Belatedly I have just discovered the wonderful literature of this deceased author Walter Tevis. Having ignored the recent Netflix series made of the novel (though one recalls it has inspired many small girls to take up chess) I picked up this novel and found he had authored The Hustler, The Colour of Money and The Man who Fell to Earth. For an author who died early at the age of 56, his creative output has almost all been captured on film to great acclaim.
The tale starts in Kentucky, USA and appears to be set in the late 1950s/early 1960s when children in orphanages were fed daily tranquilisers to keep them compliant. The main character is Beth, an eight year old orphan, who discovers the orphanage’s janitor playing solitary chess in the basement. A quick study, he teaches her the game and finds she is a child prodigy. She also learns to palm the daily tranquiliser, to take later at night to help her sleep. The story flows from there, following her growing older, winning amateur chess championships, becoming addicted to the tranquilisers, being adopted by a childless couple. Her adoptive mother, herself addicted to pills and booze, nevertheless cares for Beth and takes her to interstate and national chess championships, especially after they discover the prize money to be earned.
Beth devotes her waking hours to her school work and an equal amount of time to studying chess via textbooks, journals and coaching from other chess masters. All of this in her determination to become a Grandmaster, though plagued by a growing addiction to pills and alcohol.
This novel was riveting, with beautiful articulation of the life of the national and international chess community, its narrow mindedness, focus, dedication, passion, yet inset with nuggets of great kindness from those Beth thought were her opponents.
This is Literature and, as often happens with great authors, too few works to enjoy.
Reviewed by Belinda Coombes
Mystery and Crime Reading Group