An Obsession with Chess: A Discussion of Walter Tevis’s “Queen's Gambit”

November 8, 2020

An Obsession with Chess: A Discussion of Walter Tevis’s “Queen's Gambit”

“Then she turned her gaze and her attention back to the board with its thirty-two pieces, each exerting its own silent force.”
- Walter Tevis (1928-1984)

Walter Tevis is best known for his three novels that were turned into major films: The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Now he’s also famous for this season’s hit miniseries, The Queen’s Gambit, currently at the top of the Netflix rankings.

The Queen’s Gambit is a book about chess and the girl who masters it. Beth Harmon is a sullen and unremarkable orphan until she plays her first game. By sixteen, she is playing chess at the U.S. Open Championship. The Queen’s Gambit follows the intense mental and existential pressures that a chess champion must endure in order to remain at the top of the game.

Stanford University’s “Another Look” book club took on Tevis’s overlooked masterpiece on January 29, 2019. The lively discussion was headed by Another Look’s founding director, the eminent novelist and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff. He was joined by acclaimed author Robert Pogue Harrison, a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, and former Stanford fellow Inga Pierson. Some in the audience considered it Another Look’s best event ever. Judge for yourself: the podcast of the discussion is below. (Tevis’s son, Will Tevis, remembers playing chess with his dad here.)

Tevis was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Sunset District. While his parents relocated to Kentucky, he spent a year in the Stanford Children’s Convalescent Home (which later became Stanford’s Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital). Hence, Another Look’s 2019 event was a homecoming for the author, who died in 1984.

“I live alone everywhere. Altogether everywhere alone.”


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