By Leslie Peterson
Paul Schmidt, “No Sorcery”: Chess, Artistic Sensibility, and Subjective Development in The Queen’s Gambit. Texas Studies in Literature and Language 64.3 (2022)
Your essay dives into The Queen’s Gambit. For those unfamiliar with the narrative, could you remind us of the various forms it has taken?
As far as I am aware, the Netflix series and the Walter Tevis novel, both called The Queen’s Gambit, are the two forms of this narrative. Tevis published the novel in 1983, and the series appeared in 2020. Aside from a few noticeable differences, the series I think captures much of the spirit of the novel. The basic plot involves the story of young female orphan Beth Harmon (played by Anya Taylor-Joy in the series) who discovers chess at the age of eight in the basement of the Methuen Orphanage in Lexington, Kentucky. From the minute she spies the mesmerizing geometry of the chess board, the game becomes the focus of her life and the instrument of her survival. She starts playing and winning tournaments pretty quickly (while still a teenager), and with her adopted mother Alma as a kind of makeshift manager, she becomes a professional, winning (and occasionally losing) chess tournaments at the highest level. Along the way, she develops relationships, endures hardships, makes some difficult decisions, and becomes an adult, but never really becomes fully socialized, which in the context of the novel would be a form of failure. In other words, she develops an ethical subjectivity at odds with much of what her culture offers her. For example, you may recall the scene where she is finally invited to a party by some popular kids in school, but when she gets there she is shocked by the banality of their interests. She leaves the party early and goes home to study a Russian chess book. To many Americans, the decision to leave a party and to choose instead to be by oneself suggests a kind of almost pathological anti-social behavior. But Beth prefers her own company to that of fatuous people with nothing on their minds but parties and sex. It’s not that she is averse to pleasures, but she wants to be alone if she can’t be with people who share her interests. It also strikes her that these same people had treated her cruelly before she had gained celebrity as a chess player, so her judgments against them grow from the fact that they do not really have interest in her beyond some surface judgments about the clothes she wears and the boys she might date.
What first drew you to the story?
My first exposure to the story happened through the series, and I immediately noticed the similarity between the rigors of chess learning and training that Beth experiences and the hard labor of love necessary to become an artist or a successful critic. And I also began to notice, especially in the way the chess was photographed, the artistry of it, the feeling that playing chess skillfully was an artistic accomplishment. And as I thought more about that comparison, it occurred to me that the show was interested in Beth’s development beyond chess. In my essay, I call this awareness the “allegorical predicament,” borrowing the phrase of one of my favorite critics, Elda Tsou. In this case, the predicament occurs when the reader or viewer of The Queen’s Gambit becomes suspicious that this chess story might not be about chess. As I thought more about this, I decided to consult Tevis’s novel to see if I could observe a similar design there, and I saw right away that Tevis had pursued this. And the more I learned about Tevis, the more I came to believe that he would be aware of and attracted to allegory. After all, he was not only a novelist; he was a scholar and a Professor of English who had spent many years in school learning about the history of literature. He loved Shakespeare, and as he himself said, he felt the great English poet Milton looking over his shoulder when he wrote. Tevis establishes the scholarly side of chess early in the story in the wonderful scene where Mr. Shaibel finally gives Beth his battered copy of the book Modern Chess Openings; this book becomes a kind of scriptural document for her. She immediately begins to memorize it, and in those great moments where she plays mental chess in bed, visualizing the board on the ceiling above her orphanage bed, she plays games that she had memorized from that book, much as poets might lie awake reading or reciting lines from a poem that they had studied in the past. Knowing what Tevis did for a living, writing novels and teaching literature, it made sense that he would see such value in a book. And part of the story for the rest of the way concerns Beth’s interest and focus on building her own library of chess writing, again the way a student of literature amasses books. Beth’s love of books brought to my mind the character of the Clerk in the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer who when he has any money to spare (even though he does not have enough to eat), he uses that money for books.
For those who haven’t yet read your essay, could you briefly summarize its argument?
I argue that the story of Beth’s growth as a chess player mimics the growth that an artist or student of literature experiences in training for their craft. And in the process of this training, Beth grows as a person from a lonely, isolated, frightened orphan child into a strong, confident woman. This personal growth is not incidental to her development as a chess player. In fact, her commitment to learning and growing as a chess student encourages her ethical and moral growth as a woman. It gives her confidence and allows her to negotiate a complex and hostile world; it allows her to protect herself without becoming paranoid, and it allows her to embrace the world, and make connections with like-minded people. I think The Queen’s Gambit tells this story in an honest and responsible way, recognizing that accomplishments in life come about as a combination of talent and hard work. In noticing that Beth needs both of these, the narrative reflects an awareness of the history of critical thought about the sources of intellectual accomplishment. This has been the consensus of critics, that an artist or scientist, or athlete must have a generous portion of talent and that this talent must be trained by thousands of hours of drill and practice. Tevis mentions this process when he discussed Fast Eddie’s pool skill in The Hustler. Eddie, like Beth, has extraordinary gifts, but he trains those gifts with hours of practice.
In Power Play, Jenny Adams argues that chess’s early European players turned it into an allegory for society, changing it to mirror their world. Since then, others have used it to explain love, duty, conflict, and accomplishment, among other things. Is it your sense that the novel or television series unfolds in an allegorical direction?
Yes. Absolutely. As I say in the article, the novel feels like the mutant offspring of works like John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. Adams is right. Many chess players have noted allegorical qualities in the game, and Tevis’ training as a literary scholar (and by the way, also an excellent pool player) alerted him to the parallels between forms of competitive striving and the struggle for survival that all human beings experience. Beth Harmon begins life with some severe setbacks in the loss of her parents and her upbringing in an orphanage that included as part of its treatment program, the regular distribution of a highly addictive drug. But her mind attracted her to chess and her chess abilities extended a lifeline to carry her back to the world on her own terms. In the process, she develops an ability to love and connect with people, a skill that does not come naturally to her as she is generally slow to trust and hesitant to connect. I think Tevis borrows some allegorical features from Bunyan’s work of explicit allegory, where the characters take the names of abstract qualities like Christian, Pliable, Prudence, and Piety. Tevis softens this a bit, but many of his characters take on allegorical dimensions relating to Beth’s development. For example, Mr. Shaibel, who is Beth’s first mentor, is by trade a janitor, but other words for janitor are custodian or caretaker; thus, he becomes the early custodian of Beth’s chess development. I refer to this kind of muted allegory as “slant” allegory in the article, comparing it to Emily Dickinson’s use of slant rhyme in her verse. Her slant rhymes are not quite full rhymes, and Tevis’ allegory is not quite full-fledged allegory, but the allegorical dimension becomes undeniable, especially when you start paying attention to the names and functions of the characters. For another example, Alma becomes Beth’s mother, and her name reinforces that maternal relationship, especially when we see Beth (in the series and the novel) take evident pleasure in referring to Alma as “Mother.” So, the allegorical element might come from works like Bunyan’s, but Tevis is also concerned with Beth’s artistic development (chess as an art form), and in this growth, she possesses much in common with Browning’s Aurora Leigh, also an orphan, who, with no money and very little support, decides to become a professional poet and against all odds, succeeds. In fact, my original idea was to write a comparison of Tevis’s novel and Browning’s verse-novel as an example of the künstlerroman, a coming-of-age novel about a person who becomes an artist. Aurora Leigh may well be the first long narrative to take a woman artist as a protagonist. And it really feels like Tevis might have drawn on that poem as inspiration. I know of no explicit evidence that Tevis knew the poem, so I let that idea go, but I may return to it.
The Netflix adaptation: can we ask for your general thoughts?
I love it. I have seen it three times, the third time watching carefully for the places where it differs from the novel. In a very few places, I don’t agree with their choices, but I am no film critic. What I loved about the series is that the showrunners seem to take seriously the connections between Beth’s focused devotion to chess and her development as an ethical agent in the world. And the series really works hard to emphasize crucial moments of Beth’s development. For example, the scenes where we see her willingness to sacrifice as she studies and works when others are having fun; or the scene where she returns the much-needed money to the Christian organization henchwomen when they demand that she say things she does not believe about the Soviet Union; or that great moment where Jolene returns to help her get past the drinking problems that threaten to destroy her career and possibly her health. By the way, in the series, Jolene shows up unexpectedly. In the novel, Beth seeks her out, and even reaches out to her nemesis at the orphanage, Mrs. Deardorff, in her efforts to locate her best friend, perhaps the love of her life. These are crucial moments in the novel, and the series emphasizes these moments much as Tevis did.
Do you feel any of its modifications detract from the original story?
Not in any devastating way. Some purists might disagree, but I think the showrunners made reasonable decisions on what works best for the show. They decided generally to remain faithful to Tevis, and they veered only occasionally, but I don’t think they did serious damage. I may not agree with their choices, but a series and novel are two separate forms, and the decision-makers generally made very good choices in this show. The Jolene example is one place where the series departs from the novel, and I am sure they had their reasons, but I feel Beth’s decision to go looking for Jolene is revealing, and I wish the show had used that. But the surprise cliffhanger of having Jolene show up out of nowhere, just when Beth needs her most, works in the series. Another departure is the opening scene of the series. It’s the day of the biggest match of her career, against her Soviet arch-rival Borgov, and we discover that Beth has overslept, has a hangover, and feels exhausted after a night of drinking and implied sex with a woman friend. It works in the series, but I feel in some ways it violates what we come to see as Beth’s professionalism and devotion to her craft. I am sure the show wanted to suggest that such self-sabotaging behavior was part of Beth’s nature. But nothing like this happens in the book, and to me, it feels over-the-top in a way that the series in almost every other instance refuses to indulge in.
What has researching this essay shown you about the Netflix series that a general viewer might not see?
Well, I now follow chess news in a way that I never did before, and I have learned that Netflix has been sued by a Russian female chess player (Nona Gaprindashvili) on the grounds that it misrepresented her career. Near the end of the show, during the match in Moscow where Beth finally defeats Borgov, the announcer of the match compares Beth to Gaprindashvili, mentioning her by name, and even panning to a face in the audience meant to represent her. The announcer states that Nona had never had to play against men, but that is untrue, Nona had played and defeated many men in the tournaments she had played during her career. At last report, Netflix tried to have the case dismissed, but a California court has determined that the case can go forward. One crucial detail about this, by the way, is that the wording in the novel does not say anything to imply that Gaprindashvili had not played men, so the wording in the series departs from Tevis’ intentions.
Another point worth mentioning is that Tevis, who had had amazing success turning his earlier works such as The Hustler and other novels into films, had very little hope for similar success with his chess novel, as he did not feel chess made for good action. But this is the genius of the series, that they employ multiple techniques to make the chess scenes really exciting. For example, they use frequent cuts from the faces of the players, to their hands making the moves, back to their faces, and then to faces in the audience. World chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, claims that he loved the series and considers it to be a very accurate representation of professional chess. He says he found the chess sequences exciting, and he says his girlfriend, who does not play chess, also found the scenes compelling.
Let’s turn to the novel: what can readers learn from it if their only touchpoint has been the series?
First of all, if you like fiction, Tevis is a master.
His other novels are really good, but The Queen’s Gambit, especially in its choice of a female protagonist struggling within the male preserve of chess, is a real departure from most of Tevis’ early fiction, especially from the macho world of pool sharps in The Hustler and the Color of Money. In the pacing, and in his careful, straightforward, unsentimental representation of Beth’s feelings, he has moved beyond what he had done in his earlier books. He writes with a clear feminist agenda, and though he does not oversell it, it provides a crucial part of the book and I think it is definitely a part of what attracted television writers like Allan Scott and Scott Frank to the novel. Scott had purchased the rights to the novel in 1993. I think he realized that in 2020 it was time to tell this story. They also did well in casting Anya Taylor-Joy and in their direction, which allowed her to accomplish so much in her brilliantly understated way, and with those astonishingly expressive eyes. There is a naturalness to her performance that really captures the way the character comes across in the novel.
Your analysis of Beth feels very accurate and sharp. What do you feel is her most important characteristic?
I love the way Beth learns to value being alone. In the series, we get the impression that she learns this from her mother, but the novel does little with that idea. But in both the series and the novel one of the things that always impresses me about the way the narrative presents Beth is that it reminds us again and again that in order to survive, Beth has to learn to accept that much of life requires the ability to feel comfortable in isolation, or at least in the ability to be alone without discomfort. Chess is a lonely game. If you are uncomfortable with being alone or with silence, you will have a hard time with chess. (I think this is also the case with literary study: it requires many hours of quiet solitary work). At one point, after Beth has returned the money from the Christian organization, she realizes that she will have to go to Moscow alone and that Benny won’t be able to come with her.
She says to herself something like “Everything valuable I have ever learned I have learned by myself.” This willingness to accept and even welcome aloneness allows her to spend all those hours memorizing chess tactics from the past. It allows a writer to produce a masterwork, a tennis player to serve an ace under pressure, and a scientist to develop a new technique for analyzing proteins. Of course, and this is another important theme of the story, even though you need to learn to be alone, you also need to figure out how to learn from others, and Beth manages to learn from several important teachers in her life. But one by one they all have to move on, and she is left alone, and that’s okay with her.
But even with this focus on the value of isolation, the book also makes much of the idea that chess, which I see as a type of artistic endeavor, also leads to the possibility of meaningful unsentimental love between like-minded people. Tevis reinforces this idea of human connection through art in the final scenes of the novel in Moscow where Beth abandons the swanky hotel parties to go observe and play chess with the retired working-class men in Moscow’s parks. In my reading, this moment of human connection to people so unlike her in many ways—more than Beth’s actual victory over Borgov—provides the real climax of the novel.
What would it take for The Queen’s Gambit to move toward the canon? And would it be the novel or the series that made this happen?
That’s a great question. The fact is that the novel had not received much attention until the series appeared. It may have remained obscure had it not been for the series. I don’t think Tevis will ever be considered in the same category as Faulkner or James Joyce, or even Hemingway or Fitzgerald, but as a writer of well-crafted novels, he will always be considered a valuable writer. There is a great recorded book club meeting that I cite in the article. It includes the award-winning novelist Tobias Wolff, critic Robert Pogue Harrison (a Professor of Italian literature at Stanford), and theorist and critic Inga Pierson, also at Stanford. This discussion occurred in 2019 before the series came about, and it shows that some very serious artists and scholars found much to admire in the novel. This discussion is easy to find online, and I think now there is even a YouTube video. Listening to these brilliant people discuss this novel in such detail is one of the experiences that inspired me to write about it. And the fact that they take it so seriously means that others will. The series has already proved its value as one of the most viewed limited series in history. It will remain a model for what’s possible in television for a long time.
What can we learn from The Queen’s Gambit that we aren’t so likely to find in other novels?
I think the gift of Tevis (by the way, he also wrote science fiction novels) but his gift in The Queen’s Gambit and his books about pool players is to see a connection between games and skills and the development of subjectivity. In The Hustler, the characters are trying to learn how to survive in a cut-throat world without being necessarily cut-throat themselves. Such survival requires effort and hard work and sacrifice.
By the way, I think a useful contrast could be observed between the way Tevis handles the problem of the craft and genius in The Queen’s Gambit and the way that issue is handled in a film like Matt Damon’s Good Will Hunting about a math genius. In Damon’s narrative, the idea is that genius requires no training, and the film even mocks mathematicians who spend their lives studying by suggesting that a kid like Damon’s character Will can with no effort or study create and discover things that longtime professional mathematicians could not accomplish despite their lifetimes of hard work. This is essentially a lie, a Romantic myth, about how intellectual accomplishment comes about. Tevis’ novel and the series offer a corrective to that misrepresentation. Beth is a genius, but in order to compete at the highest levels, she has to study and practice and grind for hours every day. In this way, Tevis reacts against the Romantic canard of spontaneous genius that a film like Damon’s reinforces. By the way, Tevis also offers a corrective to the idea that drugs and alcohol provide a useful aid to high artistic accomplishment. If you follow Beth’s development carefully, you will see that she eventually finds that she must leave pills and booze behind if she wants to beat Borgov. And even after she beats him, she leaves the after-party without having any champagne. Early on she uses the pills to ease her anxiety, but as she develops, she learns, with Jolene’s help and the admonishments of her other teachers, that these artificial aids don’t really help her mind, and her mind is what carries her through.
For readers who have enjoyed the allegorical style of The Queen’s Gambit, what would you recommend they try next–both novel and film?
Tevis’s second novel, The Man Who Fell to Earth (1963), a science fiction narrative concerning a visitor from another planet who visits earth for peaceful purposes, has received multiple treatments in film and television. These include a 1976 full-length feature film starring David Bowie, a 1987 television series, and now a 2022 series on Showtime that has just begun to appear. I have not seen the series, but from reviews and summaries, I can tell that it is not really an adaptation so much as a kind of sequel, with mostly new characters. The original novel has some interesting connections to The Queen’s Gambit. For example, in telling the story of an alien in American culture, the novel explores aspects of Tevis’s sense of his own feelings of cultural disaffection. And this sense of feeling estranged from mainstream American culture certainly evokes Beth’s experiences in Queen’s Gambit. The main secondary character in Man Who Fell is a college professor, also a side of life that was important to Tevis, since he worked as a teacher (in college and high school) for much of his life. This novel also explores the problem of substance abuse so crucial to Beth’s story. All three primary characters in The Man Who Fell to Earth show symptoms of alcoholism, and the novel initiates its focus on drinking habits in Chapter 3 and maintains the interest throughout. This feature of the story also reflects Tevis’s bio, as by the early sixties his alcohol problem was in full swing; his drinking essentially made it impossible for him to write for nearly the next twenty years. What we see in The Queen’s Gambit (twenty years after The Man Who Fell to Earth), amounts to a revision of Tevis’s representation of drink in his early work. As I argue in my article, by the time he writes Beth’s story he has been through AA recovery and sees drinking behavior more critically. This perspective arrived after a lifetime of heavy drinking and smoking had taken a terrible toll on his body. Within a year of publishing The Queen’s Gambit, at the early age of fifty-six, he died of lung cancer.
Aside from Tevis’s work, I have been reading a lot of Gish Jen’s fiction lately, but for allegorical suggestiveness, I love The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen or Chang-Rae Lee’s Native Speaker. I think The Sympathizer is being made into a television series. Tommy Orange’s There There is wonderful. I am also in the middle of Isabel Wilkerson’s work of non-fiction, Caste: The Origin of Our Discontents, one of the most powerful books about race I have ever read.
Do you have anything else on the horizon or other pieces we should look out for?
My specialty is Victorian literature, especially Victorian poetry. I just published a short essay on Milton and Tennyson, and I have a long article forthcoming that traces the influence of John Henry Newman (a Victorian religious writer) on the criticism of T. S. Eliot. And I am writing another essay on pessimism in the verse of Thomas Hardy. I am afraid there is very little chance that any of my writing will become a Netflix blockbuster, but I take great pleasure in trying to craft reasonable, carefully-worded arguments about the things I notice in literary works.