The Queen's Gambit (novel)

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The Queen's Gambit
First edition
AuthorWalter Tevis
CountryUnited States
GenrePsychological thriller, suspense thriller
PublisherRandom House
Publication date

The Queen's Gambit is an American novel by Walter Tevis, exploring the life of a female chess prodigy. A bildungsroman, or coming of age story, it was originally published in 1983. It covers themes of adoption, feminism, chess, drug addiction, and alcoholism. The book was adapted for the 2020 Netflix miniseries of the same name.


The novel's epigraph is "The Long-Legged Fly" by William Butler Yeats. This poem highlights one of the novel's main concerns: the inner workings of genius in a woman. Tevis discussed this concern in a 1983 interview,[1][2] the year before his death.


In a New York Times interview published at the time of his book's release, Tevis stated the story is "a tribute to brainy women."[3] In an interview with its director Scott Frank at the time of the television miniseries' release, Pandolfini revealed[4] that Walter Tevis never had any intention to reference Bobby Fischer, the American young chess prodigy many commentators speculated was the obvious inspiration for his protagonist,[5][6][7][8][9] that had won the World Chess Championship a decade earlier.

Bruce Pandolfini consulted on the chess positions prior to publication, and suggested the book's final title "The Queen's Gambit", after the chess opening called "Queen's Gambit".[4][10] 38 years later he returned to consult on the Netflix adaptation.[4]


The Queen's Gambit traces chess prodigy Beth Harmon's life from her childhood in an orphanage through her struggles with tranquilizer and alcohol addiction to her triumphant rise through the Grandmaster ranks.

Eight-year-old orphan Beth Harmon is quiet, sullen, and by all appearances unremarkable—until she plays her first game of chess. Her senses grow sharper, her thinking clearer, and for the first time in her life she feels herself fully in control. By the age of sixteen, she's competing for the U.S. Open championship. But as she hones her skills on the professional circuit, the stakes get higher, her isolation grows more frightening, and the thought of escape becomes all the more tempting.

Literary significance and reception[edit]

The novel is difficult to classify, occupying a space between thriller, sports/game novel, and bildungsroman.

The Queen's Gambit is sheer entertainment. It is a book I reread every few years—for the pure pleasure and skill of it.

— Michael Ondaatje (cover of Vintage paperback edition, 2003)

It is also highly praised for the technical accuracy of its depictions of chess:

New Yorker's reviewer was especially enthused with the novelist's recreation of the obsessive world of chess, noting that Tevis "does succeed in conveying the cerebral suspense with which would-be World Champions live." Harold C. Schonberg, writing in the New York Times Book Review, confirmed that Tevis "reveals a great deal about the world of American Chess, with a final glance at how the Russians operate, and it is an exceptionally accurate picture that he draws." Schonberg added: "Beth Harmon may not be prepossessing, but she has the dedication of a Biblical saint, a freak memory and an ability to synthesize and create and blow her little world apart with a kind of startling originality that nobody else can match. That is what chess on its highest level is all about." (From Contemporary Authors Online, 2007, Gale Reference)

Tevis based the chess scenes on his own experience as a "class C" player and on his long study of the game. He elaborates on this in the Author's Note for the novel:

The superb chess of Grandmasters Robert Fischer, Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov has been a source of delight to players like myself for years. Since The Queen's Gambit is a work of fiction, however, it seemed prudent to omit them from the cast of characters, if only to prevent contradiction of the record. I would like to express my thanks to Joe Ancrile, Fairfield Hoban and Stuart Morden, all excellent players, who helped me with books, magazines, and tournament rules. And I was fortunate to have the warm-hearted and diligent help of National Master Bruce Pandolfini in proofreading the text and in helping me rid it of errors concerning the game he plays so enviably well.

Some criticisms from Edward Winter:

The author ... tends to show insufficient ingenuity in his artificially stylized accounts of chess tournaments (e.g. lack of draws and, in the interests of suspense, having Beth meet all her strongest opponents in the final round).[11]

Screen adaptation[edit]

In March 2019, Netflix ordered a limited seven-episode series based on the novel, also titled The Queen's Gambit. Anya Taylor-Joy plays the lead role of the series, while Scott Frank serves as writer, director, and executive producer.[12] It was released on October 23, 2020, to widespread attention, critical acclaim and huge popularity.[13][14]

There were two previous attempts to adapt the book, both unsuccessful. In 1983 The New York Times journalist Jesse Kornbluth acquired the screenplay rights but when Tevis died in 1984 the project was called off.[15] In 1992, Scottish screenwriter Allan Scott purchased the rights from Tevis' widow,[16] but nothing came of his planned art house film. In 2007 Scott was working with Heath Ledger on what would have been Ledger's directorial debut, before Ledger's death in January 2008.[17] Scott co-created and co-executive produced the 2020 Netflix series.[18]

Publication history[edit]

  • 1983, US, Random House
  • 2003, US, Vintage

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Tevis, Walter S. (February 15, 1983). "Walter Tevis Interview with Don Swaim" (Interview). Interviewed by Don Swaim. Archived from the original on March 24, 2016.
  2. ^ Tevis, Walter S. (February 15, 1983). "Transcript of Book Beat radio feature on Walter S. Tevis, broadcast circa March 2, 1983". Don Swaim Collection, Mahn Center for Archives & Special Collections (Interview). Interviewed by Don Swaim. Ohio University Libraries.
  3. ^
  4. ^ a b c Pandolfini, Bruce (November 2020). "The Queen's Gambit". Chess Life. pp. 30-.
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Also see Author's Note for the novel quoted below
  11. ^ Chess Note 877, by Edward Winter
  12. ^ Thorne, Will (March 19, 2019). "Anya Taylor-Joy to Star in 'The Queen's Gambit' Limited Series at Netflix". Variety. Retrieved March 20, 2019.
  13. ^
  14. ^ McHenry, Jackson (August 27, 2020). "The Queen's Gambit Trailer: Anya Taylor-Joy Dives Into Chess, Drugs, and More Chess". Vulture. Retrieved August 27, 2020.
  15. ^ Kornbluth, Jesse (January 23, 2011). "The Queen's Gambit -". Retrieved May 12, 2013.
  16. ^ Bruce Pandolfini, page 30, November 2020, Chess Life
  17. ^ sharp, rob (March 14, 2008). "Heath Ledger – a prophetic tragedy". Features, Film & TV. The Independent.
  18. ^

External links[edit]