Sunday 8 May 2022


 'Sometimes, her head reeling, she would feel in the depth of her stomach an anger as intense as the pain of a burst abscess in the jaw- a toothache so potent that nothing but drink could alleviate it. Sometimes the drink had to be forced against a rejection of it by her body, but she did it. She would get it down and wait and the feelings would subside a bit. It was like turning down the volume.'

Like many, I watched The Queen's Gambit on Netflix and delighted in the production. Captivated by the opening, it also was something of a slow-burner for me as I was unsure the substance would prevail over the style. I should have had no doubts and in the end I was totally satisfied. 

Which led me to the book. 

I had a similar experience of watching a Walter Tevis story before seeing it on the page almost forty years ago. I went to see The Hustler at the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill. Part of the attraction was the promise of a free book, something I couldn't wait to read after watching the film again and the experience was totally rewarding. It was the same all over again with this one. 

The first thing I realised was that the adaptation of The Queen's Gambit is loyal to the original story. Not only does the sequence work, the characters may well have emerged straight from the pages.  

We open at the orphanage where Beth Harmon is to live out her early years. It's a cold place in the main and she has to squirrel away the grains of comfort where she can. These grains come in the form of an older girl, Jolene, the little green pills given out every day and the visits to the basement to learn about chess from the janitor there. 

Chess is the perfect world for Beth to occupy. Everything is in black and white, which is pretty much the way she understands most of the people she encounters. It soon becomes her preoccupation and, along with the medication, keeps her going. She visualises boards and games with a stunning understanding of the rules and memory for what she has learned from books and it's not long before she comes to the attention of a local chess club organiser. Being allowed to leave the orphanage for a tournament is no small thing and the experience is totally alien to her, as is a chess world that isn't ready to accept a newcomer of any kind, let alone one coming in the form of a young girl. 

Suffice to say, she's an amazing player and is required to overcome a series of issues in order to maximise her potential. 

Given that my chess knowledge is limited, the descriptions of the games make them hugely exciting; they're so good that I had to stifle cheers and tears when reading on the train. The characters are all sharply defined and even those who occupy little space are distinctive and interesting, particularly when seeing them through Beth's filter. Best of all, the notions of compulsion and addiction are plainly explored in a matter-of-fact way that really rang true to this particular reformed reader. 

The Queen's Gambit is truly a wonderful thing. Perhaps the images and the Technicolor merged into the words from the TV series, but I was too engrossed to give that much thought. Highly recommended whether you've watched or you haven't. 

Now back to searching out that old copy of The Hustler.