Writer Notes on Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit

https://digitalcitizen.ca/category/writing/The Queen’s Gambit. Most people know it today, or first think of it, as the wildly successful Netflix series. However, it came from a novel by Walter Tevis, with the author worth mentioning because there are numerous “Queen’s Gambit” novels out there. Some are quite recent, as if to fool potential buyers into buying, or at least having a look to give it a chance. That’s how desperate achieving literary has become today.

I hadn’t known much about the Queen’s Gambit until I had heard on a couple of podcasts that the original novel was something one of Canada’s most famous and successful authors, Michael Ondaatje, reread every few years to “remember how to write”. That might have been a paraphrase from an official compliment quoted on Amazon below, but both are ridiculously high praise… especially to someone like me learning the craft of writing!

“It is a book I reread every few years–for the pure pleasure and skill of it.”
– Michael Ondaatje on The Queen’s Gambit (by Walter Tevis)

There are many “classic” reading lists, and even “classics” reading lists, but they feel a little dead, to be honest, looking at works on them and having read a decent sampling from regular school and first year university literature classes. I basically wouldn’t be caught dead reading many, if any, otherwise, on my own imperative. So to hear a living legend of an author had a favourite book he genuinely loved enough for its writing to actually reread every few years, created a few sparkles in my mind to go have a read. I could read it at least once, just to know, even if I didn’t agree, which would be fair so long as I had rationale for it, given writing is an art as much as a skill.

Well, after a few weeks of reading, I have finally finished Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit, and here are what I have noted about it, in no particular order, and without spoilers. In general, whatever reasons Michael Ondaatje had to claim he reread it every few years to remember how to write, or for the skill of it, I don’t know. From best I can tell, those reasons would be that it is a solid example of how a text book or English writing course would teach you how to write a novel. That is, great fundamentals, rather than anything insightful that is spectacular, rare, or little known among writers. Otherwise, I have broken out the elements and noted for myself what I liked or found to be insightful among them.


Writing elements

  • Sentences were fairly short. Would not be surprised if grade 9 reading level or lower.
  • Not a lot of complicated words.
  • Fairly standard English tone and voice that doesn’t stand out in any way, though possibly for good to focus on the storyline.
  • Few in-depth descriptions of anything, including feelings, though not so sparse as to leave the reader wondering. Nice balance of “just enough”.
  • LOTS of chess game notation terminology and descriptions that made little sense to me, and I suspect most readers, were used that would not have ruined the novel if they weren’t there. Tevis knew chess fairly well, but even employed experts to help him, including chess championship history. However, possibly the most brilliant thing about the chess writing was that despite contributing next to nothing to help the story line “make sense”, Tevis employed them to bridge the other descriptions of the matches that really gave the reader a feel for what was going on, without being annoying or wishing the chess text wasn’t there. That said, chess notation does have an elegant sounding read and rhythm, with limited endings (8 numbers precisely) to also add a little rhyme every now and then, with colourful names for move combinations like the Sicilian Defense and the Dragon Variation. The pieces also have noble names, even the pawns, that helped shape the language to be poetic in nature rather than the notations being just random prose that might have sounded more annoying. Nevertheless, this handling of chess terminology was brilliant. Maybe put it another way, that if this book had been about computer coding instead of chess for terminology, you’d probably have ripped the book before finishing, possibly even if you were a coder.
  • Use of triple star delineation, and some blank lines, between scenes to create many vignettes in chapters, allowing for single paragraph interludes, rather than trying to make it all flow or breaking the book into a hundred chapters.
  • Interesting mixed way of presenting dialogue. Some was the traditional new paragraph for each verbalization by a different character. Others, followed a colon in a sentence describing what led to the quote, with the description being basically a one or two sentence paragraph. Other times, the quote, if short, was kept right in the middle of a short paragraph. That is, instead of having several very short, 1 or 2 line paragraphs for the sake of having the quote in its own paragraph, the quote was attached to the end of one of the sentences. I don’t know how typical this is, or if there were generally accepted grammar rules for doing these embedded quotes, but  I didn’t know of any, though I’m hardly an literary writing expert. I’m also not sure it was done with great consistency, though if I hadn’t noticed it wasn’t, I will assume it generally was since it only looked a bit awkward the first few times I saw it.


Plot and structure

  • Each chapter covered a phase over some span of time, or the occasional event or two. If the novel had been pitched for a movie, or even to write from an idea, I would imagine each chapter would have fitted nicely in the 14 storyboards that would have been used.
  • Traditional plot structure to introduce characters and situations, problems keeping them from their dreams, pursuit getting harder with a handful of new challenges surfacing, until climax before ending. There were not a lot of plot surprises, which might have been my unrealistic expectations of a good chess match having surprises rather than predictable outcomes foreseen by chess players. However, I loved the deviation of wrapping up storylines on conditions of the climatic outcome so that afterward, there wasn’t really any wrapping up required, though the book didn’t end at the climax. It left an ending for reflection and feelings rather than one to tie up various odds and ends, which were tied together beautifully when it was done as well.
  • Tevis had identified well what storylines might have mattered to the reader, and how. At least he did that for me. To that end, he knew what storylines the reader wanted tied up by the end, or seen to their conclusions, and which didn’t matter much, and he did just that in a very satisfactory way. He also managed to hold a bunch of them till almost the bitter end to resolve, which made the conclusion all the more satisfying to have many payoffs at once, as well as payoffs long awaited.
  • Efficient use of characters, especially the ones introduced early, to bring them back so they are relevant throughout in different ways, and bring them back in natural ways, even if by surprise sometimes, rather than feeling “forced” for the sake of it. They are stars their own subplots, next to the protagonist, in some ways, and their presence in the novel is a beautiful example of weaving subplots together, rather than linearly one after another, as we are often told the best writing should be.


Character development

  • Good, traditional character development to include not a lot of description, and letting their actions and words describe them most and best, which is how we’re generally taught it should be, and I would agree. Tevis did this very well, I thought.
  • Tevis also didn’t also do everything at once to introduce the characters fully, or in a headrush with introduction of each new character. Rather, he eased in their introduction to give the reader more insight about them, bit by bit, as the novel or even just scene developed. It’s quite like how you probably get to know most people. See them, maybe hear them say something or you say something and get a reaction, or maybe someone introduced them to you few words, and that’s all you get to form a first impression, until more happens before you get to know them.


Other considerations

  • The novel is part coming of age story, and there were some scenes I didn’t think contributed anything to the story. Of course, there are always those in novels, possibly just there for the pleasure of reading. However, some of these scenes could make most readers feel awkward or uncomfortable, rather than anything I think the masses would generally enjoy. Not that I think there’s anything “wrong” with anybody who enjoys those scenes. I just don’t think the majority would, though I’m not going to give away what they are. I would include scenes for reading pleasure or fun in novels, sure, but would try to ensure as many readers might enjoy as possible, rather than pick something I know a significant portion of readers, even if not the majority, might have a negative reaction to.

Overall impression

It’s a good book I would recommend for the joy of reading and definitely for writing analysis. However, there wasn’t a lot that I would call remarkable, breath-taking, memorable, or any such grandiose adjective. If Michael Ondaatje reread this book for refreshing his writing fundamentals, then I’d say he’s picked a darn good one, from what little I know of English literature. Otherwise, though, you won’t hear me going around raving about this book like I do some others.


Side note

I had a chance to listen to the audiobook version of The Queen’s Gambit since my library also had it, and I have to say, the reading was terrible! It might be hard for someone to imitate all those voices, though I don’t know if all of it was necessary, but I thought it was terribly done. I thought the lady reading it was some home speaker going through the motions of the introductory content when she first started, until I realized she was reading the novel! It’s probably a lot harder to get a good reader for this book than I probably realize, but at least my gut impression thought it was a terrible read. That, I would not recommend!



1753 words

One thought on “Writer Notes on Walter Tevis’ The Queen’s Gambit

  1. One of the best movies I’ve seen recently. Haven’t read the book, but the background story is interesting. Best song? Gillian Hills’ 1965 cover of “Tut Tut Tut Tut”. Hearing it coming from the living room made me decide that I better check out the series.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.