When she is sent to an orphanage at the age of eight, Beth Harmon soon discovers two ways to escape her surroundings, albeit fleetingly: playing chess and taking the little green pills given to her and the other children to keep them subdued. Before long, it becomes apparent that hers is a prodigious talent, and as she progresses to the top of the US chess rankings she is able to forge a new life for herself. But she can never quite overcome her urge to self-destruct. For Beth, there’s more at stake than merely winning and losing.
My husband watched the Netflix series and said I HAD to watch it, so of course I had to read the book first. I know absolutely nothing about chess, but I still found this to be a highly entertaining read.
Beth Harmon is orphaned when her mother is killed in a car accident at the very beginning of the book. She goes to live at Methuen orphanage, where she is given tranquilizers along with the rest of the children to keep them calm. She developed an addiction to the pills, which led to further problems with addiction down the road.
One day she observes the school janitor, Mr. Shaibel, sitting at a chess table debating his next move. She become intrigued and eventually asks if she can play. He is reluctant, but agrees to teach her the basics. It quickly becomes clear that she is an exceptional player with endless potential, but when she is adopted by the Wheatley's, she is no longer able to play. She doesn't have a chess set at home and there isn't a chess team at her school. When she is able to scrape up enough money to enter a local tournament and wins some prize money, Mrs. Wheatley finally sees Beth's potential. She isn't supporting Beth because it is something she enjoys, but because of the income she can bring to the family. They have been struggling to make ends meet and this could be the answer to their problems.
The rest of the book details Beth's struggles with addiction and the training and focus needed to become a Grand Master. She quickly moves up the rankings, but her addiction is a constant struggle that could prevent her from reaching her ultimate goal. There were a lot of detailed scenes describing moves in chess and the various games she was playing, which went COMPLETELY over my head. If you play the game, this may be something you can appreciate and learn from, but I had no clue. I could still appreciate the amount of focus and dedication that was required and the fact that she was an outsider trying to make it to the top of a man's world. Nobody gave her the credit and respect she deserved until they were on the losing end of a match with her. Not only did she have to overcome the gender hurdle, but the belief that it took years if not decades to achieve greatness in the game of chess. Here she was at the age of 13 beating the best of the best and the chess elite could not explain it.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book and have already started watching the series. I am two episodes into the seven episodes and Netflix has nailed it so far. They are sticking pretty close to the original storyline and I am enjoying seeing these characters brought to life. I can see why this series was such a huge hit. I would highly recommend the book and the series if you haven't already read or watched it.