In which I play the Cecilian Defense
I suspect I was always one nudge away from playing chess.
Growing up I might have had the makings of an enthusiast if I hadn’t devoted almost all my energies to literary pursuits. Or if I hadn’t been so troublesome at board games, a jealous player and a sore loser. Besides, whatever I chanced to learn about the game and its attendant environment was decidedly off-putting. Competitive chess seemed like an insular world full of…not very nice people. Through no fault of their own necessarily, but the trend is there. (Bobby Fischer was a noted misogynist.)
Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit and its Netflix incarnation, which I consumed in that order, seem largely to subscribe to this atmosphere. In a way, Beth Harmon is made for such a world. Orphaned at eight, she is quick to strategize, frank and open only when it suits her—hence her conscription of Mr. Shaibel, the orphanage janitor, to teach her the fundamentals of chess. She advocates for herself in a way that befits her situation, briskly and ruthlessly, asking questions and challenging authority until she has everything she needs to go after what she wants. This practice serves her incredibly well in her craft and also expedites her downfall.
Normally I’m wary of men writing women, so I suppose the fact that I regularly forgot that the author was male is a good sign. (Both Tevis and Nate Hawthorne did a pretty good job, and they’re the only ones who come to mind.) But then my experience of the book was filtered through a female voice on Audible; I felt the narrative firmly in a woman’s control. My impressions of certain characters were also influenced by the reader’s choices—for instance, she lent Alma Wheatley an accent that the actress in the series lacked, which highlighted the decisions (even the assumptions) I made about the character completely unconsciously. Always remember that the human voice is an instrument of power.
The book reads like a meticulous step-by-step thought process. Beth approaches her goals, from winning a match to scoring extra tranquilizers, with the same steady method and the same unbound desire behind it. This blind forge ahead, letting the reader know no more than she knows, makes for a narrative which often entranced me. The series brings that thought process to life with arresting visuals; I liked watching Beth tear open the canopy on her bed for a better mental picture of the board on her ceiling. And the small details are just as revealing, like the hotel room scene where Beth and her mother drink beer together for the first time, their legs crossed identically, foreshadowing a perilous life cycle. It won’t be long before Alma is gone, and by then Beth is on a self-destructive path.
In both the book and the series, I appreciated Alma’s nuance and depth. She is an active participant in her adoptive daughter’s story; she commits to her maternal role, doing a significant part to help Beth along to success (saddling her with emotional baggage, too, but hey, parents). She pursues independence; she has a fling with Manuel in Mexico City; she plays the piano, and is eventually able to accept the praise of listeners. It made me realize how many Orphan Stories default to neglectful, abusive, or just plain absent adults. Mr. Alton Wheatley fits that stereotype, showing little regard for anyone’s welfare but his own, and it would be too easy for Alma to check out after he abandons her. But she subverts our expectations and determines to change her life; by investing in Beth, she invests in herself. Not to mention she gets a sex life, which we hardly ever see for middle-aged women. Take that, Dickens!
As Beth’s circle widens, other likable folk enter her orbit. The Russian boy Girev wants to know all about drive-in movies. Viewers see Benny Watts as an amusing, intriguing Lone Ranger type; readers know him as meeker-looking, though certainly no less capable of blowing up at her when she asks him to join her in Moscow. And then there’s my bid for the greatest character—Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jo-leeeeeene!—with whom Beth’s relationship is much more complicated in the novel than in the series. One day at the orphanage Beth calls her, to her face, a word we don’t say anymore. This exchange comes on the heels of a sexual encounter Jolene tries to initiate while Beth lies awake immersed in her ceiling game. They are, respectively, thirteen and nine.
Jolene backs off when Beth rejects her, steering clear of assault. But in light of Beth’s own encounters later on, I would classify the scene as queer-baiting: leading us to believe queerness will be a plot point or source of self-actualization for the protagonist, then never bringing that idea to fruition and making her by all appearances heterosexual. What’s more, the experience affects Beth’s future perceptions—sex consistently disappoints her, whether with Harry Beltik or Benny or anyone else. There is no ‘redeeming’ moment, as in the series when she is with Benny in New York and gasps, “That’s what it’s supposed to feel like!”
Perhaps all that was a bit too real for Netflix. Too little glamour, too much grit.
Anyway, these personalities collectively softened me toward Beth and induced me to feel for her in a way I probably would not have otherwise. I found her too calculating at times, especially in the novel—now I will drink, now I will have sex, now I will fly in a plane—narrowing her itemized list in accordance with how she thinks a human life ought to be spent. Her maturing did strike me as more organic onscreen than on the page, for what it’s worth.
I recognized a bit of myself in her, which could explain my wariness. While I can’t remember having played a single full game of chess, I can remember sharing Beth’s ambition to be the youngest, sharpest, fastest in the room. In the series, when she crosses paths with Townes in Las Vegas, he tells her she has outgrown ‘prodigy’ status, an observation which in the novel is reserved for her own inner monologue. This only adds to the pressure. The ambition, and accompanying paranoia, is as self-sustaining as it is corrupting: the longer you stay at the top of your field, the farther you’ll go to maintain your post, and the more distorted your worldview becomes.
Over the course of the narrative, including at the end, I wished to see Beth truly love something or someone. The novel’s third-person narrator remarks during her fateful match with world champion Vasily Borgov that the only thing she is certain that she loves is “a win.” Having journeyed with her, I understand the attachment. But I feel I have yet to see her truly happy. Even winning at chess she takes with the detachment and cool composure that she brings to playing it. And the hunger, always the hunger. Each win spurs her on to a bigger, better, more prestigious win.
Either that, or I wanted to see her lose to Borgov. Face up to her own shortcomings—including the permanent repercussions of her addictions—then ready herself for a comeback, like Scarlett O’Hara scheming to win back Rhett Butler.
Now, you jaded readers know as well as this jaded writer does that life provides few proper resolutions. I don’t claim that the story should end with one. Since she begins with herself and chess, though, I hoped Beth would finish with something more than…herself and chess. Maybe it’s all she needs. Maybe her telephone teamwork with Benny and the guys, brief reunion with Jolene, and frenmity (??) with Borgov are enough for her. Obviously she plans to vie for the title in two years’ time. If she’s satisfied, well, far be it from me to begrudge a fictional character her solitary success.
One final note: had it been up to me, my instinct would have been to call it The Sicilian Defense, given Beth’s long-standing affinity for the move. But I can see how the author arrived at his title.
Image: from E3, “Doubled Pawns,” during a classic erotic setup—a photo shoot, courtesy of Townes—that goes wrong