It’s only been a month since The Queen’s Gambit began streaming on Netflix, and it’s already garnered record views and veritable mountains of praise. For those who haven’t seen it, the miniseries — based on Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name, itself titled after a classic chess opening — tells the story of Beth Harmon, an orphan and chess prodigy who must grapple with personal demons as she ascends to the top of the game.
This gripping premise, the immersive setting, and a career-defining performance from Anya Taylor-Joy all make for a sublime viewing experience. But if you’ve already finished the series (a likely dilemma, as it’s only seven episodes long), don’t worry! We’ve got you covered with these five books to read if you loved The Queen’s Gambit and are hungry for more.
The Hustler by Walter Tevis
It might seem like a cop-out to recommend another Tevis book, but the man had a gift for compelling human stories mired in games of skill and precision — in this case, pool. The Hustler follows Edward “Fast Eddie” Felson, a talented pool player and even better conman who makes a living tricking strangers into betting against him. That is, until the hustler becomes the hustled in a game with legendary pool player Minnesota Fats, who wipes the floor with Eddie and leaves him questioning his skills, lifestyle, and entire sense of self.
Yet much like Beth, Eddie doesn’t capitulate in the face of failure, but
emerges from its crucible humbler and eager to improve. With the
help of a new manager, he goes on to hone both his technical skills
and his psychological understanding of what it means to win or lose,
culminating in a nail-biter of a rematch with Fats that will satisfy even the greatest of adrenaline junkies. (And on a purely stylistic note, those who enjoyed the vivid, concise storytelling of The Queen’s Gambit will find that its essence comes straight from Tevis; as one reviewer aptly put it, in The Hustler, “there’s not a single word out of place.”)
Chess Bitch by Jennifer Shahade
Those who read her recent interview in Vanity Fair may already be familiar with Jennifer Shahade, a real-life US Champion and Women’s Grandmaster of chess. But that interview is only the tip of her narrative iceberg: in this riveting 2005 memoir, S hahade dives deep into her
own journey and those of other titans in the women’s chess world, exploring the intense gender biases of chess and the women who have made names for themselves in the game.
With profiles of legends like the Polgár sisters and first Women’s World Champion Vera Menchik, personal commentary on their histories, and Shahade’s own firsthand experiences, Chess Bitch thoroughly indicts the hierarchy and customs of the chess world and lays out what needs to change. Equal parts manual, memoir, and insightful feminist treatise, it’s an unmissable title for those who admired Beth’s grit and persistence in a competitive field that was, especially in the sixties, rife with men.
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The Queen of Katwe by Tim Crothers
“She wins the decisive game, but she has no idea what it means. Nobody has told her what’s at stake, so she just plays like she always does. She has no idea she has qualified to compete at the Olympiad. No idea that her qualifying means that in a few months she will fly to the city of Khanty-Mansiysk in remote central Russia. No idea where Russia even is. When she learns all of this, she asks only one question: ‘Is it cold there?’”
If this excerpt from the first page of Tim Crothers’ The Queen of Katwe doesn’t pull you in, I’m not sure what will. This remarkable true story, recounting 16-year-old Phiona Mutesi’s rise from the slums of Uganda to the first titled female chess player in her country’s history, catapults to life in Crothers’ strong authorial voice — striking just the right balance of enthralling literary narration and authentic experience.
Also if you’re hunting for another book/media combo to relish after The Queen’s Gambit, you’re in luck: this book was adapted into a 2016 film starring Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo! The film doesn’t pull any punches, though, so expect some heart-wrenching and disquieting moments alongside the triumph if you do watch.
How I Beat Fischer’s Record trilogy by Judit Polgár
And if you happen to be an avid chess player yourself, you’ll find your reading match in this three-part memoir from Hungarian Grandmaster Judit Polgár, widely regarded as the most accomplished woman in chess history. These three books track her thrilling rise from the highest-rated woman player at twelve years old to her ultimate battles with the chess greats — showdowns that would make even Beth Harmon jealous.
Keep in mind, however, that the bits of excellent memoir are interspersed with chess strategy in a fairly inextricable manner… so if you want to read about Polgár’s inner thoughts and feelings, prepare yourself also for chess board diagrams and long strings of notation. As Polgár writes in the introduction: “I chose to structure the material as a manual rather than an autobiography. This way, it would be instructive for young players or amateurs aspiring to progress, but also offer a guideline to their parents or trainers. True, there would be a wealth of autobiographical stories, but they would pop up without respecting a chronological order.”
That said, if you’re willing to read between the chess boards, Polgár’s trilogy is indeed filled with priceless photos and historical moments, with advanced chess theory in the mix for those who might be seeking it!
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The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith
We’ll wrap things up on a lighter note, relatively speaking, with Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt — aka Carol, a ka the first lesbian novel with a happy ending. That might sound like a bit of a wildcard for this list (or an unexpected move for this sequence, to put it in chess terms)! But if you appreciated the aestheticized portrayal of the fifties and sixties in The Queen’s Gambit, as well as how the show subverts the audience’s expectations of trauma, you’ll find The Price of Salt right up your alley.
Those who have seen the Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara-fronted
movie will know the story: two women, Therese and Carol, meet in an NYC department store and are instantly drawn to one another. They begin spending time together and, despite the fact that both are involved with other people, fall deeply in love.
The relationship is complicated by these extraneous men, by the era in which they live, and by each woman’s individual stressors; nonetheless, they manage to overcome all these obstacles to be together. It’s a beautiful tale of hard-earned love, just as thoughtfully characterized and realistically imagined as the original novel of The Queen’s Gambit — not to mention that Highsmith’s compact yet evocative writing style is not at all dissimilar to Tevis’s.