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Well Played

December 27, 2020

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In the deep of winter, the nights are long and dark… and we all need good books to read, good shows to watch.   We cannot go to the movies or to the theatre so long as the pandemic lasts (not if we are sane), but we still have television, with more choices than ever before.

Looking for something good to watch?   Then let me recommend that you check out QUEEN’S GAMBIT, if you have not done so already.

It’s an adaptation of the Walter Tevis novel about a chess prodigy in the 60s and 70s.   A very faithful adaptation (yay) of a very strong novel (yay), beautifully written, acted, and directed.   I think you will all like it.   If there is any justice, the series should contend for awards.

It also resonated with me very strongly.   I know that world.  Chess was a huge part of my life in high school, in college, and especially in the years after college, the early 70s.    QUEEN’S GAMBIT brought it all back to me vividly.   Like the protagonist, I learned chess when I was still quite young, and got pretty good pretty fast (though never nearly as good as her).   I was the captain of my high school chess team, the founder and president of my college chess club.  I wrote and edited the club’s newsletter, GLEEP.  The first two great loves of my life were girls I met at the chess club (but that’s another tale for another time).

The heroine of the Tevis novel becomes a Grandmaster and contends for the world championship; I topped out at Expert, and that only very briefly before falling back down to a lower ranking.   There was even a time, back in college, when I played with the notion of devoting myself to chess after graduation.   I chose writing instead.   I think I made the right call.   If I had lived and breathed and studied chess all day every day for years, I could have become a better player, I have no doubt… but only to a point.   It was not in me to climb the heights attained by the protagonist of QUEEN’S GAMBIT.

But even after I had stopped playing, chess was a big part of my life.   Back in the first half of the 70s, when trying to establish myself as a writer, I directed chess tournaments all over the midwest and south for the Continental Chess Association.   Indianapolis, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Madison, Milwaukee, Lincoln, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Cleveland… I was living in Chicago then, but every Friday I was on a plane (or a Greyhound) with a suitcase full of score sheets to set up and run another tourney in another city, usually in the center of the city in some grand old hotel that had known better days where the rooms… and the ballrooms… were cheap.   Most young writers had to work day jobs five days a week so they could write on the weekends.   I was lucky; I worked on the weekends and had the week to write.   Running chess tournaments did not make anyone rich, even in the Fischer heydey, but I made enough to pay my share of the rent on the rundown Uptown apartment I shared with half a dozen college friends and roommates.    And there was one point where I crossed the streams, where my two lives met: my first sale to ANALOG was not a story, but rather an article about computer chess called “The Computer Was A Fish.”   (Half a century out of date now, of course).   The first thing Ben Bova ever bought from me.  I never sold another article to ANALOG… but it opened the door for all the stories I would place there in the years that followed.

It has been many many decades since I last ran a chess tournament or even played a game of chess, and the memories had faded… but QUEEN’S GAMBIT brought them all back.   It’s a fine series in all respects, I think, but I was especially impressed that the producers and directors got the chess right.   All too many of the chess games one sees in films and television are crap.  Supposedly great players are shown making elementary mistakes, the pieces on the board are in impossible positions, the game is obviously over yet no one has resigned, and so forth, and so on.   Not here.   The games one glimpses in QUEEN’S GAMBIT are real.   It must have been a challenge for the actors.   Not only did they have to learn their lines, they had to learn their moves, and make them in the right order.

All in all, a terrific piece of television, says this old patzer.


Current Mood: contemplative contemplative

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