Chess — A Woman In A Man’s World

American Chess Grandmasters Susan Polgar and Gata Kamsky in tournament play.

Two Grandmasters plan their moves as the battle for domination of the chessboard begins—Polgar has played her queen pawn two squares and Kamsky echoed her move. If Polgar moves her queen’s bishop pawn 2 squares, she will be playing the Queen’s Gambit. This chess opening was a tournament favorite; complicated, with chances for black and white.

Once a man’s world, championship chess is now played by both men and women. Championship chess players are rare people; most can play chess blindfolded and playing against several opponents simultaneously is not uncommon. No wonder then that chess play and the drama of the chess tournament is a subject for fiction.

My favorite book about chess is Walter Tevis’ 1983 book The Queen’s Gambit, which tells the story of fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon’s journey from an orphanage in Kentucky to the international chess circuit. Harmon’s ability at chess is world-class, but to become an international grandmaster she must first control her addiction to tranquilizers and her craving for alcohol.

Her addiction to tranquilizers began in the orphanage:

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 as 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. …
—Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit

The street-wise Jolene is older than Beth and she becomes Beth’s best friend. It is Jolene that will show Beth a way to control her inner devils.

It was chance that led Beth to learn to play chess. One day in the orphanage she was sent by her teacher to the furnace room to clean the erasers. There, she me the janitor who had a chessboard set up. She had never seen a chessboard:

“The girl put down the erasers she was cleaning and took the seat opposite the old man. She was playing black; the janitor picked up the white king pawn and moved it forward two squares. P-K4, the oldest opening move in the history of chess.
—Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit

In a few weeks, Beth learned chess moves, gained skill and could easily beat the janitor. He arranged for her to visit the local chess club (all boys, of course). She played the boys in the club simultaneously, and won every match. Soon she was playing them blindfolded and she still won. But then tragedy struck: a newspaper wrote a story about Beth. Her sudden notoriety upset the director of the orphanage  and he retaliated by forbidding Beth to play chess. It was years before Beth was adopted. She returned to chess and found that she was still a prodigy, but she had much to learn.

The Queen’s Gambit is a “feel good” story where young people surmount problems in realistic ways. It is also a story of the intrigue and infighting that goes on in tournament chess. It is one of my favorite books.

The epigraph of the novel is from The Long-Legged Fly by William Butler Yeats:

That the topless towers be burnt
And men recall that face,
Move most 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
His mind moves upon silence.
—Yeats, The Long-Legged Fly

The girl in this verse is Helen of Troy. Yeats is quoting a famous line about her: “Is this the face that launched a thousand ships, and burnt the topless towers of Illium?” Clever of Tevis to apply this poem to a young girl’s journey into the world of chess.

Judit Polgar, 1992. She is now a Grandmaster.

Judit Polgar is smiling because she has just won a match. She is the sister of Hungarian-American chess Grandmaster Susan Polgar.

Susan is a Grandmaster, an Olympic chess champion, a chess teacher, coach, writer and promoter and the head of the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) at Texas Tech. Susan was the first woman to earn the Grandmaster title through open tournament play. She broke a number of gender barriers in chess and is a champion who shares her talent with young American hopefuls.

Judit is now a Grandmaster.

Week 29 -2012: The Queen’s Gambit, Walter Tevis (1983).

About carto

Retired software engineer who grew up in Montana, went to Montana State College in Bozeman, and moved to California to work at Stanford Research Institute (SRI). Carto's Logbook is about photography, travel and adventure; Mt. Maurice Times is tall tales mostly biographical; Carto's Library is about books I've read and liked.
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