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15 April 2015

Walter Tevis:The Queen's Gambit

“Would you like to play chess?”
This is a wonderful book about a remarkable character. "With some people chess is a pastime, with others it is a compulsion, even an addiction... every now and then a person comes along for whom it is a birthright." This person is Beth Harmon - "she is quiet and well-mannered. And (when she plays chess) she is out for blood..." She hates to lose.

Beth Harmon was orphaned at the age of eight when her parents were killed in an automobile accident. She is placed in an orphanage in Kentucky that is almost a modern equivalent of a Dickensian orphanage, with children given tranquilisers twice a day to keep them calm and controllable - opening the gates to long-term addictions..

One day when cleaning the board erasers in the basement for a teacher, Beth comes across an old janitor playing chess alone. After several attempts the janitor agrees to show her how to play chess, and she goes over the moves in her head during the lonely hours when she can't sleep. It takes three games for Beth to win her first game and in three months the janitor can no longer beat her. Then he gives her a book - "Modern Chess Openings" - and Beth is addicted to chess for life, playing chess movements and strategy in her mind in class and in bed at night.

At thirteen she wins a local chess Tournament. With the help of her foster-mother by the age of sixteen she is competing in the US Open Championship. Her ultimate challenge is to go to Russia to face and beat the Russian world champions.

While it helps to know something about chess is not important because the late Walter Tevis wrote in a way that even if you don't understand what is really happening you are part of the action and this keeps you on the edge of your seat, barracking for Beth. If you are a chess "expert" you might find errors in the game and strategic descriptions, but you need to remember that chess is the vehicle Tevis uses to tell us a wonderful tale that could also apply to almost any competitive game.

The Queen's Gambit is a more than a story about chess - it is fundamentally a thriller with the same kind of adrenaline filled action that takes you into the heat of battle in a similar way that Bernard Cornwell takes you with Richard Sharpe into the heart of battles between the British and the French in the Napoleonic wars. All along I had to remind myself that chess is fundamentally a battlefield game between sides with a King and Queen, who live in castles protected by knights, supported by their Bishops, with an army of Pawns (soldiers). Let battle commence!

This is an exciting and beautifully crafted book which had a profound effect on me emotionally. It has gone straight to my best list of best reads of 2015 and will stay in my memory for a long time. Highly recommended.

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