Walter Tevis, the author of the novel, The Queen’s Gambit, was my creative writing teacher at Ohio University in 1970. I don’t know anything about the origin of the Beth Harmon character, alas. I do recall Prof. Tevis spoke about his earlier novel, The Hustler. He insisted that he created the character of Minnesota Fats from many characters he met playing pool. He was angry when a pool player assumed the Fats name after the success of the book and then film.
I have one memory of Walter Tevis from 1970. He invited the class to his house near campus at the end of the semester. It was lovely old Victorian house. We were met by a woman at the door who told us to sit in the living room. Tevis came down the stairs with a six-pack of bottled beer. Back then Ohio had beer with lower alcohol content that teenagers, 18 and up, were permitted to drink. It was called 3.2 beer.
Prof Tevis asked, “Who wants a beer?” Stunned silence from the class. Then Tevis said, “You have to drink it. I’m an alcoholic. Can’t have this in the house. ” So I had a beer or two to help him out. We read our stories. I ‘d written one about a pinball machine made in China called the Red Lantern. When the ball hit a precise number of bumpers and flippers a chimed sequence unlocked a hypnotic trigger in the player turning him into an assassin. Prof. Tevis said really enjoyed the story.
He had an amazing life, hanging out in poolhalls from Kentucky to Okinawa. He made me wish my life was more interesting. After I left college I read his sci-fi novels Mockingbird and also The Man who Fell to Earth, which became the cult David Bowie movie. I loved Mockingbird. I think I wrote him a letter and sent it to Ohio University. I now see he had left Ohio University by then to move to New York City.
I’m reading the The Queen’s Gambit now. The writing is sharp and differs in some ways from the Netflix series. No spoilers here. The first edition author bio notes: “In 1978 he left his teaching position- with some trepidation- to start writing again… The Queens’ Gambit derives from an obsession similar to that which produced The Hustler, but deeper and older. Tevis learned to play chess as a seven-year-old in San Francisco and still plays as a class C player- in his fifties in New York, when not writing.”
Tevis would have been 49 years old when he left his teaching job Ohio University for NYC. He died of lung cancer at 57.