Queen’s Gambit: Memories of a Mentor
Like many people, I have been mesmerized by the Netflix series Queen’s Gambit. In addition to being a fascinating character study of chess prodigy Beth Harmon, the series paints an interesting and fairly accurate picture of how chess tournaments operate. I played tournament chess throughout high school and college (obviously not at Beth Harmon’s level), and the series brings back many pleasant memories.
There’s a second reason I view Queen’s Gambit so fondly. I took a creative writing class from Walter Tevis, who wrote Queen’s Gambit in 1983, while I attended Ohio University in the late 1970s. Several of Tevis’s novels have been adapted into successful movies or series: The Hustler, The Color of Money, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and Queen’s Gambit.
I was fortunate to have two top-notch authors as creative writing professors at Ohio U. Both made me a far better writer. Daniel Keyes (Flowers for Algernon) gave me a C+ in the first creative writing class I ever took, the lowest grade of my entire college career. He helped me by showing me I wasn’t nearly as good a writer as I thought I was, which bruised my ego but encouraged me to hone my craft. A year later, Walter Tevis helped restore my confidence while also emphasizing that I still had far to go in my development as a writer.
Tevis invited me into his home in Athens once or twice to critique my writing. He was actually a C-rated tournament chess player, the same as me, and I knew he played. I wonder if perhaps we talked about chess or maybe even played a game or two. It would make a better story if I could describe a game we had played, but I simply don’t remember.
I do remember how he looked—glasses, short hair (for the 1970s), a short beard flecked with white, and a warm smile. I also recall that he smoked a lot. He was friendly and approachable, even though he was a best-selling author.
I also remember some of the great writing advice he gave me. He talked about drawing from life experience when writing, as he did with The Hustler (and later Queen’s Gambit, which he hadn’t yet written). He talked about creating rich characters by getting at the heart of what makes them tick, as he did with pool shark “Fast” Eddie Felson and chess shark Beth Harmon. Finally, he talked about the importance of constantly practicing and getting better at the things you love, whether that be playing pool, playing chess, or writing. That’s good advice that I continue to follow more than 40 years later. Thank you, Professor Tevis!