Monday, November 16, 2020

Long Overdue Appreciation of Kentucky Writer Walter Tevis

If you’ve been enjoying “The Queen’s Gambit” on Netflix, you may be interested in knowing where it came from. The answer is the 1983 novel written by a now mostly forgotten until recently Kentucky author named Walter Tevis, whose books were the source for three other well-known movies, as well.


Tevis’ life mirrored that of his chess prodigy in many ways. Like his character Beth Harmon, the incredibly talented child was abandoned and became addicted to phenobarbital at the orphanage, where he also learned to play chess. Later, he developed a similar obsessive interest in pool and became a wildly out of control alcoholic.


While living in Lexington as a young man, Tevis took a writing course at UK from Pulitzer Prize winning–novelist A.B. Guthrie Jr. A short story he wrote as a class assignment, “The Best in the Country,” was bought by Esquire magazine. In 1959, the novel version was published as The Hustler.


In 1963, Tevis, who felt like an alien himself in Lexington, published The Man Who Fell to Earth, a science-fiction novel about an alien who winds up in Kentucky. For a time, his short stories were much in demand. But many years of drunken failure ensued. In 1984, he followed The Queen’s Gambit with The Color of Money, a sequel to The Hustler. Tevis died shortly afterward from lung cancer at age 56. Two years ago, he was finally inducted into the Kentucky Writers Hall of Fame.


According to David Hill, writing this month in The Ringer, “The pool player Rudolf Wanderone, who was known in the world of pool as New York Fats, famously changed his name to Minnesota Fats and convinced the world that he was the inspiration for the Minnesota Fats character in the book, despite the fact that Tevis invented Minnesota Fats from whole cloth. “A lot of people ask me, ‘When did you first meet Minnesota Fats?’ And I feel like Walt Disney being asked, ‘When did you meet Donald Duck?’”

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