The Queen's Gambit
Image: Netflix/Phil Bray

Chess and Coming-of-Age: A Review of ‘The Queen’s Gambit

“It is foolish to run the risk of going mad for vanity’s sake.”


After watching the TV show three times back-to-back during the 2020 lockdown, I was elated to find that ‘The Queen’s Gambit,’ had been based on a book of the same name by Walter Tevis. Originally published in 1983, the book follows the life of fictional female chess prodigy Beth Harmon. Sent to an orphanage at the age of eight, Beth is quick to realise that chess is one of her natural talents. As she progresses to the top of the US chess rankings, Beth starts to lose control of herself as she is introduced to the world of drink and drugs.

I loved the moral of this story. Being a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age novel, the book explores Beth’s growth through girlhood to womanhood. From her complicated childhood to her successful career as a chess player, I loved the exploration of her addictions, flaws, and struggles. The journey to success isn’t always simple, and I loved how this book addressed all the hurdles that Beth had to overcome including her addiction to tranquilisers, addiction to alcohol, and perhaps a more overlooked one, her addiction to winning. Becoming a child prodigy had extremely serious effects on both Beth’s mental health and her view on winning and losing. Her fear of failure and frustration at disappointing herself is something I think a lot of people can relate to. I loved the exploration of someone trying to achieve their life-long goal and it not simply just ‘going their way.’ It is an extremely important life lesson to learn, and I have definitely become more aware and appreciative of success and failure after reading this book.

As a protagonist, Beth was a very well-developed character. Growing up in an orphanage, Beth becomes fiercely independent. Whilst struggling with her addiction to the tranquilisers that the orphanage hands out, she secretly sneaks out of her lessons to play chess with the custodian of the orphanage, Mr Shaibel. Whilst she is playing, Beth is confident, determined, yet extremely hot-headed. Being addicted to winning from such a young age has many repercussions for Beth in the future.

Once Beth makes her way through the rankings, she starts to face much more advanced and experienced players. Being so used to coming out on top, Beth doesn’t take her first loss very well. The demons from her childhood and her addiction to tranquilisers and alcohol usually side-track her from her passion and send her into a downwards spiral. The book does very well in describing the state of Beth’s mental health and how it slowly starts to deteriorate. What was even more inspiring was seeing Beth deal with all these struggles and overcome her addictions in order to come out on top again.

Due to her upbringing, Beth is raised as a fiercely independent woman and sees gender as playing no role in determining what she wants to do with her future.

Introducing a goal right from the beginning of the book made this a very thrilling read. Ever since joining the orphanage, Beth’s ambition is to become the world’s best chess player and seeing her get through all the tournaments felt like a very rewarding journey that I was privileged enough to follow her on. Watching her not only make mistakes but learn from them too, was truly inspiring to read about and it was utterly satisfying to see it all work out for Beth in the end.

Another aspect of the book I quite liked was the exploration of a female trying to make her way into a male-dominated sphere. Due to her upbringing, Beth is raised as a fiercely independent woman and sees gender as playing no role in determining what she wants to do with her future. For its time, I think this was a highly important message to highlight in a book. Having Beth succeed in a male-dominated sport is extremely inspiring for young people to read about – if Beth can do it, anyone can!

I hate to say it but one very harsh criticism I have of this book is aimed at some of the descriptions of the chess games. Maybe I just don’t appreciate the complexities of the game or don’t have enough knowledge about the rules of chess, but I found some parts of the book overly descriptive. I found that explaining the chess games move-by-move and in extreme detail was rather confusing and made some parts of the book quite slow-paced – I usually found myself obliviously skipping over these descriptions when I got to them.

However, I do think this is very picky of me and many would say that this book is utterly flawless. I really do appreciate how Walter Tevis has turned something that probably seems so mundane and boring to most people into something rather intense and exhilarating.



Comments (1)

  • This is such an interesting read looking at a woman trying to make her way in the world! Very inspiring! 🙂

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