By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

By the Book #12 – The Queen’s Gambit by Walter Tevis

Did you love The Queen's Gambit on Netflix? Did you know it was based on a novel by Walter Tevis? It's a riveting read - and so very clever. Why? Read on!

Game of chess, anyone? I bet the game’s popularity has skyrocketed since The Queen’s Gambit has become such a huge success on Netflix. I’m not a chess player myself, but it sure looked amazing when I saw it on tv. What most people don’t know, however, is that the series is based on a novel by Walter Tevis. When I found out, I ran to the nearest bookstore, bought a copy, and started reading. Want to know why you should, too? Read on!

The Queen’s Gambit has a deceptively straight-forward plot: an orphaned girl, Beth Harmon, discovers at a young age that she’s an exceptional chess player. Her life seems to be perfect at first glance, but she has a dark side that she keeps hidding. She is addicted to tranquillisers and alcohol, which affects her game and her ability to open up to other people. Her life resembles a pawn in the game she loves so much: only allowed to go one way, and constantly in danger of being exchanged for a more valuable piece – but also capable of turning into the most powerful piece of the game as soon as she’s reached the other end.

In The Queen’s Gambit, nothing is as simple as it looks. Take the game of chess, for instance: while it looks easy (white against black, and white moves first), it is quite the opposite. As soon as the opening move has been made, the possibilities are endless. This is why I’m a dreadful chess player: I can’t see ahead more than one move. Beth, however, is able to play the game in her mind, and anticipates every single move that could be made against her. To her, the game is structured and comforting, and it’s the real world that confuses her.

The Queen’s Gambit is filled with such contrasts: life confined within the sixty-four squares on the chess board versus the real world, fake comforts versus real ones, casual acquaintances versus friendship, addiction versus independence, confidence versus insecurity, and childhood versus adulthood. And it’s these last two opposing themes that make this book so heartbreaking: Beth has never truly grown up, nor does she know how to. Even though her chess skills are compared to those of someone twice her age, she is still a little girl when she’s not playing. It also doesn’t help that her time at the orphanage made her determined to rely only on herself; whenever she faces a setback, she withdraws into herself and tries to alleviate her pain with drugs and alcohol (and dreading with each drink that she’s destroyed her brain and thus her one gift).

It is only at the very end of the novel that she realises that she has not only been playing her opponents, but also herself. Ultimately, it finally dawns on her that her nemesis is not the grandmaster who managed to beat her twice, but herself. Only then is she able to reconcile Chess Beth and Real Beth: by accepting that chess is more than a game. In fact, her final match could mean a win against Russia, which America hasn’t done in a long time. However, she can’t win on her own. She needs to accept the fact that she might need help. In order to do so, however, she needs to grow up. She needs to transform from a pawn into a queen.

Walter Tevis isn’t the first one to compare life with a game of chess. While reading, I was constantly reminded of Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, which deals with similar themes, albeit in a more fantasy-like setting. However, it is the harsh realism of this novel that made me sympathise with Beth in a way I hadn’t anticipated. In a way, we’re all like Beth, I think. I am not even close to being as talented as her in any aspect of life, but I do recognise the way she deals with (or fails to do so, actually) setbacks. Trying to escape pain might sound like a good idea, but in the end you’ll realise the hole you’ve dug for yourself has only become deeper. The biggest blows to our confidence can lie in the smallest of things, and we can only overcome them by confronting the darkest parts of ourselves – and by acknowledging you’ve got a problem. Now there’s a proper life lesson if I’ve ever read one.

Have you seen the series or read the novel? What did you think of it? Which books are similar to this one? Do let me know in the comments! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book musings!


  1. Waar familiebanden al niet goed voor zijn. Ook al is dat nu juist wat de hoofdpersoon van het boek mist. Maar maakt dat haar niet juist tot de speler die ze is?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. En dat blijft natuurlijk altijd in het midden: was ze ook zo goed geweest als ze een normale jeugd had? Het blijft wel zo dat het een reden geeft om ergens in uit te blinken.

      Liked by 1 person

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