Authors: Walter Tevis
The Queen’s Gambit
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 Mobipocket edition: 9780795343070
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. Y
, “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
. 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
, 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.”