characters.
I like to write about alienation.”
Tevis moved to New York City and followed Queen’s Gambit with The Color of Money, a sequel to The Hustler. He immediately sold the film rights and the movie won Paul Newman his first Oscar, burnished a young Tom Cruise‘s rising star and was a big box office hit.
But Tevis never got to revel in the adulation. Eight days after the book was published, he died of lung cancer. He was 56.
In 2020 the success of the series has sent many to their computers to Google “Elizabeth Harmon” only learn her story is a 34 year-old work of fiction.
But there’s a LOT of Walter Tevis in Beth Harmon.
(Photos, Netflix, Tevis family, Wikipedia; via The Ringer)