Games People Play

The Queen's Gambit

by Walter Tevis
Random House, 243 pp., $13.95

The Cannibal Galaxy

by Cynthia Ozick
Knopf, 162 pp., $11.95

Walter Tevis seems to be a writer who enjoys stacking the odds against himself. His first novel, The Hustler, back in 1959, was about pool—not the most universally appealing topic—and in The Queen’s Gambit he has raised the ante with two apparently impossible themes: child genius and chess. Genius itself is intractable enough to novelists, not least because so few of them have it and those who do, perhaps by definition, have less time for themselves than for their art. But a child genius is not so much intractable as impenetrable, a phenomenon of nature, like a typhoon, awesome and unnerving. As for chess, it is a world to itself, of a subtlety so intricate that it is simply not available to the uninitiated. It is also static, private, and seemingly without drama in the conventional sense: two people facing each other across a small checkered board, unmoving, unspeaking, rarely even looking at each other. From this obdurate material Tevis has produced a spare and compelling book, exciting even for a reader like myself who does not play the game and barely knows the rules.

Beth Harmon is a plain, silent eight-year-old girl, orphaned in the opening paragraph and brought up in a shabby Kentucky institution that is strong on Christian ethics and weak on charity. She is a child without charm or looks or affect, whose only past is a vague recollection of a louche mother and drunken father yelling at each other in the night. At the orphanage she makes one friend, a black girl called Jolene, four years older than herself and everything Beth is not: beautiful, athletic, commanding, knowing. But even with Jolene Beth maintains her tight-lipped distance. She is withdrawn almost to the point of sickness; whatever happens to her happens inside her head. The orphanage exacerbates this by doping the children with tranquilizers to keep them docile, but to Beth the pills are a relief from darbness and tension, and she becomes hooked.

One day she is sent down to the basement to clean the blackboard erasers and finds Mr. Shaibel, the portly, forbidding janitor, playing chess. Something about his silence, his absorption, and “the steadiness with which he played his mysterious game” fascinates her. She begins to haunt the basement, unspeaking, trying to work out how the pieces move. Finally, she persuades him, reluctantly, to teach her the rules; they play; he beats her in four moves. That night in bed she sets up the chessboard again in her mind and replays the game to find out where she went wrong. It is her alternative to tranquilizers: the chessboard clear as a cinema screen behind her closed eyes, the pieces moving intricately in a hard light. Within a fortnight she has won her first game, within a couple of months she is winning regularly. Surly as ever, Mr. Shaibel gives her a chess book and suddenly she is launched:

She held Modern Chess Openings under her desk while Mr. Espero read.…

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