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The Queen's Gambit
The Queen's Gambit
The Queen's Gambit
Ebook363 pages

The Queen's Gambit

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars



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American novelist Walter Tevis writes an incredible and compelling story of a seemingly nondescript orphan’s journey to fame in the world of chess.

Painfully shy Beth Harmon becomes an orphan when her parents are killed in a tragic car accident. Growing up in an orphanage in Kentucky, Beth befriends a janitor who introduces her to chess. The young girl is enchanted by this game of skill and soon becomes obsessed with learning more. Beth acquires a habit of stealing, as well as indulging in her foster mother’s tranquilizers. At thirteen, Beth wins her first chess tournament. At sixteen, Beth is competing in the US Open Championship. At eighteen, she is the US Chess Champion. But will her fast-paced lifestyle catch up with her? Navigating normal life while battling a drug addiction is difficult enough. What happens when all eyes are on you?

Fast-moving and elegantly written, The Queen’s Gambit is a thriller impersonating a coming-of-age novel—one that’s sure to keep you guessing her next move.

Editor's Note


Can’t get enough of Beth Harmon’s defiant charm and masterful chess-playing? “The Queen’s Gambit” Netflix show is based on this book of the same name, published decades ago and inspired by various elements of author Walter Tevis’ life (he was a Class C chess competitor himself, and describes the game with a rare beauty).

Release dateSep 29, 2014
The Queen's Gambit
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Rating: 4.151006711409396 out of 5 stars

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  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    Classic. Set in the 1950's this story of a female chess prodigy makes chess enthralling, even if you don't play it. I love the way Tevis introduces us to this world, where Beth Harmon, 8 years old and given daily tranquilizers by the orphanage, discovers chess in the basement by watching the janitor. The tone is dry but gripping, as we follow Beth and her discoveries of world and self via chess. I read this book when it first came out (early 80's?) and it hasn't dated a bit, it's still wryly riveting and well worth spending time with. It's a keeper, buy it you won't regret it.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    This novel is a nearly perfect work of fiction. It is a gritty, realistic, yet inspiring story.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    A fantastic book. Makes me want to start playing chess again.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    Easy read, wonderful story. Doesn’t matter if you don’t play chess, that isn’t really what it is about.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    An interesting story of an obsessed young woman. A very good read.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    A great read simple but expansive, very easy to get through with fine points about chess and life.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    This is a wonderful book about a chess prodigy and how she conquers her own demons while taking the chess world by storm. There is a great Netflix series of this, but I felt that the book gave you more insight to the character of Beth Harmon. It is a fast read and is very well written.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    Great read!! Exciting story. Gotta love Beth Harmon. Loved it
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    I loved the book so much but could not read the last paragraph because it asked if I wanted to leave a review where the ending was. SO IRRITATING. The book was very good though
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    I'm no more able to say who my favourite character in literature is than I can name my favourite book, but right now I think it might be Beth Harmon. It astonishes me that I somehow never heard of this book before Netflix taught it to me, but I'm grateful to have found it by any means. Not only is it a novel about chess, it is also chess in the form of a novel: the familiar opening story of a child prodigy, then the midgame variations, followed by the climactic endgame that can only end in one of three ways. Beth begins with flawed confidence, loses her way, and then has to struggle back. She makes strong advances and winning attacks, but experiences trade-offs and losses along the way. She has to muster a more refined sense of confidence from somewhere or fall apart.Beth is largely alone in her struggle, by choice, but never alone entirely. Mr. Sheibel is there at the start, introducing her to the game. Jolene is there too, her confidante, establishing a model. Alma Wheatley is a fascinating mix of would-be parent and agent, more enabling than loving but never harming. Townes, Beltik and Benny Watts are admirers, sometimes lovers, who want to see her succeed. But it is all up to Beth and the choices she makes. Borgov is not the antagonist. Beth must overcome herself to win.Two hundred pages is a short novel to read, but the described chess matches are less friendly to those unfamiliar with the game than they are onscreen. In the novel their depiction holds a special appeal to readers like myself who know the game and have felt the magical tension depicted, the highs and lows, the threats and countermoves that can lead to bitter defeat or a satisfying win. Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe this can be the doorway to discovering a wonderful past-time. The novel ends where the series does, only here it struck me harder as the wonderful tribute it's meant to be. This story honors the game and all of its players, at all skill levels. May I live to see a real Beth Harmon take the world stage in my lifetime, even if it's not until I'm one of those old men in the park.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    Thoroughly enjoyable. Fundamentally close to the Netflix series that has popularized it almost forty years after publication, Tevis' novel mostly differs in two regards: it lacks a few of the contrivances that put certain figures back into Beth's life in the final third of the book (which is a bit overly tidy anyway), and more importantly, it lets the reader have insight on Beth's thinking processes. Beth "strategizes" her addictions just as she does her chess games, making deliberate maneuvers, and the same principle guides the limitation of her emotion and even the suppression of her sexual desire. I can just about manage to intuit some of that from the TV series, but by never letting us into Beth's head, there's always a question—whereas the novel is very clear. In fact, one of the highlights of Tevis' writing is that it is crisp, clear, and without sentiment—in keeping with his subject, as well as his other novels. I was impressed, though, that in this case he was able to get across the viewpoint of a young woman a full generation younger than himself. There's no sense of infidelity to her character, perhaps because he focuses more on who she is as a person—an outsider, who sees the world as something that must be strategically navigated—more than any aspect of her gender or generation. Tevis must have empathized with that viewpoint as it seems seems central to his fiction.The chess games are exciting, even tense, and the characters are well-drawn even while most of them remain curt. Speaking personally, it's nice to read something that feels so complete and thought-out without dragging me through hundreds of pages of emotional torment or overwrought description. The Queen's Gambit is a good story, well told, without any filler—and that's no bad thing.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    This one was a reread, and yes, inspired by the terrific Netflix series. It was a pleasure in the ‘80s, and again three plus decades later. Summary: young girl in orphanage overcomes adversity in rising to international chess supremacy. Why is the orphan trope so popular in literature? Dickens, Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables and Harry Potter are just a few which come easily to mind. The terror of being alone in the world, unprotected from danger, in the care of neglectful or malevolent custodians….emphatically apply in the case of Beth Harmon. The 8 year old is sent to an orphanage after the death of her mother. She and the other residents are chemically sedated at night, a practice unfortunately utilized in mid-20th century American orphanages. Her deliverance begins in the basement, as she follows the janitor playing out chess games alone. We watch a prodigy emerge.This book is distinctly about three interweaving themes: surviving a childhood of neglect, a young woman in a world of male power, and more than anything, that elusive entity we call genius. We are enchanted by the brilliance of a young girl, whose gifts are hers uniquely, uncultivated by instruction, sui generis. The contrast between her outer deprivation and her inner creativity make it hard to avert one’s eyes. It’s a powerful story of sweet redemption and ultimately ascendency. Drug addiction, loneliness, and confusion notwithstanding.Full disclosure: I am a fan of chess. As a child I followed life in chess during the Cold War, saw the culmination of Bobby Fischer’s career in defeating Boris Spassky, participated in tournaments in the 1970s. Tevis captures much of the spirit of tournament chess during that fraught era, and the successful portrayal of that atmosphere contributes to the realism and satisfaction of the book.Queen’s Gambit is something of a page turner. It’s hard to put down. You are heavily rooting for the protagonist. Deliciously entertaining.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    It was a very good read, even without any knowledge of chess, because Tevis is a great story teller. He knows the chess game by heart. And next to it he connects social history, African-American history, with women's history by sketching the developments in Beth Harmon's familiy history and her exceptional talent with which she endured her stiffled life in the orphanage. And her friendship with black inmate Jolene. I saw the Netflix series first. I lent this book from my daughter. The Netflix series made the way for the book. Well done!
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    I have a bad reaction to chess because of a couple of boyfriends who were convinced I needed to learn it. I’m horrible at anything that involves strategy, can’t follow it in plots. The only strategy I’ve ever understood is feint high and hit low, from my fencing days. But I could follow the games in the book without understanding - each one’s tensions are very clear.It’s hard, in a way, to review a book about a prodigy because by definition they aren’t like other people and have an uncommon skill, so how to judge whether they’re a realistic character? I’m also uncomfortable with self destructive characters. I understand why she needs to self-medicate but I had a hard time reading it. I didn’t dislike her but didn’t find her relatable. I liked her relationship with Mr. Seibel, the janitor, and I enjoyed seeing Mrs. Wheatley and Beth grow closer and enjoy the spoils of her success.I confess I don’t understand the love for this book. The story arc for this kind of character seems obvious: climb higher and higher, face challenges, crack up, somehow recover and find redemption. At the climax she’s going to play the Russian champion and will either win or lose; the only suspense is how. I loved how her friends stepped up for her but I thought it would be more interesting if the ending was she loses, but it doesn’t break her, and we know she’ll beat him another day.. I wondered about the sexual stuff at the orphanage, then when Jolene came back in her life, thought they might become a couple. Maybe that’s in their future. .
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    Great book, lacking only in that it's a little predictable as far as the games go. The story is easy to follow and it does get you involved. I mainly read the book because I wanted to read it before watching the Netflix series, but I'm glad I did. It was well written. I would recommend this book.

    2 people found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    Beth Harman is orphaned by tragedy at a young age and grew up neglected and addicted to tranquilizers in an orphanage in Kentucky. However, when the groundskeeper teachers her how to play chess, she finds an unexpected outlet from her loneliness and a meager joy to feed her soul. Eventually, the orphanage forbids her to play anymore with the groundskeeper and she resorts to entirely mental games for years. When she is adopted, she begins to seek out others to play chess with. She manages to steal the entry fee for a local tournament and despite having never played competitively before, she manages to defeat everyone including the state champion. This first victory will prove life-changing as the prize money she wins will convince her mother to take her interest in chess seriously. With the investment of her parent, Beth begins travelling to various tournaments, building her skills, reputation, and small nest egg.However, the specter of addiction continues to haunt her. Chess is the only thing she loves, the only thing that makes her continue living and when she hits setbacks only tranquilizers and alcohol give her peace. When her adoptive mother dies, she is once again alone in the world and will have to make her own way in pursuit of her dreams to play against the greatest chess masters in the world.This book captivated me from the first page to the bitter end. Beth's is such a compelling character, and despite the fact that I know very little about chess, I found the book's description of games and competition very exciting.
  • Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
    Enjoyable book that follows the Netflix series pretty well. If you're going to give it a shot - and if you're a fan of the show or of chess, you might want to - go with the eyeball version. The narrator left a lot to be desired. I think I would have enjoyed a text-to-speech reader more.I listened through the Audible Premium Plus catalog so at least I'm not out a credit...
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    Walter Tevis’s novel The Queen’s Gambit tells the story of Beth Harmon, a gifted young chess player growing up in 1950s–1960s Kentucky. She learns chess while living in an orphanage, realizing that she has a natural aptitude for it, and competes professionally after being adopted. Along the way, she balances her drive against addiction to tranquilizers and alcohol. Tevis brilliantly describes events, with the blow-by-blow of the matches resembling the punctuation of a battle. The book inspired the Netflix miniseries of the same title in 2020, which only made minor changes to the story, but the novel is a brilliant work of fiction. Tevis doesn’t waste a single word and crafts a particularly compelling narrative.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    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.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    I found this book lying on a table at the library one day and started reading it. A great story--I keep recommending it to people but I don't think anyone's taken me up on it yet.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    As a long time amateur chess player, I thought this book created an excellent portrayal of how the game can easily become an obsession. Even for the greatest players, it cannot be mastered--yet there are wonderful moments when you do feel in completely in control of the board. With plenty of metaphors for life, addiction, success, loss, sacrifice, and more--Tevis tells a good story. I've I'm being completely honest, it's not five-star literature and some characters are pretty flat. That said, for chess fans, this is a hard book to put down and it's easy to see how it has brought far more people to the game than Modern Chess Openings.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    I refused to eat and talk to my roommate just so I can finish this in a day.
    I rarely feel excited about reading a book.
    Such a page-turner!
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    Pandemic read. I wanted to read this before we watched the Netflix adaptation. Both were very well done, and it didn't hurt to have read the book so close to the viewing. Fascinating on many levels.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    After watching the superb NETFLIX adaptation of this book, I was curious about the book. The adaptation adheres very closely to the novel, with the exception of building more backstory than Tevis gives us; the scenes between Beth and her mother, in particular, are developed more fully than in the book. For those who have not seen the NETFLIX version, the book is a great read, with spare, direct prose, and a quick pace. I had already seen the end of the series, and I knew how it ended, and I STILL found myself racing through the last quarter of the book, in a good way. That's a measure of the suspense Tevis builds into the story. That said, when I went back and reread sections (when I wasn't reading for plot), I realized (to my great enjoyment) how subtly Tevis had woven in some suggestive, nuanced themes. For example, here are the opening lines: "Beth learned of her mother's death from a woman with a clipboard. The next day her picture appeared in the Herald-Leader. ... A legend under her picture read: 'Orphaned by yesterday's pile-up on New Circle Road, Elizabeth Harmon surveys a troubled future.'" So from the first lines, he suggests that Beth apprehends her life not as her own lived experience but mediated through the eyes of others, through words and photographs about her, and in the company of someone with a [clip]board. The plot propels the story along, but it was with pleasure that I went back to the beginning and thought about chess as the central metaphor, with all its multiple meanings. I'll be adding his other books to my TBR.
  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    What a difficult book to classify! Definitely a coming-of-age story, but it is so much more.After her mother's death, Beth Harmon ends up in a Kentucky orphanage. The children are given tranquilizers to "even out their moods". Beth learns that by saving them, she can take multiples and sleep well at night. As she struggles to adjust to her new home, she finds the janitor in the basement playing chess. She convinces him to teach her, and she quickly beats him at every game. He invites a chess-playing friend, who gets her a showcase at the local high school chess club. She beats everyone.But then the orphanage staff punishes her--but taking away chess.At the age of 12, she is adopted by the Wheatleys. When Alma Wheatley learns how good she is, she happily takes her to tournaments. Beth generally wins. She has few friends, and they are from the world of chess. They teach her to study, to examine moves, and happily help her as she surpasses them all. Her only female friend is Jolene from the orphanage--now a college student in PE. Jolene teaches her the importance of eating well and working out.As Beth climbs toward the top of international chess, she recognizes how the people around her have helped shape her--from Mr Seibel the janitor, Mr Ganz his chess friend, to Mrs Wheatley, Jolene, Benny Watts and the other players. The male chess players accept her in their midst more than the media accepts her playing.I found this book sad and interesting and very good a s coming-of-age novel with a twist. I accidentally learned a lot about chess notation, but the descriptions of games got to be a little bit much. I actually dreamed the notation one night--not exactly a nightmare, but it woke me up and I could not sleep, it was stuck in my brain LOL.I have not watched the Netflix series, but I guess I will now.
  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    I had thought this was a book for children, since it is about an 8 year old girl who learns chess. However, it is an adult novel, with interesting characters. The girl, an orphan in Kentucky in the 1950s, is given a daily tranquilizer, along with the other orphans, to keep them quiet. This starts an addiction that develops along with her Chess prodigy skills. She becomes an US Chess champion, and later faces the Russian Chess Grandmasters, who really frighten her. The pacing is good, the characters are realistic, and you soon begin to care for the people in the book. A little knowledge of chess will help understand what is going on, but the tension is not shown in the moves, but the reactions to the games and positions the players put themselves in to. A good book.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    Great psychological suspense - who would think chess game descriptions could be so revealing or riveting. Very compelling reading.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    Elizabeth "Beth" Harmon started as an orphan after her mother is killed in a car accident. Having lived a sheltered life she is scared of everything. Having no friends and no security she finds comfort in institution-issued tranquilizers and learning to play chess with the janitor in the basement. As a 12-year-old she is adopted by a strangely distant couple, Mr. & Mrs. Wheatley. I was disappointed by the lack of character development for Beth's adoptive parents. Their actions throughout the story are confusing and I found myself second-guessing their intentions. But, The Queen's Gambit is not about the Wheatleys. It's about Beth's rise to fame as a top notch chess player in a male dominated world. With Mrs. Wheatley's support Beth gets involved in the tournament scene and starts her catapult to the top, beating out the best of them. The only thing holding her back is her past. She never loses the addictions she found at the orphanage. As she struggles to keep sober she learns valuable lessons about what it means to need people.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
    A wonderful and truly gripping account of a gifted girl's life in a state orphanage, and her struggle to manage in society as a professional chess player. Beth's story is touching and her interaction with the other characters throughout this novel realistic and thought-provoking. On top of this, Tevis' writing fills every page with suspense and drama. Somehow, this is edge-of-your-seat stuff and a real lesson in unputdownability.

    1 person found this helpful

  • Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
    I picked this up because I was reading somewhere about the Queen's Gambit as an evolutionary theory, and somehow led me to this book. When I saw it was written by the guy who wrote The Hustler, The Color of Money and The Man Who Fell To Earth, I thought I would pick this up about an extraordinary prodigy chess girl. Surprisingly, he wrote well from a girl's perspective - he didn't screw it up like a lot of male authors do, nor make it seem he wrote about a guy character with a girl's name - and also realistically described the drive someone with a crazy talent like her would be like, and the way their talent can lead them to crazy self-destruction.Makes you wonder why this book wasn't made into a movie like the others - is it because it's about a girl who is talented but isn't "sexy"?

    1 person found this helpful

Book preview

The Queen's Gambit - Walter Tevis

The Queen’s Gambit

Walter Tevis


The Queen’s Gambit

Copyright © 1983, 2014 by Walter Tevis

Cover art, special contents, and electronic edition © 2014 by RosettaBooks LLC

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who may quote brief passages in a review.

Grateful acknowledgment is made to Scribner, an imprint of the Simon and Schuster Adult Publishing Group and A. P. Watt Limited for permission to reprint ten lines from The Long-Legged Fly from The Collected Works of W. B. Yeats, Volume 1: The Poems, Revised, edited by Richard J. Finneran. Copyright © 1940 by Georgie Yeats; copyright renewed 1968 by Bertha Georgie Yeats, Michael Butler Yeats and Anne Yeats. Rights outside of the United States are controlled by A. P. Watt Limited, London. Reprinted by permission.

Cover design by Brad Albright

ISBN e-Pub edition: 9780795343063

For Eleanora

That the topless towers be burnt

And men recall that face,

Move gently if move you must

In this lonely place.

She thinks, part woman, three parts a child,

That nobody looks; her feet

Practice a tinker shuffle

Picked up on a street.

Like a long-legged fly upon the stream

Her mind moves upon silence.

—W. B. YEATS, Long-legged Fly


The superb chess of Grandmasters Robert Fischer, Boris Spassky and Anatoly Karpov has been a source of delight to players like myself for years. Since The Queen’s Gambit is a work of fiction, however, it seemed prudent to omit them from the cast of characters, if only to prevent contradiction of the record.

I would like to express my thanks to Joe Ancrile, Fairfield Hoban and Stuart Morden, all excellent players, who helped me with books, magazines and tournament rules. And I was fortunate to have the warm-hearted and diligent help of National Master Bruce Pandolfini in proofreading the text and helping me rid it of errors concerning the game he plays so enviably well.

















Beth learned of her mother’s death from a woman with a clipboard. The next day her picture appeared in the Herald-Leader. The photograph, taken on the porch of the gray house on Maplewood Drive, showed Beth in a simple cotton frock. Even then, she was clearly plain. A legend under the picture read: Orphaned by yesterday’s pile-up on New Circle Road, Elizabeth Harmon surveys a troubled future. Elizabeth, eight, was left without family by the crash, which killed two and injured others. At home alone at the time, Elizabeth learned of the accident shortly before the photo was taken. She will be well looked after, authorities say.


In the Methuen Home in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, Beth was given a tranquilizer twice a day. So were all the other children, to even their dispositions. Beth’s disposition was all right, as far as anyone could see, but she was glad to get the little pill. It loosened something deep in her stomach and helped her doze away the tense hours in the orphanage.

Mr. Fergussen gave them the pills in a little paper cup. Along with the green one that evened the disposition, there were orange and brown ones for building a strong body. The children had to line up to get them.

The tallest girl was the black one, Jolene. She was twelve. On her second day Beth stood behind her in Vitamin Line, and Jolene turned to look down at her, scowling. You a real orphan or a bastard?

Beth did not know what to say. She was frightened. They were at the back of the line, and she was supposed to stand there until they got up to the window where Mr. Fergussen stood. Beth had heard her mother call her father a bastard, but she didn’t know what it meant.

What’s your name, girl? Jolene asked.


Your mother dead? What about your daddy?

Beth stared at her. The words mother and dead were unbearable. She wanted to run, but there was no place to run to.

Your folks, Jolene said in a voice that was not unsympathetic, they dead?

Beth could find nothing to say or do. She stood in line terrified, waiting for the pills.


You’re all greedy cocksuckers! It was Ralph in the Boys’ Ward who shouted that. She heard it because she was in the library and it had a window facing Boys’. She had no mental image for cocksucker, and the word was strange. But she knew from the sound of it they would wash his mouth out with soap. They’d done it to her for damn—and Mother had said Damn all the time.


The barber made her sit absolutely still in the chair. If you move, you might just lose an ear. There was nothing jovial in his voice. Beth sat as quietly as she could, but it was impossible to keep completely still. It took him a very long time to cut her hair into the bangs they all wore. She tried to occupy herself by thinking of that word, cocksucker. All she could picture was a bird, like a woodpecker. But she felt that was wrong.


The janitor was fatter on one side than on the other. His name was Shaibel. Mr. Shaibel. One day she was sent to the basement to clean the blackboard erasers by clomping them together, and she found him sitting on a metal stool near the furnace scowling over a green-and-white checkerboard in front of him. But where the checkers should be there were little plastic things in funny shapes. Some were larger than others. There were more of the small ones than any of the others. The janitor looked up at her. She left in silence.

On Friday, everybody ate fish, Catholic or not. It came in squares, breaded with a dark, brown, dry crust and covered with a thick orange sauce, like bottled French dressing. The sauce was sweet and terrible, but the fish beneath it was worse. The taste of it nearly gagged her. But you had to eat every bite, or Mrs. Deardorff would be told about you and you wouldn’t get adopted.

Some children got adopted right off. A six-year-old named Alice had come in a month after Beth and was taken in three weeks by some nice-looking people with an accent. They walked through the ward on the day they came for Alice. Beth had wanted to throw her arms around them because they looked happy to her, but she turned away when they glanced at her. Other children had been there a long time and knew they would never leave. They called themselves lifers. Beth wondered if she was a lifer.


Gym was bad, and volleyball was the worst. Beth could never hit the ball right. She would slap at it fiercely or push at it with stiff fingers. Once she hurt her finger so much that it swelled up afterward. Most of the girls laughed and shouted when they played, but Beth never did.

Jolene was the best player by far. It wasn’t just that she was older and taller; she always knew exactly what to do, and when the ball came high over the net, she could station herself under it without having to shout at the others to keep out of her way, and then leap up and spike it down with a long, smooth movement of her arm. The team that had Jolene always won.

The week after Beth hurt her finger, Jolene stopped her when gym ended and the others were rushing back to the showers. Lemme show you something, Jolene said. She held her hands up with the long fingers open and slightly flexed. You do it like this. She bent her elbows and pushed her hands up smoothly, cupping an imaginary ball. Try it.

Beth tried it, awkwardly at first. Jolene showed her again, laughing. Beth tried a few more times and did it better. Then Jolene got the ball and had Beth catch it with her fingertips. After a few times it got to be easy.

You work on that now, hear? Jolene said and ran off to the shower.

Beth worked on it over the next week, and after that she did not mind volleyball at all. She did not become good at it, but it wasn’t something she was afraid of anymore.


Every Tuesday, Miss Graham sent Beth down after Arithmetic to do the erasers. It was considered a privilege, and Beth was the best student in the class, even though she was the youngest. She did not like the basement. It smelled musty, and she was afraid of Mr. Shaibel. But she wanted to know more about the game he played on that board by himself.

One day she went over and stood near him, waiting for him to move a piece. The one he was touching was the one with a horse’s head on a little pedestal. After a second he looked up at her with a frown of irritation. "What do you want, child?" he said.

Normally she fled from any human encounter, especially with grownups, but this time she did not back away. What’s that game called? she asked.

He stared at her. You should be upstairs with the others.

She looked at him levelly; something about this man and the steadiness with which he played his mysterious game helped her to hold tightly to what she wanted. I don’t want to be with the others, she said. I want to know what game you’re playing.

He looked at her more closely. Then he shrugged. It’s called chess.


A bare light bulb hung from a black cord between Mr. Shaibel and the furnace. Beth was careful not to let the shadow of her head fall on the board. It was Sunday morning. They were having chapel upstairs in the library, and she had held up her hand for permission to go to the bathroom and then come down here. She had been standing, watching the janitor play chess, for ten minutes. Neither of them had spoken, but he seemed to accept her presence.

He would stare at the pieces for minutes at a time, motionless, looking at them as though he hated them, and then reach out over his belly, pick one up by its top with his fingertips, hold it for a moment as though holding a dead mouse by the tail and set it on another square. He did not look up at Beth.

Beth stood with the black shadow of her head on the concrete floor at her feet and watched the board, not taking her eyes from it, watching every move.


She had learned to save her tranquilizers until night. That helped her sleep. She would put the oblong pill in her mouth when Mr. Fergussen handed it to her, get it under her tongue, take a sip of the canned orange juice that came with the pill, swallow, and then when Mr. Fergussen had gone on to the next child, take the pill from her mouth and slip it into the pocket of her middy blouse. The pill had a hard coating and did not soften in the time it sat under her tongue.

For the first two months she had slept very little. She tried to, lying still with her eyes tightly shut. But she would hear the girls in the other beds cough or turn or mutter, or a night orderly would walk down the corridor and the shadow would cross her bed and she would see it, even with her eyes closed. A distant phone would ring, or a toilet would flush. But worst of all was when she heard voices talking at the desk at the end of the corridor. No matter how softly the orderly spoke to the night attendant, no matter how pleasantly, Beth immediately found herself tense and fully awake. Her stomach contracted, she tasted vinegar in her mouth; and sleep would be out of the question for that night.

Now she would snuggle up in bed, allowing herself to feel the tension in her stomach with a thrill, knowing it would soon leave her. She waited there in the dark, alone, monitoring herself, waiting for the turmoil in her to peak. Then she swallowed the two pills and lay back until the ease began to spread through her body like the waves of a warm sea.


Will you teach me?

Mr. Shaibel said nothing, did not even register the question with a movement of his head. Distant voices from above were singing Bringing in the Sheaves.

She waited for several minutes. Her voice almost broke with the effort of her words, but she pushed them out, anyway: I want to learn to play chess.

Mr. Shaibel reached out a fat hand to one of the larger black pieces, picked it up deftly by its head and set it down on a square at the other side of the board. He brought the hand back and folded his arms across his chest. He still did not look at Beth. I don’t play strangers.

The flat voice had the effect of a slap in the face. Beth turned and left, walking upstairs with the bad taste in her mouth.

I’m not a stranger, she said to him two days later. I live here. Behind her head a small moth circled the bare bulb, and its pale shadow crossed the board at regular intervals. You can teach me. I already know some of it, from watching.

Girls don’t play chess. Mr. Shaibel’s voice was flat.

She steeled herself and took a step closer, pointing at, but not touching, one of the cylindrical pieces that she had already labeled a cannon in her imagination. This one moves up and down or back and forth. All the way, if there’s space to move in.

Mr. Shaibel was silent for a while. Then he pointed at the one with what looked like a slashed lemon on top. And this one?

Her heart leapt. On the diagonals.


You could save up pills by taking only one at night and keeping the other. Beth put the extras in her toothbrush holder, where nobody would ever look. She just had to make sure to dry the toothbrush as much as she could with a paper towel after she used it, or else not use it at all and rub her teeth clean with a finger.

That night for the first time she took three pills, one after the other. Little prickles went across the hairs on the back of her neck; she had discovered something important. She let the glow spread all over her, lying on her cot in her faded blue pajamas in the worst place in the Girls’ Ward, near the door to the corridor and across from the bathroom. Something in her life was solved: she knew about the chess pieces and how they moved and captured, and she knew how to make herself feel good in the stomach and in the tense joints of her arms and legs, with the pills the orphanage gave her.


Okay, child, Mr. Shaibel said. We can play chess now. I play White.

She had the erasers. It was after Arithmetic, and Geography was in ten minutes. I don’t have much time, she said. She had learned all the moves last Sunday, during the hour that chapel allowed her to be in the basement. No one ever missed her at chapel, as long as she checked in, because of the group of girls that came from Children’s, across town. But Geography was different. She was terrified of Mr. Schell, even though she was at the top of the class.

The janitor’s voice was flat. Now or never, he said.

I have Geography…

Now or never.

She thought only a second before deciding. She had seen an old milk crate behind the furnace. She dragged it to the other end of the board, seated herself and said, Move.

He beat her with what she was to learn later was called the Scholar’s Mate, after four moves. It was quick, but not quick enough to keep her from being fifteen minutes late for Geography. She said she’d been in the bathroom.

Mr. Schell stood at the desk with his hands on his hips. He surveyed the class. Have any of you young ladies seen this young lady in the ladies’?

There were subdued giggles. No hands were raised, not even Jolene’s, although Beth had lied for her twice.

And how many of you ladies were in the ladies’ before class?

There were more giggles and three hands.

And did any of you see Beth there? Washing her pretty little hands, perhaps?

There was no response. Mr. Schell turned back to the board, where he had been listing the exports of Argentina, and added the word silver. For a moment Beth thought it was done with. But then he spoke, with his back to the class. Five demerits, he said.

With ten demerits you were whipped on the behind with a leather strap. Beth had felt that strap only in her imagination, but her imagination expanded for a moment with a vision of pain like fire on the soft parts of herself. She put a hand to her heart, feeling in the bottom of the breast pocket of her blouse for that morning’s pill. The fear reduced itself perceptibly. She visualized her toothbrush holder, the long rectangular plastic container; it had four more pills in it now, there in the drawer of the little metal stand by her cot.

That night she lay on her back in bed. She had not yet taken the pill in her hand. She listened to the night noises and noticed how they seemed to get louder as her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness. Down the hallway Mr. Byrne began talking to Mrs. Holland, at the desk. Beth’s body grew taut at the sound. She blinked and looked at the dark ceiling overhead and forced herself to see the chessboard with its green and white squares. Then she put the pieces on their home squares: rook, knight, bishop, queen, king, and the row of pawns in front of them. Then she moved White’s king pawn up to the fourth row. She pushed Black’s up. She could do this! It was simple. She went on, beginning to replay the game she had lost.

She brought Mr. Shaibel’s knight up to the third row. It stood there clearly in her mind on the green-and-white board on the ceiling of the ward.

The noises had already faded into a white, harmonious background. Beth lay happily in bed, playing chess.


The next Sunday she blocked the Scholar’s Mate with her king’s knight. She had gone over the game in her mind a hundred times, until the anger and humiliation were purged from it, leaving the pieces and the board clear in her nighttime vision. When she came to play Mr. Shaibel on Sunday, it was all worked out, and she moved the knight as if in a dream. She loved the feel of the piece, the miniature horse’s head in her hand. When she set down the knight on the square, the janitor scowled at it. He took his queen by the head and checked Beth’s king with it. But Beth was ready for that too; she had seen it in bed the night before.

It took him fourteen moves to trap her queen. She tried to play on, queenless, to ignore the mortal loss, but he reached out and stopped her hand from touching the pawn she was about to move. You resign now, he said. His voice was rough.


That’s right, child. When you lose the queen that way, you resign.

She stared at him, not comprehending. He let go of her hand, picked up her black king, and set it on its side on the board. It rolled back and forth for a moment and then lay still.

"No," she said.

Yes. You have resigned the game.

She wanted to hit him with something. You didn’t tell me that in the rules.

It’s not a rule. It’s sportsmanship.

She knew now what he meant, but she did not like it. I want to finish, she said. She picked up the king and set it back on its square.


You’ve got to finish, she said.

He raised his eyebrows and got up. She had never seen him stand in the basement—only out in the halls when he was sweeping or in the classrooms when he washed the blackboards. He had to stoop a bit now to keep his head from hitting the rafters on the low ceiling. No, he said. You lost.

It wasn’t fair. She had no interest in sportsmanship. She wanted to play and to win. She wanted to win more than she had ever wanted anything. She said a word she had not said since her mother died: Please.

Game’s over, he said.

She stared at him in fury. You greedy…

He let his arms drop straight at his sides and said slowly, No more chess. Get out.

If only she were bigger. But she wasn’t. She got up from the board and walked to the stairs while the janitor watched her in silence.


On Tuesday when she went down the hall to the basement door carrying the erasers, she found that the door was locked. She pushed against it twice with her hip, but it wouldn’t budge. She knocked, softly at first and then loudly, but there was no sound from the other side. It was horrible. She knew he was in there sitting at the board, that he was just being angry at her from the last time, but there was nothing she could do about it. When she brought back the erasers, Miss Graham didn’t even notice they hadn’t been cleaned or that Beth was back sooner than usual.

On Thursday she was certain it would be the same, but it wasn’t. The door was open, and when she went down the stairs, Mr. Shaibel acted as though nothing had happened. The pieces were set up. She cleaned the erasers hurriedly and seated herself at the board. Mr. Shaibel had moved his king’s pawn by the time she got there. She played her king’s pawn, moving it two squares forward. She would not make any mistakes this time.

He responded to her move quickly, and she immediately replied. They said nothing to each other, but kept moving. Beth could feel the tension, and she liked it.

On the twentieth move Mr. Shaibel advanced a knight when he shouldn’t have and Beth was able to get a pawn to the sixth rank. He brought the knight back. It was a wasted move and she felt a thrill when she saw him do it. She traded her bishop for the knight. Then, on the next move, she pushed the pawn again. It would become a queen on the next move.

He looked at it sitting there and then reached out angrily and toppled his king. Neither of them said anything. It was her first win. All of the tension was gone, and what Beth felt inside herself was as wonderful as anything she had ever felt in her life.


She found she could miss lunch on Sundays, and no one paid any attention. That gave her three hours with Mr. Shaibel, until he left for home at two-thirty. They did not talk, either of them. He always played the white pieces, moving first, and she the black. She had thought about questioning this but decided not to.

One Sunday, after a game he had barely managed to win, he said to her, You should learn the Sicilian Defense.

What’s that? she asked irritably.

She was still smarting from the loss. She had beaten him two games last week.

When White moves pawn to queen four, Black does this. He reached down and moved the white pawn two squares up the board, his almost invariable first move. Then he picked up the pawn in front of the black queen’s bishop and set it down two squares up toward the middle. It was the first time he had ever shown her anything like this.

Then what? she said.

He picked up the king’s knight and set it below and to the right of the pawn. Knight to KB 3.

What’s KB 3?

King’s bishop 3. Where I just put the knight.

The squares have names?

He nodded impassively. She sensed that he was unwilling to give up even this much information. If you play well, they have names.

She leaned forward. Show me.

He looked down at her. No. Not now.

This infuriated her. She understood well enough that a person likes to keep his secrets. She kept hers. Nevertheless, she wanted to lean across the board and slap his face and make him tell her. She sucked in her breath. Is that the Sicilian Defense?

He seemed relieved that she had dropped the subject of the names of the squares. There’s more, he said. He went on with it, showing her the basic moves and some variations. But he did not use the names of the squares. He showed her the Levenfish Variation and the Najdorf Variation and told her to go over them. She did, without a single mistake.

But when they played a real game afterward, he pushed his queen’s pawn forward, and she could see immediately that what he had just taught her was useless in this situation. She glared at him across the board, feeling that if she had had a knife, she could have stabbed him with it. Then she looked back to the board and moved her own queen’s pawn forward, determined to beat him.

He moved the pawn next to his queen’s pawn, the one in front of the bishop. He often did this. Is that one of those things? Like the Sicilian Defense? she asked.

Openings. He did not look at her; he was watching the board.

Is it?

He shrugged. The Queen’s Gambit.

She felt better. She had learned something more from him. 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.

In twenty moves she had won both his rooks, and he resigned.

She rolled over in bed, put a pillow over her head to block out the light from under the corridor door and began to think how you could use a bishop and a rook together to make a sudden check on the king. If you moved the bishop, the king would be in check, and the bishop would be free to do whatever it wanted to on the next move—even take the queen. She lay there for quite a while, thinking excitedly of this powerful attack. Then she took the pillow off and rolled over on her back and made the chessboard on the ceiling and played over all her games with Mr. Shaibel, one at a time. She saw two places where she might have created the rook-bishop situation she had just invented. In one of them she could have forced it by a double threat, and in the other she could probably have sneaked it in. She replayed those two games in her mind with the new moves, and won them both. She smiled happily to herself and fell asleep.


The Arithmetic teacher gave the eraser cleaning to another student, saying that Beth needed a rest. It wasn’t fair, because Beth still had perfect grades in Arithmetic, but there was nothing she could do about it. She sat in class when the little red-haired boy went out of the room each day with the erasers, doing her meaningless additions and subtractions with a trembling hand. She wanted to play chess more desperately every day.

On Tuesday and Wednesday she took only one pill and saved the other. On Thursday she was able to go to sleep after playing chess in her mind for an hour or so, and she saved the day’s two pills. She did the same thing on Friday. All day Saturday, doing her work in the cafeteria kitchen and in the afternoon during the Christian movie in the library and the Personal Improvement Talk before dinner, she could feel a little glow whenever she wanted to, knowing that she had six pills in her toothbrush holder.

That night, after lights out, she took them all, one by one, and waited. The feeling, when it came, was delicious—a kind of easy sweetness in her belly and a loosening in the tight parts of her body. She kept herself awake as long as she could to enjoy the warmth inside her, the deep chemical happiness.

On Sunday when Mr. Shaibel asked where she had been, she was surprised that he cared. They wouldn’t let me out of class, she said.

He nodded. The chessboard was set up, and she saw to her surprise that the white pieces were facing her side and that the milk crate was already in place. Do I move first? she said, incredulous.

Yes. From now on we take turns. It’s the way the game should be played.

She seated herself and moved the king’s pawn. Mr. Shaibel wordlessly moved his queen bishop’s pawn. She hadn’t forgotten the moves. She never forgot chess moves. He played the Levenfish Variation; she kept her eyes on his bishop’s command of the long diagonal, the way it was waiting to pounce. And she found

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