Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit is on the New York Times best-seller list, thanks to what Netflix calls its “biggest limited scripted series ever.” But what will fans of the blockbuster show find when they crack open the book that inspired it over Thanksgiving weekend?
Many of the lines of dialogue familiar to viewers are straight out of Tevis’ story, and the general plot—chess prodigy overcomes addiction to rise to the top of her field—remains the same. But along with skipping those loooooong passages describing chess moves, writer and director Scott Frank makes a few changes to Tevis’ novel.
Below, we’ve rounded up the most significant differences. Needless to say, spoilers follow.
The Battle of the Sexes
Aaron Bady argued recently in the Los Angeles Review of Books that one of biggest pleasures of Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit is that things keep almost going wrong and then being fine. One contributor to the comfortable feeling the show provokes is the way that the sexism of the chess world never quite seems to affect Beth: She gets a “surrogate family and community” out of her chess career, even though the male-dominated world of Cold War-era chess seems like an improbable place for a teenage girl to thrive.
The novel’s gender dynamics are not so pleasant. When young Beth is about to play the high school boys at their chess club, they stare at her, and she feels their animosity and responds by feeling “a hatred as black as night” rising. At her first tournament, she beats one boy who is so angry about it that he swears at her and doesn’t shake her hand. At that tournament, even Harry Beltik—played on the show by Harry Melling as first smug, and ultimately soft and weepy—is hostile to her in the book. After they find out they’ll be playing each other the next day, he says to her as she’s leaving: “Tomorrow.” Later on, she thinks, “When he stepped toward her as she was leaving, some part of her had thought he would hit her.”
And when Harry comes to her house and trains her, only to have her pass him by, he doesn’t take it with wounded sadness, as the Beltik of the show does. He’s furious. During the game when they realize she’s far beyond him, he “glares” at her, and she can feel his anger. He stops coming to her bed that night. On the show, he leaves her while begging her to stop drinking; in the book, he leaves after a conversation memorable mostly for its brevity, and the implication is that he can’t handle playing second fiddle. And when she talks to Benny Watts on the phone from Russia, to get advice about her final match with Borgov, it’s only Benny on the other end—no magical reappearance for Harry.
On the show, Beth goes out with a friend and gets drunk the night before her second match with Borgov in Paris. She wakes up late and loses the match because of this lapse in judgment. In the book, she takes three pills the night before that match, but wakes up “refreshed,” feeling “confident, smart, and ready.” She plays well (“her best chess,” she thinks), but Borgov beats her anyway. In the aftermath of that match, on the show, Beth decides not to return to New York and reunite with Benny, and the choice between “drinking” and “Benny” is something Benny articulates outright. In the book, Benny has little reaction to her decision, beyond sounding “irritated” and warning her not to quit chess out of discouragement; the bender comes later. (More on Benny in a bit.)
The bender that ruins Beth’s match with Borgov is just one example of the way the show takes the subtler twists and turns of the book’s plot and dials them up a few notches, leaning on Beth’s addiction as a driving force. The show also relies heavily on coincidence in a way the book does not. Consider the way Beth unites with her old friend Jolene in the story’s last act, as Beth gets sober to train for her trip to Russia. In the show, Jolene shows up randomly at Beth’s front door, right when she’s needed. In the book, Beth realizes she needs help to get her head right and has an epiphany that it’s Jolene who could help her do it. She calls the orphanage to track her friend down.
Same goes for the handsome player D.L. Townes, who shows up again toward the end of the show, sent to Moscow to photograph Beth for a newspaper. In the book, he appears at her first tournament and becomes an early lust object for the young player, but after she sees him at another tournament when she’s about 17, there’s no third encounter; Townes just never reappears again.
The most striking change the show makes to the characterization of Beth’s friend Jolene has to do with the girls’ time in the orphanage together. In Tevis’ novel, when Jolene is 13 and Beth is nine, Jolene comes to Beth’s bed in the middle of the night and tries to get Beth to engage in mutual masturbation. When Beth, “terrified” by the situation, says no, Jolene goes away, but she’s angry about it. For a while, the two are enemies; when Jolene calls Beth “cracker” in the hallway, she means it not as a term of endearment, but a curse. Beth, for her part, responds by hissing the n-word. A Black orphan who tries to seduce her younger friend? A white heroine who uses the n-word as a weapon? None of this is in the show, surely too fraught for the escapist fantasy Netflix has created.
In the book, Beth thinks about Jolene periodically, while in the show, she’s absent from the middle of the story. Jolene appears when Beth visualizes what she wants to become: “a truly professional woman and the finest chess player in the world, traveling confidently by herself in the first-class cabins of airplanes, tall, perfectly dressed, good-looking and poised—a kind of white Jolene.” She often thinks she might send Jolene a note, but doesn’t.
In the book, Jolene gets a scholarship in physical education to attend university, and when she reunites with her old friend, she helps Beth get through her withdrawal from alcohol and pills by training her in the university gym, putting her through her paces in weightlifting, calisthenics, and—as seen in the show—handball. But she doesn’t give Beth money to go to Russia, and the show’s conversation about her not being a “guardian angel” never happens. In fact, though the book’s Jolene has helped Beth get her head straight, when Beth tries to call her from the airport on the way to Russia, she’s not home.
Benny, the show’s string-bean trickster, seems to be a composite of a few players from Tevis’ book. In the novel, Beth sees an older chess player at one point at a tournament, holding court in a hotel lobby just as Benny does in the show. This man—who is not Benny—is wearing a black knit cap with a knife at his waist; he’s a “pirate” who looks like “someone out of Treasure Island.” He leaves an intense impression on Beth, because of his authoritative approach to chess. When she finally meets the real Benny, Beth reflects that he looks “as American as Huckleberry Finn,” though “cheerful and sly,” in an untrustworthy way. He’s got “flat straw-colored hair,” and later he grows it down to his shoulders. He’s “pale and thin and very calm.”
On the show, Beth’s relationship with Benny is the most romantic one she has, but in the novel, Beth doesn’t sigh and say “So that’s what that’s supposed to be like!” after having sex with Benny. “Making love had been all right,” she thinks, “though not as exciting as she had hoped.” There’s a distance to Benny, and she gets furious when he goes to play a poker game the day after they have sex, and she realizes he probably planned it out that way. “His behavior was like his chess game: smooth and easy on the surface but tricky and infuriating beneath,” she thinks to herself. “The cool son of a bitch. It was quick sex with her, and then off to the boys. He had probably planned it that way for a week. Tactics and strategy. She could have killed him.”
But all is not lost for Benny-Beth shippers turning to the Tevis book for a fix. Flying to Russia alone, Beth wishes Benny were there:
She missed Benny’s quick and sober mind, his judgment and tenacity, his knowledge of chess and his knowledge of her. He would be in the seat beside her, and they could talk chess, and in Moscow after her games they would analyze the play and then plan for the next opponent. They would eat their meals together in the hotel, the way she had done with Mrs. Wheatley. They could see Moscow, and whenever they wanted to they could make love at their hotel.
The novel leaves the door open for Benny and Beth to come together again, after she beats Borgov and flies home, as triumphant on the page as she is onscreen.
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