Walter Tevis: The Queen’s Gambit

The Queen’s Gambit is a compelling coming-of-age novel by Walter Tevis that tells the story of a young orphan girl, Beth Harmon, who discovers her remarkable talent for chess and rises through the ranks to become a world-class player. Set against the backdrop of the Cold War era, the novel explores themes of addiction, loneliness, and the relentless pursuit of excellence, providing a unique and engaging look at the world of competitive chess and the personal struggles of its protagonist.


number of pages: 243
literary movement: POSTMODERNISM
literary genre: BILDUNGSROMAN
1st edition: 1983


The story begins in the late 1950s when eight-year-old Beth Harmon, having recently lost her parents in a car accident, is placed in an orphanage in Kentucky. There, she befriends the orphanage’s janitor, Mr. Shaibel, who teaches her the basics of chess. Beth quickly demonstrates an extraordinary aptitude for the game, and her passion and obsession for chess are further fueled by the tranquilizers that the orphanage routinely administers to its residents. This early exposure to drugs sets the stage for Beth’s ongoing struggle with addiction throughout the novel.

As Beth’s talent for chess becomes increasingly apparent, she begins to compete in local and national tournaments, quickly gaining attention and respect in the male-dominated world of competitive chess. As she rises through the ranks, Beth faces numerous challenges, including her struggle to balance her burgeoning chess career with her personal relationships, her growing dependence on drugs and alcohol, and her quest for self-identity in a world that often underestimates her abilities due to her gender.

Throughout the novel, Tevis masterfully portrays the intense world of competitive chess, providing detailed and suspenseful accounts of Beth’s matches and her relentless pursuit of excellence. The novel delves deep into the psychological aspects of the game, exploring the mental and emotional toll that it takes on its players, as well as the unique bond that forms between competitors.

In addition to its exploration of the world of chess, The Queen’s Gambit also offers a powerful and poignant portrayal of its protagonist’s personal struggles. Beth’s journey is marked by loneliness, addiction, and the constant pressure to succeed, making her a deeply relatable and complex character. As she navigates the challenges of her life and career, she ultimately learns the importance of self-acceptance, personal growth, and the support of others.


Beth Harmon

The protagonist of the story, Beth is a fiercely intelligent and determined young woman who becomes a chess prodigy. She is an orphan with a troubled past and struggles with addiction, but her passion for chess drives her to overcome her demons and rise to the top of the chess world.

Alma Wheatley

Beth’s adoptive mother, Alma is a lonely woman with her own set of struggles, including alcoholism and an unhappy marriage. She becomes a source of support and companionship for Beth as they navigate the world of competitive chess together.

Allston Wheatley

Beth’s adoptive father, Allston is a distant and uninvolved figure in her life, ultimately leaving Alma and Beth to fend for themselves.

Mr. Shaibel

The janitor at the orphanage, Mr. Shaibel introduces Beth to the world of chess and recognizes her talent. He becomes an early mentor and supporter, encouraging her passion for the game.

Benny Watts

A talented and eccentric chess player, Benny becomes one of Beth’s rivals and later a mentor and friend. He helps her prepare for her most significant matches and supports her in her journey to become a world-class player.

Harry Beltik

A fellow chess player who initially competes against Beth, Harry eventually becomes one of her friends and supporters, helping her hone her skills and prepare for competitions.


A friend of Beth’s from the orphanage, Jolene remains a steadfast and loyal friend throughout their lives, helping Beth when she is in need and providing a strong support system.

Vasily Borgov

A top Soviet grandmaster and Beth’s primary rival in the story, Borgov is a formidable opponent who represents the ultimate challenge in her quest to become the world’s best chess player.


A fellow chess player and love interest for Beth, Townes is a charming and talented individual who influences Beth’s personal life and chess career.

Roger Penrose

A young British chess prodigy who Beth faces in competition, Roger’s skill and talent push her to improve and become a better player.

She was alone, and she liked it. It was the way she had learned everything important in her life.



  • Protagonist: The story revolves around the protagonist, Beth Harmon, an orphan who discovers her extraordinary talent for chess and becomes a prodigy in the male-dominated world of competitive chess.
  • Orphanage: Beth’s journey begins in an orphanage after her mother’s tragic death, where she learns to play chess from the janitor, Mr. Shaibel, who recognizes her talent and encourages her passion.
  • Addiction: While in the orphanage, Beth becomes addicted to tranquilizers, which are given to the children to keep them docile. This addiction follows her throughout her life, as she battles both substance abuse and her personal demons.
  • Foster Care: Beth is eventually adopted by a couple, Alma and Allston Wheatley. While Alma becomes a source of support and companionship for Beth, their relationship is complex and marked by their shared struggles.
  • Chess Competitions: The novel follows Beth’s rise in the world of competitive chess as she faces various opponents, ultimately becoming a world-class player and challenging the world’s top grandmasters.
  • Cold War Setting: The story takes place during the Cold War, and Beth’s journey as a chess prodigy becomes a symbol of American triumph over the Soviet Union, as she takes on the best Soviet chess players.
  • Feminism: The novel addresses issues of feminism and gender inequality, as Beth challenges traditional gender roles and societal expectations by excelling in a male-dominated field.
  • Personal Growth: The story explores Beth’s personal growth and development as she navigates the challenges of her personal life, addiction, and the pressures of her career.
  • Strategy and Tactics: The novel delves into the intricacies of chess strategy and tactics, making it appealing to both chess enthusiasts and general readers alike.
  • Adaptation: The Queen’s Gambit was adapted into a highly successful Netflix limited series in 2020, starring Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon. The show received critical acclaim and introduced the story to a whole new audience, sparking a resurgence of interest in chess.


The Queen’s Gambit is a limited television series released on Netflix in October 2020. Created by Scott Frank and Allan Scott, the show is based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name. The series has been praised for its compelling storytelling, visual style, and attention to detail, particularly in its portrayal of the game of chess.

Set during the Cold War era, The Queen’s Gambit follows the life of a young orphan named Beth Harmon, played by Anya Taylor-Joy. After discovering her prodigious talent for chess, Beth embarks on a journey to become the world’s greatest chess player. Along the way, she battles personal demons, including substance abuse and a troubled past, while breaking through barriers in the male-dominated world of competitive chess.

The series skillfully explores themes of addiction, gender inequality, and the cost of genius. It has been widely praised for its performances, particularly Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of the complex and captivating protagonist. The Queen’s Gambit has received numerous accolades and awards, including the Golden Globe for Best Television Limited Series or Motion Picture Made for Television and the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Limited or Anthology Series.

The Queen’s Gambit has also led to a significant surge in the popularity of chess, with sales of chess sets and online chess platform memberships skyrocketing after the show’s release. The series has become a cultural phenomenon and a testament to the power of compelling storytelling.

Queen’s Gambit (2020)

In conclusion, The Queen’s Gambit is a captivating and thought-provoking novel that offers a unique and engaging look at the world of competitive chess and the personal struggles of its protagonist. With its compelling narrative, richly drawn characters, and exploration of themes such as addiction, loneliness, and the pursuit of excellence, the novel provides an immersive and unforgettable reading experience that will resonate with readers long after they have turned the final page.



Immerse yourself in the captivating world of Walter Tevis, the renowned American author best known for his novels The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and The Queen’s Gambit. This comprehensive biography covers his early life, literary success, top 10 books, interesting facts, and more.


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