As I’ve gotten older, I’ve shrugged off my manly man view of what real sports are. Cheerleading is a sport. Golf is a sport. Bowling is a sport. And for God’s sake, chess is a sport. I’d rather get sacked by Aaron Donald than try and sit in front of a grandmaster and play them at chess.
A few years ago, I read Michael Weinreb’s entertaining The Kings of New York about a chess team at Brooklyn’s Edward R. Murrow High School. Weinreb, a writer who usually entertains me, did a great job not just describing the plight of the students but how the sport impacted them as well. Walter Tevis does the same with a fictional take on a chess prodigy that rises from an orphanage to become an international sensation.
There are basically two ways to analyze The Queen’s Gambit: the character of Beth and how the chess is described. The former is interesting, although I wish Harmon had done a better job building up her supporting cast. I know it’s tough for adoptees to build relationships but Tevis doesn’t allow much intimacy between Beth and those close around her. People come and go for the convenience of narrative. Beth herself is a compelling character and I enjoyed seeing how her story unfolded; Tevis does a great job with the difficulties of being a prodigy and dealing with addiction. But what keeps the story from being great is Beth’s non-chess environment.
However, what almost catapults the story to greatness is the descriptions of the chess matches. You may not think one can make chess sound exciting but Tevis does a great job here. By going at length on the stakes of who Beth is competing against, the matches acquire a life-or-death feel. This is what makes a truly great sports book and why I think it’s one of the best sports books I’ve ever read.
I don’t know how they’re gonna stretch the story into seven episodes on Netflix but given the hype around it, I’m exited to see it anyway.