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Book Review of The Queen’s Gambit: Small Girl, Big Game

Posted: June 2, 2021

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A prodigiously talented, and orphaned, girl, enters the male-dominated world of competitive chess in the 80’s. A coming-of-age story told simply, yet well, by the author is a must-read for chess fans.

I picked up the novel The Queen’s Gambit, by Walter Tevis, after the Netflix series of the same name amassed tremendous reviews.

The story is of Beth Harmon, an orphan, with jaw-dropping prowess in chess. The first thing Beth is told about chess is that women don’t play chess. And yet, she falls in love with the game at first sight and is determined to learn. The janitor agrees to teach her new moves, but only if she excelled, which she does.

Later Beth gets adopted and travels to find her niche amidst people who never reckoned with a girl playing chess. At the tender age of twelve, she plays against men who are twice her age and have formal rankings and of course, wins! From there, Beth doesn’t look back. Her mom travels with Beth to all her tournaments, where Beth continues smashing down champions with awe-inspiring talent.

After losing her mom at 18 years, Beth trains along with another player. She defeats the world Champion and becomes closer to him. They both discuss, practice, analyse chess 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 drinking. Because Beth was fully engrossed in chess, she had no hobby or pastime. It affects her game as her concentration and physical health deteriorate.

How she recovers 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 before.

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 prowess that men not only accept defeat but also encourage her. She keeps winning and that’s how she shuts down those who think chess is a man’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. Teen age comes with alluring addictions, be it relationships, alcohol or drugs. Beth is at the 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 new moves or on revisiting past games and finding solutions.

The story also explores themes like adoption, addictions and orphanage life. Beth initially calls her mom, ‘Madam’. The 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 an older orphan to accept a 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.

The writing style 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 read, especially for anyone who likes or plays chess.

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