The reviewer is the music critic of The Washington Post.
Beth Harmon lives mostly in her own mind--a life of strange, solitary terrors relieved sometimes by strange, solitary comforts. She is a gladiator--one who has risen to the top of international chess, easily at first and then with increasing difficulty as she qualified to meet stronger and stronger opponents. She has a mind that is one in more than a million, the acutely perceptive, ruthlessly logical mind of an international grandmaster--and sometimes she is a scared little girl.
The fact that she is a woman in what has been traditionally a man's world makes the terrors of her life considerably more intense, the comforts considerably less secure. Is it any wonder that she sometimes feels an overwhelming temptation to find refuge in drugs, tranquilizers, alcohol--anything that will ease the terror for a while, even if, in the process, it destroys (temporarily? permanently?) the qualities that make her mind unique?
At the moment, Beth Harmon is still a fictional character. There have been exceptional women in the history of chess, particularly in the last few generations, after Vera Menchik arrived on the scene and provided a role model, smashing the traditional idea that this is really a man's game. The first woman who will become a serious contender for the world championship has not yet emerged from the growing throng of very good women at a slightly lower level, but the chances are that she will in the near future. The limitations endured by women in the past--in this field as in many others--seem to be largely a result of social pressures that are gradually being eliminated. We all try to do what is expected of us, and in the past women have been expected to lose.
For the foreseeable future, fictional chess players (particularly in American fiction) are likely to have some characteristics of Bobby Fischer, who impressed the game on our national awareness in the 1960s before winning the world championship and self-destructively withdrawing from the game in the early '70s.
Beth has a touch of self-destruction in her character, expressed primarily through her flirtations with tranquilizers and alcohol, and she tends to be a solitary soul, lonely and a shade paranoid, as chess players sometimes are in our society. This is partly a reflection of the game, which wraps a player in the isolation of his own mind for endless hours of intense intellectual activity, but it also reflects the status of chess in America, where it is still an exotic pastime comprehensible only to a minority of the population.
Finally, it symptomatizes the minds of those who play chess at the highest level--minds that work in different ways than yours and mine; minds that function at levels the average person can hardly imagine. In the Soviet Union, where a chess grandmaster has a status like that of a star athlete here, there is probably less physical isolation, but the grandmaster among ordinary mortals must always live in a private, lonely place.
In Walter Tevis' absorbing, suspenseful novel, Beth Harmon's solitary status is graphically symbolized from the beginning. She first encounters tranquilizers in the same place where she first learns about chess: the orphans home in Mount Sterling, Ky., where she was sent when she was 8, after being orphaned by an automobile accident. The tranquilizers are mandatory, given to all the children in the home to "even their dispositions." The chess is a secret, guilty pleasure, one that sets Beth apart from the other inmates. She plays in the cellar with Mr. Shaibel, the crusty old janitor who taught her reluctantly ("girls don't play chess") and experienced a strange mixture of pride and humiliation when, after a few weeks, she began to beat him regularly.
While she is still very young, Beth learns to hoard her tranquilizers for moments of special need or for special occasions when she wants to experience the warm, floating feeling that comes from a mild overdose. At the same time, she is learning that she can play chess without a board--lie quietly in bed and stare at the ceiling until the pieces materialize in her mind and begin moving almost as though they had minds of their own. Also at this time, she begins learning how to play life-games, pitting herself against the authorities in the orphanage, establishing her own personality and her own rights, learning how to steal a chess magazine that she must have and cannot afford, and finally making the life-changing discovery that there are tournaments where she can win prizes for playing this fascinating, complex game.
Walter Tevis traces her path from the orphanage to her climactic encounters with the world champion in a superbly realistic style; he has obviously played in chess tournaments, if not in championship matches, and he conveys precisely the atmosphere, the tension, the constant awareness of a two-faced clock ticking away precious time, the vague presence of other games at nearby tables and curious onlookers. The book captures the essential loneliness of a traveling player's life, the hotel rooms and the feeling of strange cities, as well as the isolation of a mind cut off from external contact pursuing the endless complications of a chess situation.
Ultimately, this is not really a novel about chess (in fact, it has at least one serious technical imprecision related to a common opening), but about the human spirit, its struggles with itself and the terrible isolation it can endure. It can be read with intense enjoyment by those who know nothing about the game, as long as they are interested in what it means to be human at the deepest levels.