Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in the Netflix series, The Queen's Gambit. Here Beth is seen looking pensive as a chess board, in the midst of a room of onlookers.

Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit. Image: Netflix

If you've never played chess, you might be forgiven for not being able to muster up the enthusiasm to watch a whole series centred on the game. But The Queen’s Gambit, a Netflix show based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, has just become the streaming service’s most-watched-ever limited series with over 62 million households watching it in its first month.

Praised for its brilliant performances, mid-century stylings and gripping drama, the story follows a young Beth Harmon through the 1950s and 60s. After the death of her mother, Beth is taken to an orphanage where she discovers – and quickly becomes obsessed with – chess, as well as the tranquilisers given to children on a daily basis. Her rise through national, and international, tournaments is swift but behind her success there’s a growing dependence on drugs and alcohol too. 

For a game that mainly takes place in the depths of a player’s brain, the show manages to depict chess with the same kind of nail-biting tension that usually accompanies a high-stakes cup final or denouement of a particularly intense thriller. But alongside the chess, the programme also reflects on themes of obsession, addiction, genius, coming of age in Cold War era USA and what it means to be a woman in a male-dominated arena. If you’ve raced through the series and are wishing for more, these are the books to pick up next.

Chess by Stefan Zweig (1943)

Sent to Zweig's publisher just a few days before his death by suicide in 1942, his last work is also one of his best. If you’ve just finished watching The Queen’s Gambit and want more of the same, this is the one to start with.

The story takes place aboard a transatlantic cruise ship where the world chess champion and a mysterious stranger face off against each other in a suspenseful game. In this dramatic novella, Zweig explores the nature of genius and obsession, the effects of psychological trauma, as well as the brutal upheaval Europe was going through at the time.

How Life Imitates Chess by Garry Kasparov (2007)

We all know chess is a game of strategy, and you could probably argue that life is too. Using skills honed through decades spent at the highest levels of the game, Grandmaster and World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov lays out how anyone can use the same mix of strategic thinking and intuition to navigate life's challenges. 

Drawing on his own experiences, as well as those of other notable chess players and the greatest strategic minds throughout history, How Life Imitates Chess is a guide on how to suceed, no matter how tough the competition.

The Chess Girls by Lavinia Greenlaw (2012)

Part documentary, part dramatisation, this BBC Radio 4 production is based on a true story. Believing that genius can be taught, László Polgar, an educational psychologist and chess teacher, set out to prove the theory by conducting an experiment on his own children. 

Schooling them in the game from a very young age, all three were raised to be chess prodigies. They rocked the male-dominated game, breaking record after record and Judit, the youngest sister, is widely considered to be the greatest female chess player ever.

The New Yorker Book of the 60s (2016)

The bulk of The Queen's Gambit takes place over the course of the 1960s. We get a sense of the ongoing tensions between the United States and Russia – not least when Beth is accompanied by a CIA agent to a Moscow tournament – but the Sixties was a period of huge, widespread change.

From the Summer of Love to desegregation to the JFK’s assassination to the ongoing Vietnam War and so much more, immerse yourself in this tumultuous decade through the New Yorker’s archive of groundbreaking journalism and short fiction.

 

Mad Women by Jane Maas (2013)

Following in the footsteps of programmes like Mad Men and The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, part of the joy of The Queen’s Gambit is, yes, the eye-popping costume and set design but it’s also, in large part, the joy of seeing a teenage Beth trouncing a succession of patronising and mediocre men that fill the tournaments she attends.

Mad Women gives us a first-hand account of what it was like to be one of very few women in the advertising industry during the Sixties. Based on Maas’ own experiences and interviews with peers, the book is filled with juicy tales from the era of the three-Martini lunch alongside the more sobering realities of the jaw-dropping sexism women in her position were forced to contend with.

The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan (1963)

Back when women were expected to know their place and stick to it, Betty Friedan’s seminal work gave voice to the “problem that ha[d] no name” – the systems that undervalued women’s capabilities, undermined their intellect and checked their aspirations.

At a time when sixty per-cent of women got married in their teens or early 20s, the release of The Feminine Mystique in 1963 perfectly captured the frustrations of many and instantly ignited a revolution that profoundly changed society. 

Gifted by Nikita Lalwani (2007)

In The Queen’s Gambit, Beth Harmon is discovered to be a chess prodigy at a tender age. In Gifted, Rumi Vasi is declared to be a gifted child at just five years old. Her father, Mahesh, begins a determined tutoring schedule to ensure she lives up to her potential and reaches his goal for her: to be accepted into Oxford University by the time she turns 15.

But between her father’s ever more intense schooling, her mother’s conflicting wish to return to India and her own teenage desires, it’s clear that something’s got to give.

The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (2000)

Eleven year old Ludo is a prodigy of learning. At age four, he can read multiple languages and it’s not long before he can handle advanced mathematical equations. His intellectual ability is equal only to his insatiable curiosity but there’s one thing he hasn’t been able to find the answer to: his father’s name. 

His mother hopes the film Ludo has grown up watching – Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai – will give him a group of brilliant role models to look up to but, of course, it’s not the same as the real deal. The Last Samurai is a remarkable (and often very funny) exploration of art, language, science and the possibilities of life.

Belladonna by Anbara Salam (2020)

Fifteen-year-old Isabella is popular, while Bridget is not. When both of them receive an offer to continue their studies in Italy, Bridget is thrilled at the opportunity for a fresh start – and, even better, the chance to spend the next nine months with Isabella.

Set in the mid-1950s, the Italian setting is every bit as evocative as the 1960s America of The Queen's Gambit. You'll soon be hooked on this beguiling tale of teenage friendship and how easily it can shift into desire, obsession and betrayal. 

That Reminds Me by Derek Owusu (2019)

This raw, unflinching whirlwind of memories forms the story of K, from birth into adulthood. Sent into foster care while still a baby, K later returns to the city, all the while trying to make sense of who he is by fitting together the fragmented pieces of himself. Deeply moving and brutally honest, Owusu's debut novel was named the winner of 2019's Desmond Elliot Prize – an award which supports emerging writers.

While the tone and setting are very different from The Queen’s Gambit, both stories touch on similar themes of identity, addiction, abandonment and belonging.

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