The family in 1960: wife Jamie Tevis, daughter Julia Tevis (McGory), author Walter Tevis, and son Will holding a friend. (All photos courtesy the Tevis Estate)
When I was in my preteens, I picked up a few games that interested my Dad. One was a billiards game called “one pocket” and the other chess. Both games are similar in that they require practice, patience, and an extraordinary amount of concentration.
I’m an athlete, my Dad was not. So for a father-son relationship, these games, combined with fishing, became the biggest reason we spent time together and an essential part of our friendship.
One thing I would like to point out, which isn’t readily apparent, is the universal appeal all his interests shared. We all know that fishing is a profession and pastime shared by cultures all around the world. What’s not so well known is that many, if not the best, pool and chess players are from outside the United States. The great number of participants from other countries compounds the difficulty of being recognized internationally as truly great in those fields. And in the case of Beth in The Queens Gambit, she’s a young girl as well, which makes it much more challenging, creating an environment for the underdog to satisfy our desire to win against the odds.
Walter Tevis was an underdog who beat the odds. The characters that he created – Eddie Felson, Jerome Newton, and Beth Harmon – all had an internal drive that launched them to overcome unbelievable odds, but still not live happily ever after. Walter Tevis was the struggling underdog, too. He overcame inner demons to win in his literary field, only to die far short of a satisfying life.
To me and my sister he was our Dad. The only one we had. He loved us and liked to play games with us. He was funny and a joy to be with. We could easily tell he liked us. He was the good cop to our mom’s bad cop.
I never thought of him as having a ferocious desire to win. I’ve known people who are fiercely competitive and he wasn’t like them. But you need to remember playing against me in chess was different than playing with others. For years he displayed the attitude, “If I beat him, I win; if I don’t beat him, my prodigy beats me. I win either way.” For a time it felt like that. I would come home at nine or ten in the evening. Dad would be in his office reading and waiting for me. Then we would play speed chess. Five minutes each. I would slaughter him. After a time, I would give him fifteen minutes to my five and we wouldn’t start the clock until each of us moved five times. I still clobbered him.
Around this time, he and his friend Don Richter started playing chess together. Richter had a cabin in Canada where the three of us spent one summer. We had two boards and two clocks. After I consistently beat them separately, they thought about having me play them both at once. So we did. Their beatings got worse.
I’m not a particularly good Chess player now – nor was I then. I had a young quick mind and an aggressive playing style. Plus, I always got to play white. (I always open with PK4.) I think at that time it was okay for them to lose like that. It was too easy for me. They were awestruck. I was in their heads. But it didn’t stay that way for long.
Not long after we got back to Athens (Ohio), Richter and Dad started studying Modern Chess Openings. They both started getting a lot better, fast. Especially in speed chess. Because of the time limit, any moves thought out beforehand proved to be way too powerful for me to push through for just one game at a time. No way could I play two at once. It was also around this time they started playing in local Chess tournaments. Both of them had modest beginner’s ratings.
Dad and I would also play longer games in which he became a much, much improved player. Before Richter and he started their study program, I would imagine if we played 10 games I would win 7. After Dad and Richter studied, I’d be doing good to win 2 games out of 10. It was also around this time he’d like to tell this joke. A guy has taught his dog to play chess. “You taught your dog to play chess!? That must be an awfully smart dog.” “He’s not all that smart. I beat him two out of three games.”
Walter Tevis could write an exciting game-winning sequence that can easily be followed even if you never played the game he was writing about. He was a wonderful storyteller and a great writer.
He played a good game of chess. He was hard to beat in one pocket.
My sister and I take great pride in his contributions to the literary world and the acknowledgments he continues to receive. But for us when we reflect on his life, we remember him mostly as our Dad.
– Will Tevis