Title: The Queen’s Gambit
Author: Walter Tevis
Something in her life was solved: she knew about the chess pieces and how they moved and captured.
They said nothing to each other, but kept moving. Beth could feel the tension, and she liked it.
She decided not to take the offered pawn, to leave the tension on the board. She liked it like that. She liked the power of the pieces, exerted along files and diagonals. In the middle of the game, when pieces were everywhere, the forces crisscrossing the board thrilled her. She brought out her king’s knight, feeling its power spread.
It had been simple—merely a matter of keeping her eyes open and visualizing the ways the game could go.
King, knight, pawn. The tensions on the board were enough to warp it. Then whack! Down came the queen. Rooks at the bottom of the board, hemmed in at first, but ready, building pressure and then removing the pressure in a single move. In General Science, Miss Hadley had spoken of magnets, of “lines of force.” Beth, nearly asleep with boredom, had waked up suddenly. Lines of force: bishops on diagonals, rooks on files.
She held Modern Chess Openings under her desk while Mr. Espero read. She went through variations one at a time, playing them out in her head. By the third day the notations—P-K4, N-KB3—leapt into her quick mind as solid pieces on real squares. She saw them easily; there was no need for a board. She could sit there with Modern Chess Openings in her lap, on the blue serge pleated skirt of the Methuen Home, and while Mr. Espero droned on about the enlargement of the spirit that great poetry gives us or read aloud lines like “To him who in the love of nature holds/ communion with her visible forms, she speaks a various language,” the moves of chess games clicked into place before her half-shut eyes. In the back of the book were continuations down to the very end of some of the classic games, to twenty-seventh-move resignations or to draws on the fortieth, and she had learned to put the pieces through their entire ballet, sometimes catching her breath at the elegance of a combination attack or of a sacrifice or the restrained balance of forces in a position. And always her mind was on the win, or on the potential for the win.
“‘ For his gayer hours she has a voice of gladness/ and a smile and eloquence of beauty…’” read Mr. Espero, while Beth’s mind danced in awe to the geometrical rococo of chess, rapt, enraptured, drowning in the grand permutations as they opened to her soul, and her soul opened to them.
She had never thought about owning things, but she wanted this chess set.
She might be out of place in this public high school, but she was not out of place with those twelve chessboards.
Her mind was luminous, and her soul sang to her in the sweet moves of chess. The classroom smelled of chalk dust and her shoes squeaked as she moved down the rows of players. The room was silent; she felt her own presence centered in it, small and solid and in command.
. . . the energy of her amazing mind crackled in the room for those who knew how to listen.
Beth was always alone in the halls; it hardly occurred to her that there was any other way to be. Most girls walked in pairs or in threes, but she walked with no one.
She had not known there was such a thing as a chess tournament. She thought chess was just something you did, the way Mrs. Wheatley hooked rugs and put together jigsaw puzzles.
She could see now that there was really no danger yet if she didn’t let it bluff her. She brought the rook out, and then doubled up with her queen. She liked that arrangement; it looked to her imagination like two cannons, lined up and ready to fire.
Beth went to the girls’ room and washed her face and hands; it was surprising how grubby her skin felt after three games of chess. She looked at herself in the mirror, under the harsh lights, and saw what she had always seen: the round uninteresting face and the colorless hair. But there was something different. The cheeks were flushed with color now, and her eyes looked more alive than she had ever seen them. For once in her life she liked what she saw in the mirror.
In her room that night she could not get to sleep because of the way the games kept playing themselves over and over in her head long after she had stopped enjoying them.
Mrs. Wheatley straightened herself up from her slumped position in the chair. “I am no longer a wife,” she said, “except by legal fiction. I believe I can learn to be a mother.”
Listening to the two of them, she had felt something unpleasant and familiar: the sense that chess was a thing between men, and she was an outsider. She hated the feeling.
After a moment a simple thought came to her: I’m not playing Benny Watts; I’m playing chess. She looked at him again. His eyes were studying the board now. He can’t move until I do. He can only move one piece at a time. She looked back to the board and began to consider the effects of trading, to picture where the pawns would be if the pieces that clogged the center were exchanged. If she took his king knight with her bishop and he retook with the queen pawn . . . No good. She could advance the knight and force a trade. That was better. She blinked and began to relax, forming and reforming the relationship of pawns in her mind, searching for a way of forcing an advantage. There was nothing in front of her now but the sixty-four squares and the shifting architecture of pawns—a jagged skyline of imaginary pawns, black and white, that flowed and shifted as she tried variation after variation, branch after branch of the game tree that grew from each set of moves. One branch began to look better than the others. She followed it for several half-moves to the possibilities that grew from it, holding in her mind the whole set of imaginary positions until she found one that had what she wanted to find.
She spent about an hour a night on her homework and made As. But homework meant nothing to her. It was the five or six hours of studying chess that was at the center of her life. She was enrolled as a special student at the university for a class in Russian that met one night a week. It was the only schoolwork that she paid serious attention to.
She had made love the night before, and now it was time to learn about being drunk. She was alone, and she liked it. It was the way she had learned everything important in her life.
By the time she paid and got out she felt light and springy, ready to go ahead and finish high school and devote her energy to chess. She had three thousand dollars in her savings account; she was no longer a virgin; and she knew how to drink.
She began to relax as her mind moved away from her body and onto the tableau of forces in front of her.
She had not been so immersed in chess since she was a little girl. Beltik was in class three afternoons a week and two mornings, and she spent that time studying his books. She played mentally through game after game, learning new variations, seeing stylistic differences in offense and defense, biting her lip sometimes in excitement over a dazzling move or a subtlety of position, and at other times wearied by a sense of the hopeless depth of chess, of its endlessness, move after move, threat after threat, complication after complication. She had heard of the genetic code that could shape an eye or hand from passing proteins. Deoxyribonucleic acid. It contained the entire set of instructions for constructing a respiratory system and a digestive one, as well as the grip of an infant’s hand. Chess was like that. The geometry of a position could be read and reread and not exhausted of possibility. You saw deeply into this layer of it, but there was another layer beyond that, and another.
She was glad to be alone.
She felt herself expand, relax, open up. She was going to beat him. She was going to beat him soundly.
Benny did not own a TV, or a stereo; his apartment was for eating, sleeping and chess.
Sometimes chess would keep her awake at night for hours. It was like Methuen, except that she was more relaxed and not afraid of sleeplessness. She would lie on her mattress on the living-room floor after midnight with New York street noises coming in through the open bay window and study positions in her mind. They were as clear as they had ever been. She did not take tranquilizers, and that helped the clarity. It was not whole games now but particular situations—positions called “theoretically important” and “warranting close study.” She lay there hearing the shouts of drunks in the street outside and mastered the intricacies of chess positions that were classic in their difficulty.
She was beginning to feel angry again; she hadn’t come to New York for this, and she was annoyed at Benny’s way of offering no explanations and no advance notice. His behavior was like his chess game: smooth and easy on the surface but tricky and infuriating beneath.
She loved her money; she and Mrs. Wheatley had both taken great pleasure in accumulating it from tournament to tournament, watching it gather interest. They had always opened Beth’s bank statements together to see how much new interest had been credited to the account. And after Mrs. Wheatley’s death it had consoled her to know that she could go on living in the house, buying her groceries at the supermarket and going to movies when she wanted without feeling pinched for money or having to think about getting work or going to college or finding tournaments to win.
What could any American teach her? She had moved past them all. She was on her own. She would have to bridge the gap herself that separated American chess from Russian.
She must not drink. She had a real tournament coming up in California in five months. What if she had already done it to herself? What if she had shaved away from the surface of her brain whatever synaptic interlacings had formed her gift? She remembered reading somewhere that some pop artist once bought an original drawing by Michelangelo—and had taken a piece of art gum and erased it, leaving blank paper. The waste had shocked her. Now she felt a similar shock as she imagined the surface of her own brain with the talent for chess wiped away.
The winter light in San Francisco was remarkable; she had never seen anything quite like it before. It gave the buildings a preternatural clarity of line.
The flowers in her hand glowed crimson, her new jeans and cotton sweater felt fresh on her skin in the cool San Fransisco air, at the bottom of the street the blue ocean lay like a dream of possibility. Her soul sang silently with it, reaching out toward the Pacific.
She would go alone, or with whomever the State Department found to send with her. She had studied Russian, and she would not be totally at a loss. The Russian players would speak English, anyway. She could do her own training. She had been training alone for months. She finished off the last of her coffee. She had been training alone for most of her life.
This was not the attack chess she had made her American reputation with; it was chamber-music chess, subtle and intricate.