Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Chess Scene from "The Queen's Gambit" by Walter Tevis

Thirteen year old Beth Harmon, recently adopted from an orphanage in rural Kentucky where she had lived since the age of 8 after her mother was killed in a car accident, is playing in her very first chess tournament.  It happens to be the Kentucky State Championship.  Beth learned how to play chess at the orphanage, taughter by the janitor, Mr. Schaibel. 

She wins her first three games, finishing at 3:30 p.m. the first day.  An evening round is scheduled for 8:00 p.m., with three more the following day:

That evening Beth was on Board Six opposite a homely young man named Klein.  His rating was 1794.  Some of the games printed in Chess Review were from players with lower ratings than that.

Beth was White, and she played pawn to king four, hoping for the Sicilian.  she knew the Sicilian better than anything else.  But Klein played pawn to king four and then fianchettoed his king's bishop, setting it over in the corner above his castled king.  She wasn't quite sure but thought this was the kind of opening called "Irregular."

In the middle game, things got complex.  Beth was unsure what to do and decided to retreat a bishop.  Se set her index finger on the piece and immediately saw she had better move pawn to queen four.  She reached over to the queen pawn.

"Sorry," Klein said.  "Touch move."

She looked at him.

"You have to move the bishop," he said.

She could see in his face he was glad to say it.  He had probably seen what she could do if she moved the pawn.

She shrugged and tried to act unconcerned, but inside she was feeling something she hadn't felt before in a chess game.  She was frightened.  She moved the bishop to bishop four, sat back and folded her hands in her lap.  Her stomach was in a knot.  She should have moved the pawn.

She looked at Klein's face as he studied the board.  After a moment she saw a little malicious grin.  He pushed his queen's pawn to the fifth square, punched his clock smartly and folded his arms across his chest.

He was going to get one of her bishops.  And abruptly her fear was replaced by anger.  She leaned over the board and placed her cheeks against her palms, studying intently.

It took her almost ten minutes, but she found it. She moved and sat back.

Klein hardly seemed to notice.  He took the bishop as she hoped he would.  Beth advanced her queen rook pawn, way over on the other side of the board, and Klein grunted slightly but moved quickly, pushing the queen pawn forward again.  Beth brought her knight over, covering the pawn's next step, and more importantly, attacking Klein's rook;  He moved the rook.  Inside Beth's stomach something was beginning to uncoil.  Her vision seemed extremely sharp, as though she could read the finest print from across the room.  She moved the knight, attacking the rook again.

Klein  looked at her, annoyed.  He studied the board and moved the rook, to the very square Beth had known, two moves ago, that he would move to.  She brought her queen out to bishop five, right above Klein's castled king.

Still looking annoyed and sure of himself, Klein brought a knight over to defend.  Beth picked up her queen, her face flushing, and took the pawn in front of the king, sacrificing her queen.

He stared and took the queen.  There was nothing else he could do to get out of check.

Beth brought her bishop out for another check.  Klein interposed the pawn, as she knew he would.  "That's mate in two," Beth said quietly.

Klein stared at her, his face furious.  "What do you mean?" he said.

Beth's voice was still quiet.  "The rook comes over for the next check and then the knight mates."

He scowled.  "My queen - "

"Your queen'll be pinned," she said, "After the king moves."

He looked back to the board and stared at the position.  Then he said, "Shit!"  He did not turn over his king or offer to shake Beth's hand.  He got up from the table and walked away, jamming his hands into his pockets.

Beth took her pencil and circled HARMON on her score sheet.

That's what he gets for that nasty little smirk of a smile...

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