The Queens Gambit by Walter Tevis

Usually, my main focus when I read is to enjoy it, but that doesn’t mean those books can’t be educational, or enlightening. If nothing else, they are often about the human condition and that has been good enough for me on many an occasion. Recently I’ve read a book about how to survive in the Canadian wilderness, which although I can’t recommend on here due to the fact that it was a bit of a mess, I still found that when I finished, I’d learnt about various methods of trapping bears, how to clear 10ft snow from the track and also how to make jam out of cloud berries. If anyone’s keen to read that, let me know and I’ll share the details (don’t all rush me at once though, one at a time…..)

This book which I’ve just finished, The Queens Gambit, which in all honesty is the first in ages that I’ve felt inclined to write about, is all about chess. It’s a simple tale, a girl, Beth, (who is an orphan) discovers at a young age that she can play chess. And not that she can just play, but that she seems to have a gift for it. The story follows her from childhood, into young adulthood, while she plays chess with various levels of professionals, until she finds herself in Russia, playing the grandmasters.

It’s an unlikely story for me to get enthused about I’ll admit. A lot of the book is literal games, watching over Beth’s shoulder whilst she tries to figure out ways to beat these men (and it’s always men, the book is set in mid century USA where chauvinism is alive and well, especially in the chess arena).

She’s a lonely figure, with very few social skills, lacking in charisma and empathy, so she isn’t particularly endearing. But – chess is a game of intense concentration – where the players pit their wits against each other in a battle which may as well be with knives and swords, attacking and defending their precious pieces, with consequences of each and every move. It is completely engrossing and really exciting.

Whilst I read it, I was so committed to Beth, who was not only playing a game of chess at a superior level, she was proving to the world that just because she was young and female, it didn’t mean that she wasn’t worthy. She doesn’t make her life easy for herself but that just makes you root for her even more. Against all the odds, she plays against these men, who have made their lives the game, and surround themselves with people who can advance them in their quest to be the ultimate grandmaster. Beth is on her own for most of her life and yet she is still taking them on. It’s exhilarating.  

I’m not going to pretend that I will now go and learn the Sicilian opening or study Kasparov’s games to further my knowledge (sounds good though doesn’t it) but I may well learn how to play the basic game again and challenge my nine year old to a match. And I love that I got that enthusiasm just from a book. A highly recommended read.


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