A trip to Lexington with Beth Harmon and Walter Tevis

by André Schulz
1/14/2021 – The lives of Walter Tevis and his literary character Beth Harmon have a number of similarities. Both of them experienced a childhood marked by drug addiction, and later, alcoholism, both "lived" in Lexington, Kentucky. And both of them found their salvation in chess. A hunt for clues in Lexington.

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Beth Harmon, the protagonist of Walter Tevis' novel "The Queen's Gambit", grows up in Lexington, currently the second largest city in Kentucky with 300.000 inhabitants, after Louisville with 600.000. The U.S. state of Kentucky, which used to belong to Virginia in the past, is located in the south-east of the United States. Lexington is roughly 860 kilometres from Washington.

The names of the towns around Lexington point to the countries from which European settlers in the region originated. Coming from Washington, one has to drive through Winchester. Paris is located north-east of Lexington, and Versailles is just a stone's throw away to the west. Driving north from there, one may happen upon Frankfort, the capital of Kentucky with barely 30.000 inhabitants. 

Kentucky is also called the "Bluegrass State", due to the vibrantly blue-green grasslands which dominate its open landscape during spring. The cradle of American folk and country music is located in the mountains between Kentucky and Tennessee, and "Bluegrass" is one of its subgenres.

If you were to drive south from Versailles and take a wrong turn on your way to the "Bluegrass Golf Club", you might end up in "Keene", a name that might make chess players think of chess.

Keene Main Street

Indeed, Lexington is not that far away from the current nexus of chess culture in the United States. Driving west down the I-64, one may reach Saint Louis and the Saint Louis Chess Center in roughly six hours. A leisurely drive by American standards. 

The I-64: Just follow the road

Walter Tevis (1928-1984) , the author of "The Queen's Gambit", was actually born in San Francisco. However, his father originated from Kentucky, and moved back to the state with his family when Walter Tevis was ten years old.

In Lexington, Tevis attended the Model High School and later studied at the University of Kentucky. During his studies, he worked at a pool hall. He would later publish two novels, "The Hustler" (1954) and "The Color of Money" (1984), based on his observations of pool players. Both stories served as the basis for highly successful motion pictures. Tevis' novel "The Man Who Fell to Earth" (1963) was also made into a movie, with David Bowie playing the main role.

After completing his studies, Walter Tevis made a living teaching English, first at Science Hill and later at the University of Kentucky.

Tevis did not publish his novel "The Queen's Gambit" until 1983. The story of Beth Harmon is in fact partially based on his own biography. Beth Harmon grows up in an orphanage and is taught how to play chess by the janitor at the age of eight. As a child, Walter Tevis suffered from chorea rheumatica and at age nine had to spend one year at a sanatorium.

He had learned to play chess at the age of seven. The children at Beth Harmon's orphanage are tranquillized with pills, she develops an addiction to the drugs. Due to his illness, Walter Tevis was also administered medication for a prolonged period of time as a child. Beth Harmon's addiction to pills later turns into alcoholism. The same happened to Walter Tevis.

When his parents eventually took him to Lexington, Tevis became a loner who did not get along with boys his own age. As he once stated in an interview, he had felt like an alien who had just fallen from the sky back then. He began to play pool. At the pool halls, he observed players who bet large sums of money on their games. With one of his friends he used to play pool and chess late into the night. Beth Harmon from "The Queen's Gambit" is also a loner, and chess also becomes her personal refuge. 

Initially, Tevis wrote short stories, which he could sell to magazines. "The Hustler" and "The Man Who Fell to Earth" were his first great successes. For a while, he was even wooed by Hollywood movie producers. He spent some time living in Mexico with his family and eventually found employment as a lecturer at the university in Athens, Ohio. By this point, he had become an alcoholic who spent his nights drinking, and lectured in front of his students the next day. During this time, he lost his ability to write. For numerous years, Walter Tevis published nothing and was teetering on the brink of the abyss and twice he tried to take his own life.

In the 1970s, he began to get more involved with chess. Tevis studied Walter Korn's "Modern Chess Openings", the book that helped Beth Harmon to learn opening theory. Tevis also participated in tournaments and became a chess corresponent. As a reporter, he travelled to Las Vegas and participated in the National Open. However, he lost every single game he played there, one of them against a girl who mated him in eleven moves.

His experiences and observations of the chess community in Las Vegas provided Walter Tevis with the inspiration for what would eventually become "The Queen's Gambit". He was also  fascinated by Bobby Fischer. In 1970, Fischer had decided to make another attempt to become World Champion and scored one impressive win after the other.

Tevis said that he had seen a fair share of obsessive players, but also pointed out that he would not not even dare playing "a game of croquet" against Fischer. Tevis knew that chess was a game that attracts loners, and he claimed that they often used chess as a way of escaping their personal demons. Like Beth Harmon, like Tevis himself, and like Bobby Fischer.

In his later years, Walter Tevis moved to New York, to get inspired by the bustling metropolis and to find new energy to write. This is where he published "The Queen's Gambit" and later "The Color of Money". Shortly after the publication of "The Color of Money", Walter Tevis died of lung cancer. He was 56 years old.

Outside of the United States, Walter Tevis has remained fairly unknown as a writer. However, movie adaptations of his books have been highly successful. This is true for "The Hustler", "The Color of Money", "The Man Who Fell to Earth", and now for "The Queen's Gambit". With over 100 million viewers, it is the most successful Netflix show of all time, once and for all cementing the young actress Anya Taylor-Joy as a star and shining a new light on Walter Tevis' literary body of work. And even the provincial town of Lexington, Kentucky, is granted its time in the limelight. Elisabeth Harmon may now very well be the town's most famous, albeit fictional, citizen. "The Queen's Gambit" has become a phenomenon that is impossible to ignore.

The online portal "Visitlex" has procured old photographs from Tevis' time period, which show locations and shops described in his novel. 

Lexington Main Street. On the right, Ben Snyder's department store, where Beth Harmon gets her outfit. On the left, Phoenix Hotel, where Walter Tevis used to play pool. | Image: Kentucky Image Archive

This is what it looks like today | Google Street View

The 21c Hotel in Downtown Lexington has even set up a "Harmon Room" for fans of the show. The interior features original furniture in the style of the 1960s, and as a final touch, the room's ceiling has been decorated with large chess pieces, the same pieces envisioned by Beth Harmon during her studies and games, providing her with inspiration and the strength to carry on.

The Harmon Room | Foto: Kentucky Radio

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- Translation by Hugo B. Janz


André Schulz started working for ChessBase in 1991 and is an editor of ChessBase News.

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