I heard the buzz last year surrounding the Netflix original series The Queen’s Gambit, and I was tempted by the notion of a story set in the world of competitive chess (I don’t play chess but I enjoyed the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer was my general reasoning). But before I got around to clicking the Play button, I discovered the series is based on a 1983 book by Walter Tevis, and I thought I’d read the source material first and watch the dramatization afterward. It took a while to work my way to the top of the library holds list (all that Netflix buzz wasn’t only affecting me, apparently) but eventually I got my hands on it.
A quick synopsis: The main character, Beth, grows up in an orphanage where she is deprived of any love or affection but is fed daily tranquilizers (along with all the other orphans) to keep them quiet and compliant. The only avenue of individual expression she finds is in the basement, watching the custodian play one-sided games of chess. He is gruff and dismissive of the little girl, but she is undaunted and continues hanging out as often as possible. Eventually, she makes comments that lead the custodian to realize she is teaching herself to understand how to play chess just by watching him, and he begins to actively teach her. She turns out to be a prodigy, and her talent leads her to the heights of competitive chess even as her warped upbringing has planted the seeds of her own potential destruction within her.
Tevis’ writing is strong and I found the storyline engaging from the start. Beth is not an entirely likable character, but she was easy for me to root for. As I mentioned, I do not play chess myself, but I found the play-by-play of the chess tournaments pretty riveting despite that lack. I never felt lost in jargon or minutiae during those scenes.
With such a positive experience reading the book, I was looking forward to finally watching the Netflix series. I did watch the first episode and it was fine, but I haven’t felt drawn to watch anymore. Tevis created such a strong combination of character, place and plot that seeing it depicted visually seemed superfluous, particularly the scenes that tried to depict Beth’s mental working out of chess moves during a game. In this particular case, I’m content with my own mental movie.