Millions of people around the world have been enthralled by the dramatic chess-centric show, “The Queen’s Gambit” since it premiered on Netflix in October 2020, but many may not know the show’s connection to Athens.
“The Queen’s Gambit” follows the story of fictional chess prodigy Beth Harmon, as she comes of age and deals with her career in the male-dominated world of competitive chess and her own substance abuse issues.
“The Queen’s Gambit” is based on the eponymous novel by Walter Tevis, a former Athens County resident and Ohio University professor.
The book was published in 1983, one year before the author’s death, and only a few short years after he left Athens for life in Manhattan. Despite not writing the novel in Athens, marks of his time in Southeast Ohio are woven throughout the story.
“He learned to play chess in Athens,” Walter’s son Will Tevis told the Messenger. Will resides in Athens County and owns and operates Airclaws Heating & Cooling in Amesville.
“We moved a lot when I was a kid because my dad was still a student. He was trying to make a living for his family,” Will said. “The move to Athens was a tremendous move for our family...Athens was a neat refuge for us.”
Walter taught English literature and creative writing at Ohio University from 1965-1978. At the time, there was an effort at OU to bring published authors in as professors in the English department. By this time Walter was already an established author, having published “The Hustler” and the “The Man Who Fell to Earth” – both of which have been adapted into films.
While growing up in Athens, Will took up an interest in chess, which soon enticed his father to join him in regular games.
“He and I played chess and were relatively evenly matched when I was growing up,” Will said. “When I was an early teen we got more and more competitive. My mind was younger and sharper than his so I’d beat him.”
Will stated that despite the competitive streak featured in Walter’s central characters, he did not overly possess the same drive, and therefore didn’t mind losing to his son.
“I’ve met really competitive people in my life before, and my dad was not like them. When I played chess with him and I beat him there was a certain pride in it,” Will said.
Eventually the chess games would expand out to include fellow OU professor and author of the modern American classic “Flowers for Algernon,” Daniel Keyes and OU professor Don Richter.
“Sometimes I’d come home (from being out at night as a teenager) and Don and him would be playing,” Will said.The games they played were casual and for fun, though Will got quite good at speed chess, a variation of the game with shortened time allowances featured prominently in “The Queen’s Gambit.”
Will told the Messenger of one summer where he, his father and Richter spent time at Richter’s cabin in Canada. After multiple rounds of Will winning against both of his elders, they suggested he play two games of speed chess against them simultaneously. Will rose to the challenge to win.
“I got in their heads and I beat them pretty bad,” Will said with a laugh. This scene may sound familiar to those who have watched “The Queen’s Gambit.”
Upon returning from Canada and fresh off of their thorough defeat from a much younger player, Walter and Richter began researching chess strategy, particularly learning strong opening moves – including the Queen’s Gambit, which would become a signature of Walter’s.
“They started playing in local tournaments and the like,” Will said, stating that they both became quite good. Eventually Will did not keep up, not sharing the same level of interest for competition or strategy as his father.
“If we played 10 (games), it got to the point where he’d win 7 or 8 games.”
All of these experiences would go on to inform the work that is now beloved around the world. According to Will, Walter drew a lot of inspiration from his life, going as far to say that Athens itself helped to inspire the setting of “The Queen’s Gambit,” as a few key scenes take place on an Ohio college campus.
According to Will, Walter also placed himself into all of his main characters, as they each shared some of the things that he struggled with, including alcoholism in Beth Harmon’s case.
“He had his demons,” Will said, stating that the alcohol was the reason for his 20 year hiatus from publishing while he lived in Athens County. “He sobered up, (but) he struggled with it for his the rest of his life.”
Though Beth Harmon may have been an outlet for Will to write about his own experiences, the fact that she was a woman was inspired by the women in his life. She is named for his mother, Elizabeth, and her intelligence and wit are directly influenced by Walter’s sister, and his daughter, Julie, who now resides in Columbus. Will stated that his father liked smart women, and though he said that his father was the smartest man he ever met, Walter’s older sister may have been even sharper.
“I always compare her to Mycroft Holmes and my dad to Sherlock Holmes. Everyone knows Sherlock, but Mycroft is the smarter one.”
Walter must have made a good decision when building his character inspired by the intelligent women in his life, because “The Queen’s Gambit” is now Netflix’s number one show of all time. Walter died of lung cancer in 1984, but Will believes his father would have enjoyed the renewed attention to his work.
“He’d love it. He loved the limelight. He was a great orator. He’d be everywhere, he’d be on the talk shows.”
The success of the mini-series is indeed bringing the limelight back to Walter’s work. In fact, Will and Julie are currently in the process of working with an agent to find a publisher for “Turnip Island,” an unpublished work of Walter’s inspired by the bedtime stories he would create for Will as a child. Walter took pieces of those stories and wrote “Turnip Island” in 1980 when Will’s son Ryan was born.
Given the excitement around Walter’s work at the moment, it’s not hard to imagine “Turnip Island” will soon be seen in some form.
Will is personally enjoying the celebration of his father’s work, and was pleased with the Netflix adaptation.
“The guy who directed it (Scott Frank) gives my dad a lot of honor. He doesn’t take any credit for that (the story) I honor the guy for that,” Will said.
Will summed up his feelings in a piece he wrote for Stanford University.
“My sister and I take great pride in his contributions to the literary world and the acknowledgments he continues to receive. But for us when we reflect on his life, we remember him mostly as our Dad.”