The Queen’s Gambit, by Walter Tevis, is one of those rare (not in that sense) books that no sooner had I finished it, I wanted to go back and start reading from the beginning. It’s that good.
It’s the coming-of-age story of Beth Harmon, orphaned at eight and sent to the Methuen Home in Kentucky, where she develops an institutionally-induced drug habit and an obsession with the game of chess.
I should ‘fess up and say I like chess and even play a little. Very little. Nothing like Beth, whose assent as a child chess prodigy inevitably takes her to the U.S.S.R. in a bid for the world championship. Unlikely, perhaps, for an orphaned eight-year-old who, as punishment for stealing tranquilizers from the infirmary, is forbidden from playing in her most formative years. But the narrative suspense doesn’t let you stop to ponder this.
On the other hand, Beth encounters very likely sexism in the sport (when she tells Methuen’s janitor that she wants to learn the game he plays solo in the boiler room, his curt reply beautifully sets up the battlefield: “‘Girls don’t play chess.'”) and spends most of the book warring with demons both on and off the board. She’s a brutally honest and interesting character study.
You don’t have to play chess to understand The Queen’s Gambit, but it helps to have some sympathy for the game’s seduction. Even so, Tevis describes the matches in a way that gives just enough details about the moves to convey their tense psychological and aggressive implications.
If you like the sound of that (or have read it already), then you can’t miss The Flanders Panel, by Arturo Perez-Reverte.
When a young art conservator begins work on Pieter Van Huys’ The Game of Chess, she uncovers an inscription hidden for nearly five centuries: Quis necavit equitem, or Who killed the knight?
A game of chess ensues both literally and metaphorically as the conservator tries to solve the historical riddle posed by the painting and those with less humanist interests make shady plays for the priceless van Huys.
What’s startling about this novel is not so much the chess playing (though it’s good here, too) as it is Perez-Reverte’s description of the painting. I did a little bit of research to see if Huys (Flemish, 1520-1584) in fact painted such a work as The Game of Chess. I don’t think he did — but you’d never guess it from the fine visual detail found in this book.
Capably translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, The Flanders Panel is available from Harvest. Again, well worth the investment.