Review: The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis

Title: The Queen’s Gambit
Author: Walter Tevis
Format: E-book
Pages: 266
Genre: Historical Fiction

Reading Time: 4hrs 40mins
Date Finished: April 11, 2021

Content Warnings: Drug & alcohol abuse, molestation, racist language, sexist language, undiagnosed mental illness

What Worked For Me: Chess game descriptions, repercussions of drug & alcohol abuse, depiction of mania and passion
What Didn’t Work For Me: Choppiness in writing & scene changes

If you don’t know what the story is about, The Queen’s Gambit follows Beth, a female chess prodigy. She learns to play in the basement of her orphanage and begins entering tournaments when she gets adopted. Brilliant as she is, Beth struggles with substance abuse and constantly finds herself teetering the line between genius and madness while proving that chess isn’t just a sport for men.

After watching the Netflix Limited Series in a single weekend with Jemi, I decided to pick up the book to see how they compared. When it comes to TV or movie adaptations, I often like going back to the original book because it gives me a better idea of what the story is and what was changed. Sometimes, little plotlines and nuances get left out of screen adaptations too, so I take the chance to see what the author’s version was.

Early into the book, I decided to listen to the show’s score as I read. It ended up being one of the best things because the music helped remind me of the stunning visuals from the show. Anything that adds to the cinematic feel of the show is good to me. Plus, that score is so good, it’s worth listening to on its own.

There weren’t many differences between the book and show. The producers and writers kept pretty close to the original with exceptions to a few things like racist language and an instance of sexual assault that didn’t happen in the show. Other than that, little changed. I’m the kind of person who appreciates it when adaptations are faithful because I rarely find instances in which the show or movie is better than the book (Love, Rosie and Warm Bodies being exceptions). Admittedly, I was happy with the book’s choice of who Beth ended up with because it felt like a much better fit for her character and how Tevis’ writing focused on the different people in her life and their effects.

One of the things I noticed really early on is that the book lacks a lot of description. If you’ve seen the show, you know how absolutely stunning it is. The shots are framed beautifully, the editing is flawless, and they take time to immerse you into Beth’s world. It bothered me a bit at first, but I soon realized that we didn’t see much of Beth’s world in the book because she didn’t care about anything other than chess. Anything that wasn’t important to her wasn’t worth mentioning to the reader. The choppiness that I felt in the writing was another device to show how little Beth noticed and cared about things outside of chess. What we read were either moments when she played chess, the few things that took her away from playing, and how she fought against her drug and alcohol abuse. Nothing else mattered. And while it’s not something I normally like, I can appreciate the boldness of how it was used to tell Beth’s story.

The book deals with a lot of issues around addiction in Beth’s life. She started with drug addiction and moves into alcohol addiction when she’s a little older. Both of which do a lot to affect how she plays and lives her life. I didn’t know this until I was looking into the book a little more, but Tevis struggled with both forms of addiction as well, making his portrayal of it highly realistic. The descriptions of what it was like when Beth went through withdrawal, how she craved the feeling drugs and alcohol gave her, and what it did to chess skills were so vivid and powerful. The book really took time to lay out the battle going on within her. And I felt like the book’s portrayal of this struggle with addiction was different than the show. It wasn’t about using substances to make her better, it was about her body wanting to feel different and her mind needing to be clear to play chess. One would win for a period of time before the balance shifted again.

My understanding of chess is limited to knowing what the chess pieces are and how half of them move. I’ve also accidentally won one game against a friend. That’s it. However, the book includes diagrams of some of the chess games Beth studies. I can’t remember if there are any about the games she plays, but we get to see a little of what she learns when she starts out. Sure, it only makes partial sense to me, but I liked knowing what it looked like on the board before reading the explanation of why it was so genius. Again, this was an area where watching the show helped me understand a lot more because I’d seen what the games Beth played were like and how the pieces moved.

Having read this, I can say that I have a deeper appreciation for chess. It’s not a game I’ve managed to learn the rules of without major assistance, but I can appreciate how difficult and beautiful it is. Tevis spent years consulting with chess masters while writing this book, making sure that all the plays he wrote about were accurate and possible. He loved the game and wanted to do it justice, and the lengths he went through for that made the book so much better.

If I had to choose, I do have to say that I prefer the Netflix show for its stunning visuals. They took the absence of descriptions within the book and turned it into something cinematic. That and the soundtrack have my heart. Of course, Anya Taylor-Joy is also a vision on screen and she brings Beth to life in a way no other actress would be able to. I think the show captures the wild beauty of Beth’s story in a whole new capacity and does a fantastic job of adding dimension to a story that’s otherwise a bit hard to get through.

It’s not for everyone, but I want to re-read this book in physical form and re-watch the show again. The story is too beautiful to only experience once.

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