“They say you’re the real thing,” says a reporter from Life magazine in Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit. The “real thing” she is addressing is the book’s protagonist, a 13-year-old chess prodigy named Beth Harmon who just won the Kentucky State chess championship—a remarkable feat not only because of her age but, at the time, her gender. The interviewer prods her to talk about chess as a sport: how she is competitive, how she “plays to win,” how she is “out for blood.”
“Beth wanted to say something about how beautiful chess was sometimes,” Tevis writes. But she doesn’t. She can’t find the words.
The Netflix series based on Tevis’s novel has made Beth Harmon into a bona fide pop culture icon, a confident and brilliant young savant with impeccable fashion sense, played by budding star Anya Taylor-Joy. It may seem surprising that a story about a young woman who plays chess could resonate with so many, given chess’s relative lack of popularity in the United States. But what’s even more incredible than the success of the television show is the fact that its source material was written at all. At the time of the book’s publication, Walter Tevis, despite having been a celebrated and successful writer in the early 1960s, had vanished from public life for 17 years.
Tevis was born in San Francisco in 1928, and learned to play chess at the age of 7. When he was 9 he was diagnosed with rheumatic heart and Sydenham’s chorea and was placed in a convalescent home for a year. While he was committed there, his parents abandoned him and moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where they were originally from.
Beth Harmon’s fictional life mirrors Tevis’s own. She grows up in an orphanage, where at the age of 8 she learns the game of chess from a janitor. She becomes addicted to tranquilizers given to her and the other children in order to keep them calm and subdued. The young Tevis was drugged in the convalescent home three times daily with phenobarbital. “I loved it,” he said of the drug. “That may be one reason I became a drunk.”
Eventually, Tevis’s family sent him a train ticket to Kentucky, paid for by a family friend. His parents were strict. “I was brought up by a very castrating mother,” Tevis said. “My father was an alcoholic, too, but he wouldn’t admit it, and my mother wouldn’t acknowledge the problem.” Tevis told The San Francisco Examiner that life in Kentucky made him feel like he had “come from outer space.” He was beaten up by boys at school; he found little in Lexington to relate to. Harmon, too, lives in Lexington, and she also has trouble relating to the other kids in her school. While Beth sinks deep into an obsession with chess, Tevis found comfort in a different game—pool. “The Lexington poolrooms rescued me,” he said. He would hang around the Phoenix Hotel downtown and watch the gamblers play for big money. There, he befriended a boy who had a pool table at home, and Tevis would play him every single day until they “dropped.” Then they would play chess into the night to relax.
At 17, Tevis enlisted in the Navy. He spent 17 months in Okinawa, where he continued to shoot pool every day—only there, the games were played for money. Tevis developed a taste for gambling. Upon his return to civilian life he enrolled at the University of Kentucky. He continued to play pool at Gaunce’s Pool Room in downtown Lexington, where he fell deeper in love with not only the game but the culture and style of the poolroom and its denizens. He was fascinated with the characters who would pass through—road gamblers moving from hall to hall looking for a game and a chance to make a score before blowing out of town to the next spot. Still at UK, Tevis took a writing course from the Pulitzer Prize winning–novelist A.B. Guthrie Jr., and for an assignment wrote a story about the poolhall. It was called “The Best in the Country.” Guthrie saw promise in Tevis’s work and connected him with an agent. The agent sold the story to Esquire for $350.
After finishing his BA, Tevis took a job teaching English at Irvine High School outside Lexington, where he continued to write short stories for magazines on the side. Over the next six years he sold stories to Playboy, Redbook, Saturday Evening Post, Colliers, and Cosmopolitan—almost all about Gaunce’s in one way or another. He was often pressed about writing a novel. “Naturally I’d like to write the great American novel, something that will move everyone,” he told The Burlington Free Press in 1959, “but serious work is largely a matter of character and discipline. Why work so hard to write something true and fine when not many people will read it?”
But Tevis’s reluctance to take on “serious work” may have also been the result of his own struggles with writing. When he had an idea, he worked furiously on it and could crank out a story at a rapid pace—but in between those moments were long dry spells where he was blocked, or had no ideas, and wrote nothing. “I am too Bohemian to fit in with routine and discipline myself to write when I do not feel like it,” he said in 1959. During those spells he was content teaching, and by his own admission, he loved the sound of his own voice.
Tevis reveled in the admiration of his students and colleagues, and sought out praise and encouragement wherever he could find it. His students called him “Ichabod Crane” behind his back. His wife’s family wasn’t particularly thrilled she had married someone with such limited prospects. But most importantly, Tevis’s father disapproved of his dreams of being a writer. “I couldn’t surpass my father,” Tevis said in 1980. “He would never accept me as a writer.”
Eventually, Tevis’s agent convinced him that “The Best in the Country” held promise as a novel. He urged Tevis to quit his teaching job and devote more time to expanding it. Tevis left teaching, took a job with the Kentucky Highway Department editing technical publications, and set to work on his first book. The book’s hero, much like Beth Harmon, possesses incredible natural talent and aspires to be the best, but he finds that challenge much more difficult than he imagined, and suffers a great deal along the way. Tevis called the book This Lovely Green, after an Edward Marvell poem that he particularly loved. His agent sold the book to Harpers; worried it would be mistaken for a gardening tome, they retitled the book The Hustler. Contrary to his deepest fear, people read it—Time compared Tevis to Hemingway, and the producer of the film All the King’s Men, Robert Rossen, paid Tevis $25,000 for the movie rights. Tevis used the money to pay tuition for a PhD at the State University of Iowa. He was 31 years old.
Tevis took some of the money from the movie rights of The Hustler and moved his family to Mexico so he could work on his follow-up: a science-fiction novel about an alien who winds up in Kentucky called The Man Who Fell to Earth. It was in Mexico that Tevis began drinking, though he disguised it as celebration. “I grabbed the money that I made from the movie and I went to live in Mexico,” Tevis told The Louisville Courier-Journal, “and I discovered that you could get gin for 80 cents a liter. I stayed drunk for eight months.” Tevis also discovered that when he was drinking, he couldn’t write (“One drink and the typewriter was completely out of the question”). He managed to sober up long enough to finish his book, and it too was sold to Hollywood. Tevis was suddenly a literary darling, with the world anxiously awaiting his next book. They would wait a long while.
In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon goes on a serious bender at one point and suffers a humiliating loss to an inferior opponent. In the book she wonders: “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 the basis of her gift?” Harmon manages to get herself back on track and prepared for her next tournament—Tevis wouldn’t fare as well. Two major successes under his belt, he took a job teaching English at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, where he taught classes during the day and drank during the night. His only respite from booze was the poolhall, where he shot pool and played chess with Dan Keyes, the author of Flowers for Algernon. But Tevis went to great lengths to hide his drinking from Keyes and everyone else in his life, choosing to drink at home late at night when he was alone. “I was never drunk in class or anything like that,” he told The Louisville Courier-Journal in 1980. “I just drank from like midnight to 4 in the morning then got up and taught my classes.”
He didn’t write another book for nearly two decades. What he did do was drink and play chess. And among what he did manage to publish during those years, a lot of it was about the latter. Tevis devoted himself to studying chess, devouring Modern Chess Openings, the same book Beth Harmon reads in the orphanage that ignites her love of the game. He started playing in local tournaments. In 1974, Atlantic Monthly sent him to Las Vegas to cover the National Open. He would do more than write about it—he would enter it and play … and lose every game that he played. “Two days later I’ve lost four chess games and $50. I’ve been beaten by a boy from California, a blackjack dealer from the hotel (with a rating of 1580), and a tight-lipped, pretty girl named Mary Lasher, who forced me to resign after the 11th move. The $50 went to roulette,” he wrote in his piece, “Checkmate in Vegas.” “I am making excuses to myself like crazy: I have jet lag; I have an article to worry about writing; chess isn’t all there is to life. But it hurts like hell.”
All was not lost, however. In addition to publishing the feature on his experience, he soaked up the scene in Las Vegas and found inspiration for a new book. Much of what he witnessed there he would later use in The Queen’s Gambit. “There’s been more competitive excitement, more aggressiveness crackling around that dumb little high school gymnasium or third-rate hotel ballroom, in which chess tournaments are being played, than I have seen in any other kind of activity, and I spend a lot of time in poolrooms around pool players playing for big money,” Tevis told Book Beat in 1983. “I used to shoot nine ball for fairly large sums of money, and I’ve been around a lot of games, a lot of betting. I made my living gambling for quite a few years. Never seen the intensity and the vicious aggressiveness that chess players occasionally exhibit.”
In 1974, chess was at the peak of its popularity in the United States, thanks to the young and brash Bobby Fischer winning the World Championship two years before. Fischer made an impression on Tevis, who had always loved the game of chess as an intellectual pursuit, but hadn’t fully appreciated its potential for competitive flamboyance and rebelliousness. In his piece for Atlantic Monthly he wrote of Fischer: “I’ve never seen a clearer case of the killer instinct written on a young man’s face. … I’ve seen the Nashville Bear shoot pool; I’ve watched Wimpy Lassiter, Rags Ragland … I’ve watched the Ufala Kid shoot nine ball for 20 hours straight in Lexington, Kentucky. Those men are all killers—born winners—and I’ve tried a few of them on a table. But I wouldn’t play croquet with Bobby Fischer.”
By 1978, Walter Tevis was two years sober, divorced, and had built his chess rating up from 1166 to 1421, a respectable club-level player. He had also survived two suicide attempts. “I tried to kill myself about 10 years ago,” he told The San Fransisco Examiner. “A few years later I was planning it again. Somehow it occurred to me that people were doing this all over just because they’re afraid to quit their jobs or divorce their wives. Change is more difficult than death for a lot of people. That’s silly, if you think about it. The thing is to go ahead and change, then if it doesn’t work you can always kill yourself later.” Tevis changed up his routine and moved to New York City to focus on getting his writing career back in shape. Two years later he published a science-fiction novel about alcoholism called Mockingbird; three years after that he published The Queen’s Gambit.
It seemed an odd choice to write about chess: By 1983, the fever that had swept America in the 1970s had mostly died down, and Tevis was someone who had made a name for himself as both a science-fiction writer and a chronicler of the world of gambling and poolrooms. But the writer saw The Queen’s Gambit as a fitting addition to his oeuvre. “Many players [of both chess and pool] are loners trying to escape from personal problems,” he told Chess Life magazine. “I like writing about people who are somewhat outcasts from society. … Highly intelligent, out of place characters. I like to write about alienation.”
The Queen’s Gambit is a portrait of one of those outcasts. Beth Harmon is clearly broken, and chess is helping her put herself back together. “I think that most people take up the game of chess in a very serious way if they have personality problems. When they’re trying to stay away from something else in life,” Tevis told Book Beat. “Y’know, getting rid of some of that anxiety by displacing it in something that was relatively safe.”
Tevis found New York City helped his productivity as a writer, and he was buzzing with ideas. “I’ve got New York City at my disposal,” he said in 1980. “If I’m bored, I’ve got no excuse for being bored.” The next year he followed The Queen’s Gambit with The Color of Money, a sequel to his first book, The Hustler. He immediately sold the film rights and Richard Price went to work on a screenplay. Though the eventual film would bear little resemblance to Tevis’s book, it would win Paul Newman his first Oscar and become a critical darling and box office hit. But Tevis wouldn’t get to enjoy any of it. Eight days after the book was published, Tevis died from lung cancer at the age of 56.
Plenty has been written about how much The Queen’s Gambit gets right about chess. That’s a credit to its writer: Tevis loved chess enough to make sure the book’s chess scenes were accurate, despite the fact that getting it right wasn’t central to the average reader’s appreciation of the book. Readers (and now, viewers) also are able to empathize with Harmon despite most of us not knowing a thing about chess, and some of the luckier among us not knowing a thing about addiction, because her story feels so sincere and real. That’s because Tevis loved Harmon enough to get her right as well. After all, so much of her is him.
Tevis’s characters, no matter how fantastic or far fetched, whether they are gamblers or aliens, always feel true. At times, reality has even bent toward his fictions, rather than the other way around. The pool room he described in The Hustler was the only pool room he had ever been in at that point in his life but today, most pool rooms in America continue to look just like it. The pool player Rudolf Wanderone, who was known in the world of pool as New York Fats, famously changed his name to Minnesota Fats and convinced the world that he was the inspiration for the Minnesota Fats character in the book, despite the fact that Tevis invented Minnesota Fats from whole cloth. “A lot of people ask me, ‘When did you first meet Minnesota Fats?’ And I feel like Walt Disney being asked, ‘When did you meet Donald Duck?’” he told Brick.
Today, 34 years after Walter Tevis died, his fiction feels as true as ever. So much so that the success of the Netflix show has sent many to their computers to look up whether The Queen’s Gambit and Elizabeth Harmon are based on a true story. Some are perhaps disappointed to learn it is a work of fiction. But it isn’t that simple. In so many ways, Beth Harmon is the real thing.
David Hill’s book, The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice, is out now. His website is davidhillonline.com.