The Queen's GambitPaperback - 2020
Eight year-old orphan Beth Harmon is quiet, sullen, and by all appearances unremarkable. That is, until she plays her first game of chess. Her senses grow sharper, her thinking clearer, and for the first time in her life she feels herself fully in control. By the age of sixteen, she's competing for the U.S. Open championship. But as Beth hones her skills on the professional circuit, the stakes get higher, her isolation grows more frightening, and the thought of escape becomes all the more tempting.
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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.”
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.
“Eight years old.” He leaned forward — as far as his huge paunch would permit. ”To tell you the truth of it, child, you are astounding.” She did not understand what he was saying.
She anticipated every feint, every threat that he knew how to make. There was no way he could confuse her with his knights, or keep a piece posted on a dangerous square, or embarrass her by pinning an important piece. She could see it coming and could prevent it while continuing to set up for attack.
Abruptly she saw herself as a small unimportant person — a plain, brown-haired orphan girl in dull institutional clothes. She was half the size of these easy, insolent students with their loud voices and bright sweaters. She felt powerless and silly. But then she looked at the boards again, with the pieces set in the familiar pattern, and the unpleasant feelings lessened. She might be out of place in this public high school, but she was not out of place with those twelve chessboards.
… the homely girl from the orphanage at the edge of town who moved from player to player with the determined energy of a Caesar in the field, a Pavlova under the lights.
“I can’t sleep without the pills,“ Beth said. There was a startled silence. No one had expected her to speak. Then Mrs. Deardorff said, “All the more reason why you should not have them.”
Sicilian in Modem Chess Openings, with a hundred and seventy different lines stemming from P — QB4. She would memorize and play through them all in her mind at night. When that was done and she knew all the variations, she could go on to the Pirć and the Nimzovitch and the Ruy Lopez.
”I thought that book was only for grandmasters” Beth hesitated. ”What’s a grandmaster?” “A genius player,“ the man said.
Beth had learned not to believe in God during her time in Methuen’s chapel, and she never prayed. But now she said, under her breath, Please God let me play Beltik and checkmate him.
He surprised her by bringing his queen out. It was a bold move, and she studied it for a while and saw that there wasn’t any weakness to it. She brought out her own queen. He moved a knight to the fifth rank, and Beth moved a knight to the fifth rank. He checked with a bishop, and she defended with a pawn. He retreated the bishop. She was feeling light now, and her fingers with the pieces were nimble. Both players began moving fast but easily. She gave a non-threatening check to his king, and he pulled away delicately and began advancing pawns. She stopped that handily with a pin and then feinted on the queenside with a rook. He was undeceived by the feint and, smiling, removed her pin, and on his next move continued the pawn advances. She retreated, hiding her king in a queenside castle. She felt somehow spacious and amused, yet her face remained serious. They continued their dance.
Beth found a pale-gray sweater on sale for twenty-four dollars, and it fit her perfectly. Looking in the tall mirror, she tried to imagine herself as a member of the Apple Pi Club, like Margaret; but the face was still Beth’s face, round and freckled, with straight brown hair. She shrugged and bought the sweater with a traveler’s check. They had passed an elegant little shoe store with saddle oxfords in the window on the way to Shillito’s and she took Mrs. Wheatley there and bought herself a pair. Then she bought argyle socks to go with them. The tag said: “100 % wool. Made in England.” Going back to the hotel through a wind that whipped tiny snowflakes against her, Beth kept looking down at her new shoes and high plaid socks. She liked the way her feet felt, liked the tightness of the warm socks against her calves, and liked the way they looked — bright expensive socks above bright brown-and-white shoes. She kept looking down.
With some people chess is a pastime, with others it is a compulsion, even an addiction. And every now and then a person comes along for whom it is a birthright. Now and then a small boy appears and dazzles us with his precocity at what may be the world’s most difficult game. But what if that boy were a girl — a young, unsmiling girl with brown eyes, brown hair and a dark-blue dress ?
“But, Beth,“ Mrs. Wheatley said, “it makes you a celebrity!” Beth looked at her thoughtfully, “For being a girl, mostly,“ she said.
She spent over an hour that afternoon trying on dresses at Purcell’s before picking a navy-blue with a simple white collar
“Russia’s murder,“ he said finally. ”They eat Americans for breakfast over there.” “Now, really …” Mrs. Wheatley said. ”They really do,“ Nobile said. ”I don’t think there’s been an American with a prayer against the Russians for twenty years. It’s like ballet. They pay people to play chess.”
At sixteen she had grown taller and better-looking, had learned to have her hair cut in a way that showed her eyes to some advantage, but she still looked like a schoolgirl.
“My experience has taught me that what you know isn’t always important.” “What is important?” “Living and growing, “Mrs. Wheatley said with finality. ” Living your life.”
The chandelier overhead was too bright. And now she began to feel dismay, as though the rest of the game were inevitable — as though she were locked into some choreography of feints and counterthreats in which it was a fixed necessity that she lose, like a game from one of the books where you knew the outcome and played it only to see how it happened.
You are in control, p1 of 2:
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 relationships of pawns in her mind, searching for a way of forcing an advantage.
You are in control, p2 of 2:
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.
Someone had said that when computers really learned to play chess and played against one another, White would always win because of the first move. Like tick-tack-toe. But it hadn’t come to that. She was not playing a perfect machine.
“Can you give me a prescription for Librium?” The doctor stared at her for a moment and shrugged.” You don’t need a prescription to buy Librium in Mexico. I suggest meprobamate. There’s a farmacia in the hotel.”
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.
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