'The Queen's Gambit' interview with author Walter Tevis Noah Adams speaks with author Walter Tevis about his novel The Queen's Gambit. Tevis tells the story of orphan Beth Harmon, her struggle with addiction and her triumph as a female chess prodigy.

Novelist Explores Chess, Addiction And Mastery In 'The Queen's Gambit'

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Many years ago, Walter Tevis wrote a novel about pool players. The story was made into quite a famous motion picture called "The Hustler." Walter Tevis writes about the game of chess in his newest book. It's called "The Queen's Gambit." And he opens the book with some poetry from Yeats. (Reading) That the topless towers be burnt and men recall that face. Move gently, if you must, in this lonely place. She thinks - part woman, three parts a child - that nobody looks. Her feet practice a tinker shuffle picked up on a street. Like a long-legged fly upon the stream, her mind moves upon silence.

"The Queen's Gambit" is the story of Beth Harmon, who lives in Kentucky in the 1950s. Beth Harmon is 8 years old.

WALTER TEVIS: Her parents have just been killed in a car wreck. She's been thrown into an orphanage, a supposedly Christian one that's supposed to take care of her soul. She is frightened. She's neurotic. She's shy. And she probably wouldn't make it, emotionally, if it weren't for the fact that when she's sent down to the basement one time to clean erasers for arithmetic class, she sees the fat, somewhat mean janitor down there sitting at a chessboard, playing chess by himself. She gets absorbed in what he's doing and eventually forces him almost to teach her how to play chess.

And this is kind of an emotional salvation for her - this and the tranquilizers that they hand out at the orphanage in order to keep the kids quiet. She learns to save up her tranquilizers so that she can get high on them on a Saturday night and that sort of thing.

ADAMS: At age 8, she is both a chess genius, and she's addicted to tranquilizers.

TEVIS: She sure is. She's addicted to chess and the tranquilizers, and neither one of them is necessarily going to set her up for a happy or easy life. That's something she's going to have to learn to deal with as she moves along. I stopped the book with her at the age of 19. She by no means has her emotional problems solved, but I feel that she's on her way.

ADAMS: She moves up through the world of chess - in fact, going to the Soviet Union to play there.

TEVIS: Right.

ADAMS: And also dealing with alcohol and sex along the way.

TEVIS: Right, right. Doesn't deal with alcohol or sex quite as successfully as she does with chess.

(Reading) There were more people gathered in the top boardsroom (ph) than before. As games ended, they came in to watch the finals. She pushed by them, stepped over the rope and sat down. Her hands were perfectly steady, and her stomach and eyes felt fine. She reached out and moved. She punched the clock firmly. Beltik studied the move for a few minutes and then took her knight with his bishop, as she knew he would. She did not retake. She brought a bishop over to attack one of his rooks. He moved the rook out of the line of fire. He had to. She felt the blood rush into her cheeks, as she brought her queen from the back to the center of the board. It now threatened to take the rook, pin the king's knight pawn and could take the bishop with a check. She looked at Beltik. He was studying the board and rolling up his sleeves. His clock was ticking.

ADAMS: There is a great deal of tension when you write about the scenes of the chess games during the tournaments. And I wonder - I have played a little bit, so I understand a little bit about it, but I certainly can't follow the games. I wonder how the book is reading for people who don't know chess.

TEVIS: I hope the people who don't know chess will be able to sense the entire range of excitement that the game affords to those who do understand it. I'm trying to concentrate on the emotional responses between players. What I did in the past, as I just read, I'm concerned with the way Beltik acts. I'm concerned with the way that Beth feels. I'm concerned with what they say to one another. What I care about is the tension, the excitement, the fear that is involved in this, in some ways, purest of all games.

ADAMS: And somehow getting us closer to understanding the obsession that a chess master would have.

TEVIS: That's something I try to give. And I hope that I have been able to portray what that kind of person is like in Beth.

ADAMS: Her emotional problems - is that, in a way, a statement about information you've come across, research you've done, people you've met, top-level chess players who are obsessed with the game to the extent that everything else becomes not important and, in many ways, nonoperational?

TEVIS: Oh, it's not based on my research with chess players. I have met a lot of professional chess players, and they cover the usual range of humanity. Best experience, to some extent, is drawn on my own. When I was a child, I was put in a convalescent hospital because I was diagnosed as having heart trouble. And I found that that institution, which was presumably dedicated to taking care of the young, was in many ways, for me, very damaging. It was a frightening and damaging experience.

ADAMS: After Beth has grown up a bit - she's probably 18 or 19 - and has won a lot of tournaments, she goes - and has had a lot of publicity. Her picture has been on the cover of Life magazine. She goes back to the Kentucky orphanage where she was raised, and she goes down - back down to that basement where the janitor taught her how to play chess, and it's a nice scene. Would you tell us what happens there, please?

TEVIS: Sure. She goes in with some trepidation. She hasn't been in this orphanage now for years and years. She's grown up now. And she goes down into the basement, and there's the place in front of the furnace where she used to play chess and the old, dusty milk crate she used to sit on when she was learning the game.

And she looks along a wooden wall near the furnace on which the old man had kept calendars at one time, and she sees that the wall is covered with clippings from newspapers, from magazines, the Life magazine cover, various articles on her. Her picture's there about 18 different times at different stages of her life and her career in chess. And she breaks down and cries when she sees it. She had not realized until this point that the man had really loved her and cared about her.

ADAMS: Talking with us from New York, Walter Tevis. His book is called "The Queen's Gambit."

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