Walter Tevis is best known for his three novels that were turned into major films: The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. But on January 29, Stanford took another look at his overlooked masterpiece, The Queen’s Gambit. The lively discussion was headed by Another Look’s founding director, the eminent author Tobias Wolff. He was joined by Robert Pogue Harrison, a regular contributor to The New York Review of Books, and former Stanford fellow Inga Pierson. Some considered it our best event ever!
Tevis was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Sunset District. While his parents relocated to Kentucky, he spent a year in the Stanford Children’s Convalescent Home (which later became Stanford’s Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital). Hence, Another Look’s winter event will be a homecoming for the author, who died in 1984.
Photos below by Another Look aficionado David Schwartz.
Please join us for the Another Look book club discussion of Walter Tevis‘s Queen’s Gambit. The novel is about chess, and more particularly about Beth Harmon, a sullen and unremarkable orphan – until she plays her first game. By sixteen, she is playing chess at the U.S. Open Championship. The Queen’s Gambit follows the intense mental and existential pressures that a chess champion must endure in order to remain at the top of the game.
Tevis is best known for his three novels that were turned into major films: The Hustler, The Color of Money, and The Man Who Fell to Earth. Tevis was born in San Francisco and grew up in the Sunset District. While his parents relocated to Kentucky, he spent a year in the Stanford Children’s Convalescent Home (which later became Stanford’s Lucile Salter Packard Children’s Hospital). Hence, Another Look’s winter event will be a homecoming for the author, who died in 1984.
The event will take place at 7:30 p.m. TONIGHT, Tuesday, January 29, at the Bechtel Conference Center of Encina Hall. Panelists will include Stanford’s National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff; acclaimed author Robert Harrison, and former Stanford fellow Inga Pierson.
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
About 150 devoted book fans braved the campus-wide construction at Stanford to attend our Another Look fall event on William Henry Hudson’s Green Mansions on Tuesday, October 30, at 7:30 p.m. in the Bechtel Conference Center of Encina Hall. The event launched Another Look’s seventh season. First published in 1904, Green Mansions seamlessly blends nineteenth-century romanticism with the ecological imperatives that would come to the forefront in the twentieth century. Discussants included Prof. Robert Pogue Harrison, director of Another Look, Prof. Laura Wittman, and the Dean of Continuing Studies, Charles Junkerman.
The book had more fame back then than it does now – despite a 1959 film with Audrey Hepburn and Anthony Perkins. Said novelist Ford Madox Ford of the novel: “There was no one – no writer – who did not acknowledge without question that Hudson was the greatest living writer of English … I have never heard a writer speak of him with anything but reverence that was given to no other human being. For as a writer he was a magician.” According to Joseph Conrad, “Hudson’s writing is like grass that the good God made to grow, and when it is there you cannot tell how it came.”
The plot: Abel Guevez de Argensola, flees to the Venezuelan interior after launching a failed coup in Caracas with his friends. In the remote jungles and savannas, he lives among the native people, learning their language and their ways. While exploring the terrain, he hears strange bird-like singing and discovers a young woman with a mysterious story. His love for her desolates and transfigures his life. Hudson was better known as a naturalist and ornithologist, and his opinions were fierce, particularly about cruelty to animals. On his grave is written: “He loved birds and green places, and the wind on the hearth, and saw the brightness of the skirts of God.” But his opinion of his fellow man could be harsh. In 1915, he wrote to a friend, “You think it is a ‘cursed’ war. I think it is a blessed war. And it is quite time we had our purification from the degeneration, the rottenness that comes with everlasting peace. The blood that is being spilled will purge us of many hateful qualities – of our caste feeling, or our detestable partisanship, our gross selfishness and a hundred more. Let us thank the gods for a Wilhelm and a whole nation insane with hatred of England to restore us to health.”
Monday, April 30, marked a notable event in the literary world: perhaps the first-ever discussion of poet Philip Larkin‘s 1947 novel, A Girl in Winter at a top-ranking university. If the event does have a precedent, it’s unlikely to have matched the high-caliber expertise assembled at the Bechtel Conference Center that night. Another Look Director Robert Pogue Harrison moderated the discussion. The Stanford professor also hosts the popular talk show, Entitled Opinions, and contributes regularly to the New York Review of Books. He was joined by renowned author and National Medal of Arts winner Tobias Wolff, professor emeritus of English at Stanford.
Literary scholar Elizabeth Conquest, universally known as “Liddie,” completed the trio of panelists. She knew Philip Larkin personally—he was a close friend of her late husband, historian and poet Robert Conquest—and has written about Larkin’s poetry.
Some said it was our best event ever – one compared it to a delightful dance for three, to a “delicious effect.” Another said simply that they wished we had four events a year, rather than three.
Robert’s introduction of Larkin’s forgotten early novel riffed on the opening lines of the overlooked classic, originally titled The Kingdom of Winter: “There had been no more snow during the night, but because the frost continued so that the drifts lay where they had fallen, people told each other that there was more to come. And when it grew lighter, it seemed that they were right, for there was no sun, only one vast shell of cloud over the fields and woods…”
The little-known novel takes place in wartime England, where a young refugee from Europe named Katherine Lind tries to recover her life while working in a provincial library. Meanwhile, she recalls a memorable summer with the Fennel family in England before the war, and a near-romance with the son Robin.
Philip Larkin is one of England’s most eminent postwar poets, but few know of his early forays into fiction. All that changes tonight, Monday, April 30, when Another Look considers Larkin’s little-known 1947 novel that takes place in wartime England, where a young refugee from the Continent attempts to recover her life while working in a provincial library. Please join us! It’s free and open to the public!
When, where, who
Elizabeth Conquest in the Wall Street Journal