The Queen's Gambit | Chapter 1

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The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis.
The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis.

The Queen's Gambit is an American novel by Walter Tevis, exploring the life of a female chess prodigy. A bildungsroman, or coming of age story, it was originally published in 1983. It covers themes of adoption, feminism, chess, drug addiction, and alcoholism. 

The book was recently adapted for the 2020 Netflix miniseries of the same name.

Below is the first chapter from The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis (Orion) distributed in SA by Jonathan Ball Publishers (R210). News24 subscribers can bookmark the article to read later and also make use of the text-to-speech audio option to listen to the extract. (Please note: Contains strong language)


ONE

Beth learned of her mother's death from a woman with a clipboard. The next day her picture appeared in the Herald-Leader. The photograph, taken on the porch of the gray house on Maplewood Drive, showed Beth in a simple cotton frock. Even then, she was clearly plain. A legend under the picture read: "Orphaned by yesterday's pile-up on New Circle Road, Elizabeth Harmon surveys a troubled future."

Elizabeth, eight, was left without family by the crash, which killed two and injured others. At home alone at the time, Elizabeth learned of the accident shortly before the photo was taken. "She will be well looked after, authorities say."

In the Methuen Home in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, Beth was given a tranquilizer twice a day. So were all the other children, to "even their dispositions." Beth's disposition was all right, as far as anyone could see, but she was glad to get the little pill. It loosened something deep in her stomach and helped her doze away the tense hours in the orphanage.

Mr. Fergussen gave them the pills in a little paper cup. Along with the green one that evened the disposition, there were orange and brown ones for building a strong body. The children had to line up to get them.

The tallest girl was the black one, Jolene. She was twelve. On her second day Beth stood behind her in Vitamin Line, and Jolene turned to look down at her, scowling. "You a real orphan or a bastard?"

Beth did not know what to say. She was frightened. They were at the back of the line, and she was supposed to stand there until they got up to the window where Mr. Fergussen stood. Beth had heard her mother call her father a bastard, but she didn't know what it meant.

"What's your name, girl?" Jolene asked.

"Beth."

"Your mother dead? What about your daddy?"

Beth stared at her. The words "mother" and "dead" were unbearable. She wanted to run, but there was no place to run to.

"Your folks," Jolene said in a voice that was not unsympathetic, "they dead?"

Beth could find nothing to say or do. She stood in line terrified, waiting for the pills.

"You're all greedy cocksuckers!" It was Ralph in the Boys' Ward who shouted that. She heard it because she was in the library and it had a window facing Boys'. She had no mental image for "cocksucker," and the word was strange. But she knew from the sound of it they would wash his mouth out with soap.

They'd done it to her for "damn" – and Mother had said "Damn" all the time.

The barber made her sit absolutely still in the chair. "If you move, you might just lose an ear." There was nothing jovial in his voice. Beth sat as quietly as she could, but it was impossible to keep completely still. It took him a very long time to cut her hair into the bangs they all wore. She tried to occupy herself by thinking of that word, "cocksucker." All she could picture was a bird, like a woodpecker. But she felt that was wrong.

The janitor was fatter on one side than on the other. His name was Shaibel. Mr. Shaibel. One day she

was sent to the basement to clean the blackboard erasers by clomping them together, and she found him sitting on a metal stool near the furnace scowling over a green-and-white checkerboard in front of him.

But where the checkers should be there were little plastic things in funny shapes. Some were larger than others. There were more of the small ones than any of the others. The janitor looked up at her. She left in silence.

On Friday, everybody ate fish, Catholic or not. It came in squares, breaded with a dark, brown, dry crust and covered with a thick orange sauce, like bottled French dressing. The sauce was sweet and terrible, but the fish beneath it was worse. The taste of it nearly gagged her. But you had to eat every bite, or Mrs. Deardorff would be told about you and you wouldn't get adopted.

Some children got adopted right off. A six-year-old named Alice had come in a month after Beth and was taken in three weeks by some nice-looking people with an accent. They walked through the ward on the day they came for Alice. Beth had wanted to throw her arms around them because they looked happy to her, but she turned away when they glanced at her. Other children had been there a long time and knew they would never leave. They called themselves "lifers." Beth wondered if she was a lifer.

Gym was bad, and volleyball was the worst. Beth could never hit the ball right. She would slap at it fiercely or push at it with stiff fingers. Once she hurt her finger so much that it swelled up afterward.

Most of the girls laughed and shouted when they played, but Beth never did. Jolene was the best player by far. It wasn't just that she was older and taller; she always knew exactly what to do, and when the ball came high over the net, she could station herself under it without having to shout at the others to keep out of her way, and then leap up and spike it down with a long, smooth movement of her arm. The team that had Jolene always won.

The week after Beth hurt her finger, Jolene stopped her when gym ended and the others were rushing back to the showers. "Lemme show you something," Jolene said. She held her hands up with the long fingers open and slightly flexed. "You do it like this." She bent her elbows and pushed her hands up smoothly, cupping an imaginary ball. "Try it."

Beth tried it, awkwardly at first. Jolene showed her again, laughing. Beth tried a few more times and did it better. Then Jolene got the ball and had Beth catch it with her fingertips. After a few times it got to be easy.

"You work on that now, hear?" Jolene said and ran off to the shower.

Beth worked on it over the next week, and after that she did not mind volleyball at all. She did not become good at it, but it wasn't something she was afraid of anymore.

. . .

Every Tuesday, Miss Graham sent Beth down after Arithmetic to do the erasers. It was considered a privilege, and Beth was the best student in the class, even though she was the youngest. She did not like the basement. It smelled musty, and she was afraid of Mr. Shaibel. But she wanted to know more about the game he played on that board by himself.

One day she went over and stood near him, waiting for him to move a piece. The one he was touching was the one with a horse's head on a little pedestal. After a second he looked up at her with a frown of irritation. "What do you want, child?" he said.

Normally she fled from any human encounter, especially with grownups, but this time she did not back away. "What's that game called?" she asked.

He stared at her. "You should be upstairs with the others."

She looked at him levelly; something about this man and the steadiness with which he played his mysterious game helped her to hold tightly to what she wanted. "I don't want to be with the others," she said. "I want to know what game you're playing."

He looked at her more closely. Then he shrugged. "It's called chess."

A bare light bulb hung from a black cord between Mr. Shaibel and the furnace. Beth was careful not to let the shadow of her head fall on the board. It was Sunday morning. They were having chapel upstairs in the library, and she had held up her hand for permission to go to the bathroom and then come down here. She had been standing, watching the janitor play chess, for ten minutes. Neither of them had spoken, but he seemed to accept her presence.

He would stare at the pieces for minutes at a time, motionless, looking at them as though he hated them, and then reach out over his belly, pick one up by its top with his fingertips, hold it for a moment as though holding a dead mouse by the tail and set it on another square. He did not look up at Beth.

Beth stood with the black shadow of her head on the concrete floor at her feet and watched the board, not taking her eyes from it, watching every move.

She had learned to save her tranquilizers until night. That helped her sleep. She would put the oblong pill in her mouth when Mr. Fergussen handed it to her, get it under her tongue, take a sip of the canned orange juice that came with the pill, swallow, and then when Mr. Fergussen had gone on to the next child, take the pill from her mouth and slip it into the pocket of her middy blouse. The pill had a hard coating and did not soften in the time it sat under her tongue.

For the first two months she had slept very little. She tried to, lying still with her eyes tightly shut.

But she would hear the girls in the other beds cough or turn or mutter, or a night orderly would walk down the corridor and the shadow would cross her bed and she would see it, even with her eyes closed.

A distant phone would ring, or a toilet would flush. But worst of all was when she heard voices talking at the desk at the end of the corridor. No matter how softly the orderly spoke to the night attendant, no matter how pleasantly, Beth immediately found herself tense and fully awake. Her stomach contracted, she tasted vinegar in her mouth; and sleep would be out of the question for that night.

Now she would snuggle up in bed, allowing herself to feel the tension in her stomach with a thrill, knowing it would soon leave her. She waited there in the dark, alone, monitoring herself, waiting for the turmoil in her to peak. Then she swallowed the two pills and lay back until the ease began to spread through her body like the waves of a warm sea.

"Will you teach me?"

Mr. Shaibel said nothing, did not even register the question with a movement of his head. Distant voices from above were singing "Bringing in the Sheaves."

She waited for several minutes. Her voice almost broke with the effort of her words, but she pushed them out, anyway: "I want to learn to play chess."

Mr. Shaibel reached out a fat hand to one of the larger black pieces, picked it up deftly by its head and set it down on a square at the other side of the board. He brought the hand back and folded his arms across his chest. He still did not look at Beth. "I don't play strangers."

The flat voice had the effect of a slap in the face. Beth turned and left, walking upstairs with the bad taste in her mouth.

"I'm not a stranger," she said to him two days later. "I live here." Behind her head a small moth circled the bare bulb, and its pale shadow crossed the board at regular intervals. "You can teach me. I already know some of it, from watching."

"Girls don't play chess." Mr. Shaibel's voice was flat.

She steeled herself and took a step closer, pointing at, but not touching, one of the cylindrical pieces that she had already labelled a cannon in her imagination. "This one moves up and down or back and forth. All the way, if there's space to move in."

Mr. Shaibel was silent for a while. Then he pointed at the one with what looked like a slashed lemon on top. "And this one?"

Her heart leapt. "On the diagonals."

You could save up pills by taking only one at night and keeping the other. Beth put the extras in her toothbrush holder, where nobody would ever look. She just had to make sure to dry the toothbrush as much as she could with a paper towel after she used it, or else not use it at all and rub her teeth clean with a finger.

That night for the first time she took three pills, one after the other. Little prickles went across the hairs on the back of her neck; she had discovered something important. She let the glow spread all over her, lying on her cot in her faded blue pajamas in the worst place in the Girls' Ward, near the door to the corridor and across from the bathroom. Something in her life was solved: she knew about the chess pieces and how they moved and captured, and she knew how to make herself feel good in the stomach and in the tense joints of her arms and legs, with the pills the orphanage gave her.

"Okay, child," Mr. Shaibel said. "We can play chess now. I play White."

She had the erasers. It was after Arithmetic, and Geography was in ten minutes. "I don't have much time," she said. She had learned all the moves last Sunday, during the hour that chapel allowed her to be in the basement. No one ever missed her at chapel, as long as she checked in, because of the group of girls that came from Children's, across town. But Geography was different. She was terrified of Mr. Schell, even though she was at the top of the class.

The janitor's voice was flat. "Now or never," he said.

"I have Geography . . . "

"Now or never."

She thought only a second before deciding. She had seen an old milk crate behind the furnace. She dragged it to the other end of the board, seated herself and said, "Move."

He beat her with what she was to learn later was called the Scholar's Mate, after four moves. It was quick, but not quick enough to keep her from being fifteen minutes late for Geography. She said she'd been in the bathroom.

Mr. Schell stood at the desk with his hands on his hips. He surveyed the class. "Have any of you young ladies seen this young lady in the ladies'?"

There were subdued giggles. No hands were raised, not even Jolene's, although Beth had lied for her twice.

"And how many of you ladies were in the ladies' before class?" There were more giggles and three hands.

"And did any of you see Beth there? Washing her pretty little hands, perhaps?"

There was no response. Mr. Schell turned back to the board, where he had been listing the exports of Argentina, and added the word "silver." For a moment Beth thought it was done with. But then he spoke, with his back to the class. "Five demerits," he said.

With ten demerits you were whipped on the behind with a leather strap. Beth had felt that strap only in her imagination, but her imagination expanded for a moment with a vision of pain like fire on the soft parts of herself. She put a hand to her heart, feeling in the bottom of the breast pocket of her blouse for that morning's pill. The fear reduced itself perceptibly. She visualized her toothbrush holder, the long rectangular plastic container; it had four more pills in it now, there in the drawer of the little metal stand by her cot.

That night she lay on her back in bed. She had not yet taken the pill in her hand. She listened to the night noises and noticed how they seemed to get louder as her eyes grew accustomed to the dark-ness.

Down the hallway Mr. Byrne began talking to Mrs. Holland, at the desk. Beth's body grew taut at the sound. She blinked and looked at the dark ceiling overhead and forced herself to see the chessboard with its green and white squares. Then she put the pieces on their home squares: rook, knight, bishop, queen, king, and the row of pawns in front of them. Then she moved White's king pawn up to the fourth row. She pushed Black's up. She could do this! It was simple. She went on, beginning to replay the game she had lost.

She brought Mr. Shaibel's knight up to the third row. It stood there clearly in her mind on the greenand-white board on the ceiling of the ward.

The noises had already faded into a white, harmonious background. Beth lay happily in bed, playing chess.

The next Sunday she blocked the Scholar's Mate with her king's knight. She had gone over the game in her mind a hundred times, until the anger and humiliation were purged from it, leaving the pieces and the board clear in her night-time vision. When she came to play Mr. Shaibel on Sunday, it was all worked out, and she moved the knight as if in a dream. She loved the feel of the piece, the miniature horse's head in her hand. When she set down the knight on the square, the janitor scowled at it. He took his queen by the head and checked Beth's king with it. But Beth was ready for that too; she had seen it in bed the night before.

It took him fourteen moves to trap her queen. She tried to play on, queenless, to ignore the mortal loss, but he reached out and stopped her hand from touching the pawn she was about to move. "You resign now," he said. His voice was rough.

"Resign?"

"That's right, child. When you lose the queen that way, you resign."

She stared at him, not comprehending. He let go of her hand, picked up her black king, and set it on its side on the board. It rolled back and forth for a moment and then lay still.

"No," she said.

"Yes. You have resigned the game."

She wanted to hit him with something. "You didn't tell me that in the rules."

"It's not a rule. It's sportsmanship."

She knew now what he meant, but she did not like it. "I want to finish," she said. She picked up the king and set it back on its square.

"No."

"You've got to finish," she said.

He raised his eyebrows and got up. She had never seen him stand in the basement – only out in the halls when he was sweeping or in the classrooms when he washed the blackboards. He had to stoop a bit now to keep his head from hitting the rafters on the low ceiling. "No," he said. "You lost."

It wasn't fair. She had no interest in sportsmanship. She wanted to play and to win. She wanted to win more than she had ever wanted anything. She said a word she had not said since her mother died: "Please."

"Game's over," he said.

She stared at him in fury. "You greedy . . . "

He let his arms drop straight at his sides and said slowly, "No more chess. Get out."

If only she were bigger. But she wasn't. She got up from the board and walked to the stairs while the janitor watched her in silence.

On Tuesday when she went down the hall to the basement door carrying the erasers, she found that the door was locked. She pushed against it twice with her hip, but it wouldn't budge. She knocked, softly at first and then loudly, but there was no sound from the other side. It was horrible. She knew he was in there sitting at the board, that he was just being angry at her from the last time, but there was nothing she could do about it. When she brought back the erasers, Miss Graham didn't even notice they hadn't been cleaned or that Beth was back sooner than usual.

On Thursday she was certain it would be the same, but it wasn't. The door was open, and when she went down the stairs, Mr. Shaibel acted as though nothing had happened. The pieces were set up. She cleaned the erasers hurriedly and seated herself at the board. Mr. Shaibel had moved his king's pawn by the time she got there. She played her king's pawn, moving it two squares forward. She would not make any mistakes this time.

He responded to her move quickly, and she immediately replied. They said nothing to each other, but kept moving. Beth could feel the tension, and she liked it.

On the twentieth move Mr. Shaibel advanced a knight when he shouldn't have and Beth was able to get a pawn to the sixth rank. He brought the knight back. It was a wasted move and she felt a thrill when she saw him do it. She traded her bishop for the knight. Then, on the next move, she pushed the pawn again. It would become a queen on the next move.

He looked at it sitting there and then reached out angrily and toppled his king. Neither of them said anything. It was her first win. All of the tension was gone, and what Beth felt inside herself was as wonderful as anything she had ever felt in her life.

She found she could miss lunch on Sundays, and no one paid any attention. That gave her three hours with Mr. Shaibel, until he left for home at two-thirty. They did not talk, either of them. He always played the white pieces, moving first, and she the black. She had thought about questioning this but decided not to.

One Sunday, after a game he had barely managed to win, he said to her, "You should learn the Sicilian Defense."

"What's that?" she asked irritably.

She was still smarting from the loss. She had beaten him two games last week.

"When White moves pawn to queen four, Black does this." He reached down and moved the white pawn two squares up the board, his almost invariable first move. Then he picked up the pawn in front of the black queen's bishop and set it down two squares up toward the middle. It was the first time he had ever shown her anything like this.

"Then what?" she said.

He picked up the king's knight and set it below and to the right of the pawn. "Knight to KB 3."

"What's KB 3?"

"King's bishop 3. Where I just put the knight."

"The squares have names?"

He nodded impassively. She sensed that he was unwilling to give up even this much information.

"If you play well, they have names."

She leaned forward. "Show me."

He looked down at her. "No. Not now."

This infuriated her. She understood well enough that a person likes to keep his secrets. She kept hers. Nevertheless, she wanted to lean across the board and slap his face and make him tell her. She sucked in her breath. "Is that the Sicilian Defense?"

He seemed relieved that she had dropped the subject of the names of the squares. "There's more," he said. He went on with it, showing her the basic moves and some variations. But he did not use the names of the squares. He showed her the Levenfish Variation and the Najdorf Variation and told her to go over them. She did, without a single mistake.

But when they played a real game afterward, he pushed his queen's pawn forward, and she could see immediately that what he had just taught her was useless in this situation. She glared at him across the board, feeling that if she had had a knife, she could have stabbed him with it. Then she looked back to the board and moved her own queen's pawn forward, determined to beat him.

He moved the pawn next to his queen's pawn, the one in front of the bishop. He often did this. "Is that one of those things? Like the Sicilian Defense?" she asked.

"Openings." He did not look at her; he was watching the board.

"Is it?"

He shrugged. "The Queen's Gambit."

She felt better. She had learned something more from him. She decided not to take the offered pawn, to leave the tension on the board. She liked it like that. She liked the power of the pieces, exerted along files and diagonals. In the middle of the game, when pieces were everywhere, the forces crisscrossing the board thrilled her. She brought out her king's knight, feeling its power spread.

In twenty moves she had won both his rooks, and he resigned.

. . .

She rolled over in bed, put a pillow over her head to block out the light from under the corridor door and began to think how you could use a bishop and a rook together to make a sudden check on the king.

If you moved the bishop, the king would be in check, and the bishop would be free to do whatever it wanted to on the next move – even take the queen. She lay there for quite a while, thinking excitedly of this powerful attack. Then she took the pillow off and rolled over on her back and made the chessboard on the ceiling and played over all her games with Mr. Shaibel, one at a time. She saw two places where she might have created the rook-bishop situation she had just invented. In one of them she could have forced it by a double threat, and in the other she could probably have sneaked it in. She replayed those two games in her mind with the new moves, and won them both. She smiled happily to herself and fell asleep.

The Arithmetic teacher gave the eraser cleaning to another student, saying that Beth needed a rest. It wasn't fair, because Beth still had perfect grades in Arithmetic, but there was nothing she could do about it. She sat in class when the little red-haired boy went out of the room each day with the erasers, doing her meaningless additions and subtractions with a trembling hand. She wanted to play chess more desperately every day.

On Tuesday and Wednesday she took only one pill and saved the other. On Thursday she was able to go to sleep after playing chess in her mind for an hour or so, and she saved the day's two pills. She did the same thing on Friday. All day Saturday, doing her work in the cafeteria kitchen and in the afternoon during the Christian movie in the library and the Personal Improvement Talk before dinner, she could feel a little glow whenever she wanted to, knowing that she had six pills in her toothbrush holder.

That night, after lights out, she took them all, one by one, and waited. The feeling, when it came, was delicious – a kind of easy sweetness in her belly and a loosening in the tight parts of her body. She kept herself awake as long as she could to enjoy the warmth in-side her, the deep chemical happiness.

On Sunday when Mr. Shaibel asked where she had been, she was surprised that he cared. "They wouldn't let me out of class," she said.

He nodded. The chessboard was set up, and she saw to her surprise that the white pieces were facing her side and that the milk crate was already in place. "Do I move first?" she said, incredulous.

"Yes. From now on we take turns. It's the way the game should be played."

She seated herself and moved the king's pawn. Mr. Shaibel wordlessly moved his queen bishop's pawn. She hadn't forgotten the moves. She never forgot chess moves. He played the Levenfish Variation; she kept her eyes on his bishop's command of the long diagonal, the way it was waiting to pounce. And she found a way to neutralize it on the seventeenth move. She was able to trade her own, weaker bishop for it. Then she moved in with her knight, brought a rook out, and had him mated in ten more moves.

It had been simple – merely a matter of keeping her eyes open and visualizing the ways the game could go.

The checkmate took him by surprise; she caught the king on the back rank, reaching her arm all the way across the board and setting the rook crisply on the mating square. "Mate," she said levelly.

Mr. Shaibel seemed different today. He did not scowl as he always did when she beat him. He leaned forward and said, "I'll teach you chess notation."

She looked up at him.

"The names of the squares. I'll teach you now."

She blinked. "Am I good enough now?"

He started to say something and stopped. "How old are you, child?"

"Eight."

"Eight years old." He leaned forward – as far as his huge paunch would permit. "To tell you the

truth of it, child, you are astounding."

She did not understand what he was saying.

"Excuse me," Mr. Shaibel reached down on the floor for a nearly empty pint bottle. He tilted his

head back and drank from it.

"Is that whiskey?" Beth asked.

"Yes, child. And don't tell."

"I won't," she said. "Teach me chess notation."

He set the bottle back on the floor. Beth followed it for a moment with her eyes, wondering what whiskey would taste like and what it would feel like when you drank it. Then she turned her gaze and her attention back to the board with its thirty-two pieces, each exerting its own silent force.

Sometime in the middle of the night she was awakened. Someone was sitting on the edge of her bed.

She stiffened.

"Take it easy," Jolene whispered. "It's only me."

Beth said nothing, just lay there and waited.

"Thought you might like trying something fun," Jolene said. She reached a hand under the sheet and laid it gently on Beth's belly. Beth was on her back. The hand stayed there, and Beth's body remained stiff.

"Don't be uptight," Jolene whispered. "I ain't gonna hurt nothing." She giggled softly. "I'm just horny. You know what it's like to be horny?"

Beth did not know.

"Just relax. I'm just going to rub a little. It'll feel good, if you let it."

Beth turned her head toward the corridor door. It was shut. The light, as usual, came under it. She could hear distant voices, down at the desk.

Jolene's hand was moving downward. Beth shook her head. "Don't . . . " she whispered.

"Hush now," Jolene said. Her hand moved down farther, and one finger began to rub up and down.

It did not hurt, but something in Beth resisted it. She felt herself perspiring. "Ah shit," Jolene said. "I bet that feels good." She squirmed a little closer to Beth and took Beth's hand with her free one, pulling it toward her. "You touch me, too," she said.

Beth let her hand go limp. Jolene guided it up under her nightgown until the fingers grazed a place that felt warm and damp.

"Come on now, press a little," Jolene whispered. The intensity in the whispering voice was frightening. Beth did as she was told and pressed harder.

"Come on, baby," Jolene whispered, "move it up and down. Like this." She started moving her finger on Beth. It was terrifying. Beth rubbed Jolene a few times, trying hard, concentrating on just doing it. Her face was wet with sweat and her free hand was clutching at the sheet, squeezing it with all her might.

Then Jolene's face was against hers and her arm around Beth's chest. "Faster," Jolene whispered.

"Faster."

"No," Beth said aloud, terrified. "No, I don't want to." She pulled her hand away.

"Son of a bitch," Jolene said aloud.

Footsteps came running up the hallway, and the door opened. Light streamed in. It was one of the night people whom Beth didn't know. The lady stood there for a long minute. Everything was quiet.

Jolene was gone. Beth didn't dare move to see if she was back in her own bed. Finally the woman left.

Beth looked over and saw the outline of Jolene's body back in bed. Beth had three pills in the drawer; she took all three. Then she lay on her back and waited for the bad taste to go away.

The next day in the cafeteria, Beth felt wretched from not sleeping.

"You are the ugliest white girl ever," Jolene said, in a stage whisper. She had come up to Beth in the line for the little boxes of cereal. "Your nose is ugly and your face is ugly and your skin is like sandpaper. You white trash cracker bitch."

Jolene went on, head high, to the scrambled eggs.

Beth said nothing, knowing that it was true.

King, knight, pawn. The tensions on the board were enough to warp it. Then whack! Down came the queen. Rooks at the bottom of the board, hemmed in at first, but ready, building pre sure and then removing the pressure in a single move. In General Science, Miss Hadley had spoken of magnets, of "lines of force." Beth, nearly asleep with boredom, had waked up suddenly. Lines of force: bishops on diagonals; rooks on files.

The seats in a classroom could be like the squares. If the red-haired boy named Ralph were a knight, she could pick him up and move him two seats up and one over, setting him on the empty seat next to Denise. This would check Bertrand, who sat in the front row and was, she decided, the king. She smiled, thinking of it. Jolene and she had not spoken for over a week, and Beth had not let herself cry. She was almost nine years old, and she didn't need Jolene. It didn't matter how she felt about it. She didn't need Jolene.

"Here," Mr. Shaibel said. He handed her something in a brown paper bag. It was noon on Sunday. She slipped the bag open. In it was a heavy paperback book – Modern Chess Openings.

Incredulously, she began to turn the pages. It was filled with long vertical columns of chess notations. There were little chessboard diagrams and chapter heads like "Queen's Pawn Openings" and "Indian Defense Systems." She looked up.

He was scowling at her. "It's the best book for you," he said. "It will tell you what you want to know."

She said nothing but sat down on her milk crate behind the board, holding the book tightly in her lap, and waited to play.

English was the dullest class, with Mr. Espero's slow voice and the poets with names like John Greenleaf Whittier and William Cullen Bryant. "Whither, midst falling dew, /While glow the heavens with the last steps of day . . . " It was stupid. And he read every word aloud, with care.

She held Modern Chess Openings under her desk while Mr. Espero read. She went through variations one at a time, playing them out in her head. By the third day the notations – P-K4, N-KB3 – leapt into her quick mind as solid pieces on real squares. She saw them easily; there was no need for a board. She could sit there with Modern Chess Openings in her lap, on the blue serge pleated skirt of the

Methuen Home, and while Mr. Espero droned on about the enlargement of the spirit that great poetry gives us or read aloud lines like "To him who in the love of nature holds/communion with her visible forms, she speaks a various language," the moves of chess games clicked into place before her half-shut eyes. In the back of the book were continuations down to the very end of some of the classic games, to twenty-seventh-move resignations or to draws on the fortieth, and she had learned to put the pieces through their entire ballet, sometimes catching her breath at the elegance of a combination attack or of a sacrifice or the restrained balance of forces in a position. And always her mind was on the win, or on the potential for the win.

"'For his gayer hours she has a voice of gladness/and a smile and eloquence of beauty . . . '" read Mr. Espero, while Beth's mind danced in awe to the geometrical rococo of chess, rapt, enraptured, drowning in the grand permutations as they opened to her soul, and her soul opened to them.

"Cracker!" Jolene hissed as they left History.

"N*****," Beth hissed back.

Jolene stopped and turned to stare at her.

The following Saturday, Beth took six pills and gave herself up to their sweet chemistry, holding one hand on her belly and the other on her cunt. That word she knew about. It was one of the few things Mother had taught her before crashing the Chevy. "Wipe yourself," Mother would say in the bathroom.

"Be sure to wipe your cunt." Beth moved her fingers up and down, the way Jolene had. It didn't feel good. Not to her. She took her hand away and fell back into the mental ease of the pills. Maybe she was too young. Jolene was four years older and had fuzzy hair growing there. Beth had felt it.

"Morning, Cracker," Jolene said softly. Her face was easy.

"Jolene," Beth said. Jolene stepped closer. There was nobody around, just the two of them. They were in the locker room, after gym.

"What you want?" Jolene said.

"I want to know what a cocksucker is."

Jolene stared at her a moment. Then she laughed. "Shit," she said. "You know what a cock is?"

"I don't think so."

"That's what boys have. In the back of the health book. Like a thumb."

Beth nodded. She knew the picture.

"Well, honey," Jolene said gravely, "there's girls likes to suck on that thumb."

Beth thought about it. "Isn't that where they pee?" she said.

"I expect it wipes clean," Jolene said.

Beth walked away feeling shocked. And she was still puzzled. She had heard of murderers and torturers; at home she had seen a neighbour boy beat his dog senseless with a heavy stick; but she did not understand how someone could do what Jolene said.

The next Sunday she won five games straight. She had been playing Mr. Shaibel for three months now, and she knew that he could no longer beat her. Not once. She anticipated every feint, every threat that he knew how to make. There was no way he could confuse her with his knights, or keep a piece posted on a dangerous square, or embarrass her by pinning an important piece. She could see it coming and could prevent it while continuing to set up for attack.

When they had finished, he said, "You are eight years old?"

"Nine in November."

He nodded. "You will be here next Sunday?"

"Yes."

"Good. Be sure."

On Sunday there was another man in the basement with Mr. Shaibel. He was thin and wore a striped shirt and tie. "This is Mr. Ganz, from the chess club," Mr. Shaibel said.

"Chess club?" Beth echoed, looking him over. He seemed a little like Mr. Schell, even though he was smiling.

"We play at a club," Mr. Shaibel said.

"And I'm coach of the high school team. Duncan High," Mr. Ganz said. She had never heard of the school.

"Would you like to play me a game?" Mr. Ganz asked.

For an answer Beth seated herself on the milk crate. There was a folding chair set up at the side of the board. Mr. Shaibel eased his heavy body into it, and Mr. Ganz sat on the stool. He reached forward in a quick, nervous movement and picked up two pawns: one white and one black. He cupped his hands  around them, shook them together a moment and then extended both arms toward Beth with the fists clenched.

"Choose a hand," Mr. Shaibel said.

"Why?"

"You play the color you choose."

"Oh." She reached out and barely touched Mr. Ganz's left hand. "This one."

He opened it. The black pawn lay in his palm. "Sorry," he said, smiling. His smile made her uncomfortable.

The board already had Black facing Beth. Mr. Ganz put the pawns back on their squares, moved pawn to king four, and Beth relaxed. She had learned every line of the Sicilian from her book. She played the queen bishop's pawn to its fourth square. When he brought the knight out, she decided to use the Najdorf.

But Mr. Ganz was a bit too smart for that. He was a better player than Mr. Shaibel. Still, she knew after a half dozen moves that he would be easy to beat, and she proceeded to do so, calmly and mercilessly, forcing him to resign after twenty-three moves.

He placed his king on its side on the board. "You certainly know the game, young lady. Do you have a team here?"

She looked at him uncomprehendingly.

"The other girls. Do they have a chess club?"

"No."

"Then where do you play?"

"Down here."

"Mr. Shaibel said you played a few games every Sunday. What do you do in between?"

"Nothing."

"But how do you keep up?"

She did not want to tell him about playing chess in her mind in class and in bed at night. To distract him she said, "Do you want to play another?"

He laughed. "All right. It's your turn to play White."

She beat him even more handily, using the Reti Opening. The book had called it a "hypermodern" system; she liked the way it used her king's bishop. After twenty moves she stopped him to point out her upcoming mate in three. It took him half a minute to see it. He shook his head in disbelief and toppled his king.

"You're astonishing," he said. "I've never seen anything like it."

He stood up and walked over to the furnace, where Beth had noticed a small shopping bag. "I have to go now. But I brought you a present." He handed her the shopping bag.

She looked inside, hoping to see another chess book. Something was wrapped in pink tissue paper.

"Unwrap it," Mr. Ganz said, smiling.

She lifted it out and pulled away the loosely wrapped paper. It was a pink doll in a blue print dress, with blond hair and a puckered-up mouth. She held it a moment and looked at it.

"Well?" Mr. Ganz said.

"Do you want another game?" Beth said, holding the doll by its arm.

"I have to go," Mr. Ganz said. "Maybe I'll come back next week." She nodded.

There was a big oilcan used for trash at the end of the hallway. As she passed it on the way to the Sunday afternoon movie, she dropped the doll into it.

During Health Class she found the picture in the back of the book. On one page was a woman and on the facing page a man. They were line drawings, with no shading. Both stood with their arms at their sides and the palms of their hands turned out. At the V below her flat belly the woman had a simple, vertical line. The man had no such line, or if he had you couldn't see it. What he had looked like a little purse with a round thing hanging down in front of it. Jolene said it was like a thumb. That was his cock.

The teacher, Mr. Hume, was saying that you should have green leafy vegetables at least once a day. He began to write the names of vegetables on the board. Outside the big windows on Beth's left, pink japonica was beginning to bloom. She studied the drawing of a naked man, trying vainly to find some secret.

Mr. Ganz was back the next Sunday. He had his own chessboard with him. It had black and white squares, and the pieces were in a wooden box lined with red felt. They were made of polished wood; Beth could see the grain in the white ones. She reached out while Mr. Ganz was setting them up and lifted one of the knights. It was heavier than the ones she had used and had a circle of green felt on the bottom. She had never thought about owning things, but she wanted this chess set.

Mr. Shaibel had set up his board in the usual place and got another milk crate for Mr. Ganz's board. The two boards were now side by side, with a foot of space between them. It was a sunny day, and bright light came in the window filtered through the short bushes by the walk at the edge of the building'. Nobody spoke while the pieces were set up. Mr. Ganz took the knight gently from Beth's hand and put it on its home square. "We thought you could play us both," he said.

"At the same time?"

He nodded.

Her milk crate had been put between the boards. She had White for both games, and in both of them she played pawn to king four.

Mr. Shaibel replied with the Sicilian; Mr. Ganz played pawn to king four. She did not even have to pause and think about the continuations. She played both moves and looked out the window.

She beat them both effortlessly. Mr. Ganz set up the pieces, and they started again. This time she moved pawn to queen four on both and followed it with pawn to queen's bishop four – the Queen's Gambit. She felt deeply relaxed, almost in a dream. She had taken seven tranquilizers at about midnight, and some of the languor was still in her.

About midway into the games she was staring out the window at a bush with pink blooms when she heard Mr. Ganz's voice saying, "Beth, I've moved my bishop to bishop five" and she replied dreamily, "Knight to K-5." The bush seemed to glow in the spring sunlight.

"Bishop to knight four," Mr. Ganz said.

"Queen to queen four," Beth replied, still not looking.

"Knight to queen's bishop three," Mr. Shaibel said gruffly.

"Bishop to knight five," Beth said, her eyes on the pink blossoms. "Pawn to knight three." Mr. Ganz had a strange softness in his voice.

"Queen to rook four check," Beth said.

She heard Mr. Ganz inhale sharply. After a second he said, "King to bishop one."

"That's mate in three," Beth said, without turning. "First check is with the knight. The king has the two dark squares, and the bishop checks it. Then the knight mates."

Mr. Ganz let out his breath slowly. "Jesus Christ!" he said.

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