Beth Harmon is the protagonist of Walter Tevis’ book The queen’s gambit. The work written in 1983 by Walter Tevis , was adapted by Netflix into a beloved of the same title, where the queen of chess, Beth Harmon, is played by three different Beths: the first, the child, who, after losing her mother to suicide, and locked inside an orphanage meets a janitor, Mr. Scheibel, who secretly teaches her to play chess. A second one, for pre-adolescence, when she is adopted by a family with a father and mother in separation; and a final Beth girl and young woman – embodied by the beautiful actress Anya Taylor Joy, who has enchanted the world with her brown eyes and impeccable looks. Beth is pretty, not beautiful: but she is a genius in the world. The best chess player in the world because she wins the world champion.
Certainly the writer knew how to play chess, he challenged his sister in adolescence, and he thanks the various aids that supported him in the articulate, almost obsessive, description of complex games: but Tevis, author of books that have inspired multiple films such as The Man Who Came to Earth, beyond knowing how to play chess, imagined and glimpsed the behaviors and qualities of a genius since childhood, as in the case of the very successful Beth Harmon.
Gym was bad and volleyball was worst… Beth could never hit the ball right… most of the girls laughed and shouted when they played but Beth never did… Beth tried it a few more times and did it better… After e few times it got to be easy… Beth worked on it over the next week, and after that she did not mind volley ball at all.
It wasn’t that Beth didn’t care about playing volleyball at all: she made it okay to the point where she no longer suffered playing volleyball. But Beth didn’t like it. There wasn’t the necessary drive, that principle of Pleasure on which one can choose things to love. She applied herself to it; but she didn’t get any joy out of it, in that environment as cold, anaffective and gloomy as an orphanage in the 1950s in the conservative United States of America, led by President Eisenhower.
The janitor to Beth: “You should be upstairs with the others”. “I don’t want to be with the others” she said “I want to know what game you’re playing”. “It’s called chess” … ” Will you teach me?”… “Girls don’t play chess” … Mr. Sheibel was silent for a while. Then he pointed at the one with what looked like a smashed lemon on top. “This one?” … Her heart leapt – answering “On the diagonals”
Beth observes the janitor playing by himself, and She without knowing that game is called chess, begins to “guess” some of its rules, including the fact that the bishop (the one with the crushed lemon) moves diagonally. The janitor, Mr. Scheibel reminds her that she should be with the other kids at the orphanage. Beth responds with a “I don’t want to,” a NO, because Harmon knows she is attracted to this game, unsuitable for girls, according to the gender stereotype, in an America made up of a middle class of housewives who are very careful about how to cook the latest apple pie (good, by the way). How many NOs have we seen pronounced in previous chapters? Emily Dickinson to the school that wanted her to be a Christian and to marry, Jane Austin to marriage, Nikola Tesla to the priesthood that his father wanted to impose on him, Ignaz Semmelweiss to the study of law chosen by his father, who left because he was in love with medicine.
That evening, “The noises had already faded into the white, harmonious background. Beth lay happily in bed, playing chess.”
Beth has figured out what gives her happiness: it’s not playing volleyball, it’s not being with others, but it’s picturing a game of chess in her head.
Mr. Scheibel, having explained other rules of the game to her, recognizes, once beaten, her talent. He calls another chess master from Kentucky, the country best known for Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Beth wins them both. The master, Mr. Ganz gives her a doll that Harmon tosses in the trash can: she wanted a chess set, not a doll for little girls, and she won’t have it for years to come, until she wins her first prize, once adopted, right in Kentucky. She plays with memory, with chessboards, with intuition visualized in her mind, a bit like Dante imagined his Comedy, Tesla imagined alternating current and the machinery to produce it and Coco Chanel did not paint the sketches of her clothes on paper but simply created them on a mannequin. On the other hand, Einstein – a genius not contemplated in this book – had also seen the theory of relativity, but not written it down. Then he had to write it in order to convince the scientific community that he did not want to know to equal and unite matter and energy (concept already anticipated by Tesla). Coming back to Beth, Harmon will be punished in the college for stealing too many tranquilizers (maybe even psychedelics?) and she will be prevented from cultivating her only true passion, chess.
Once an adolescent, and once her only source of relationship, Mrs. Wheatley, the adoptive mother abandoned by her husband who, having noticed her talent, is by her side to help her get out of poverty (in fact she gets 10% of the girl’s winnings), dies, she sinks into a void made of alcohol and tranquilizers. Although he is an American champion, one Sunday morning, with his brain half destroyed by addictions, he loses at chess in his old land, “Kentucky”, with a young boy against whom it was impossible and ridiculous to lose.
Four elements will pull her out of the nightmare of “disappearing” – she, the Queen of Chess, needed because her visual-spatial intelligence, her imagination, is no longer enough: an intrapersonal introspective intelligence that brings her awareness, acquired during her visit as an adult to the orphanage, for the funeral of Mr. Scheibel, where she understands the roughness of the headmistress and the tenderness of the janitor who in the basement kept newspaper clippings with photos of Beth’s many trophies won. Scheibel, where she understands the roughness of the principal and the tenderness of the janitor who kept newspaper clippings with photos of Beth in the basement as she lifted pictures of her many trophies won around the world. It will be the review of the cramped conditions of this basement, almost a closet, that will bring her to the awareness that if she had been born in “another family”, they would have recognized her earlier as a unique talent, sent her immediately to study chess, not punished her by taking away the thing she loved the most and in which she was brilliant. She understands, with enormous suffering, through this introspection that she did it all almost by herself.
The second element, consequent to the first one, is the need for continuous training: she is born self-taught, she studies the articles of the chess magazines she steals, and she begins to study, to inform herself to fill the gap of competence that a self-taught person feels to have, she knows that there were years when she should have studied something else but that time was stolen from her by other occupations. Beth works hard before competitions while her competitors are out sightseeing because she feels she has to apply herself much more than someone who is “born learned.” She studies not only her own moves, but the games of those who will be her competitors. And he studies Russian, to understand what the world chess champions say and how they think. And so also Dante is that self-taught, who spoke Latin yes, but lacked Greek as a classical study and perhaps devotes himself, in the midst of the depression “his dark forest”, to the launch of the new language, the Vulgar. She captures the Italian she hears in the streets, writes it down, and gives it to us in her Comedy. Beth succeeds in “riveder le stelle” (seeing the stars again), thanks to the continuous application effort. She realizes that talent alone is not enough.
The Third Element is her asking for help with interpersonal intelligence: she knows how to selectively ask for help from the right people at the right times. In the pit of drugs and alcohol, one morning conscious of attacking her own brain and talent (almost more than herself) she seeks out her orphanage classmate Jolene, who turns out to be a wonderful friend. She studies and works as a physical education teacher, getting Beth in shape and staying close to her. And when she doesn’t know which way to turn to win the Russian champion, she tries to train with the best champions available. This is something that is explained to her is very rare in America, where people work more in isolation, while it is the order of the day for the Russians, where everyone rehearses for days on end before competitions. Individual play in USA and team play in Russia. That’s why so many champions. I think of other geniuses like Leonardo, and his letter to be welcomed at court by Ludovico il Moro, not only as a painter but as an engineer of war machines for defense. I am thinking of the funding that Pasteur managed to get from Napoleon III for his laboratory, which was to become the Institut Pasteur. And the Beatles, who with their group equation 1+1+1 = ∞, invented an impressive number of musical and textual motifs.
And then there is the Fourth Element of Power to Succeed, perhaps the most significant: when Beth “is at a standstill” during the games, she does not know what to move, she is on the defensive, she risks losing, she no longer feels the need to win the other, she no longer feels the competition of war: she does not look at “the opponent” in the face but focuses on the aesthetics of the chessboard, of the moves, on the sense of pleasure she gets from the game. The other does not exist anymore. She plays to honor chess. Because she loves them. And so – and this will only be a consequence – she wins.
The Fourth element we can call it erotic intelligence, where by eroticism we mean pleasure, fascination, Voluntas, pleasure principle. love. And this quality is present in all the genes we have read about in the previous chapters: not only the ability to say NO, but to pursue tirelessly, to cultivate their passion.
“Sunlight filtered through the trees on her…When she stopped at his table he looked at her inquisitively, but there was no recognition on his face. She sat behind the black pieces and said carefully in Russian, “Would you like to play chess?”
These are the last lines of the novel by Walter Tevis. The pleasure of chess, in fact, even with a perfect stranger who does not know that she is the brilliant world champion.
I used Beth Harmon as a symbol of genius: sure, she has the limitations of a literary character, but I think she’s effective in shifting the focus from lived biographies to a fantastical character many of us know and admire. I could have chosen Odysseus, the multifaceted wit, Sherlock Holmes, the connoisseur of the smallest clues, but she captivated me and chose me, not only for the TV series but for the dry, emotional prose of Tevis’ novel. I don’t begrudge the intellectuals, the departed geniuses, the living geniuses, and the geniuses of future generations.
Voluntas comes first in the qualities of a genius. What is Voluntas, I leave it in Latin because it is more symbolic than the Italian will: the etymology comes from the Latin “Velle” which means to want, and in this wanting is implicit the meaning of desiring, of choosing, of something that originates spontaneously, of pleasure. Perhaps among all the possible synonyms, the term that attracts the most attention is that adverb “spontaneously”, whose roots tell us that it is precisely something that comes forward in space, without push, coercion, in freedom. It is a call to act spontaneously, without too many calculations of return, of advantage, without excesses of rationalization. It is a call to LOVE, and this is why I write about erotic intelligence, because loving also means choosing on the basis of an attraction, of a totalizing fascination.
The word Want is one of 64 terms included in the Natural Semantic Metalanguage (MSN), the metalanguage existing universally in the languages of the planet: among other words there is I, You, the Body, Thinking, Feeling (as emotions, to feel), Knowing, Power (being able to), Doing, Happening, Living and Dying…. Existential Issues. There is no human being who does not want, who does not aspire, who does not desire, if the map of words is the expression of how we are and what we think. We read that the great absent among these universal words is Duty: we can construct it by assembling these words in the sentence “I want you to do this thing.” It is however a construction, originally there is no Duty, and in the evolution of the Child, there is Feeling, and Wanting. The child up to three years old Wants things: only with time does he learn the existence of limits; the Will of expression is a spontaneous act. It is not to be judged as an egocentric attitude that denies altruism, it is that we human beings are also made to want, to be able to do (can) – they are all universal. Duty is a later word that also arose as a form of social control.
By recognition we mean the first family members, teachers, neighbors who recognize the talent and inclination: not boundless success. Without this first contextual recognition – necessary to be able to channel one’s inclinations – the activity of genius cannot exist.
Access to our most authentic identity sometimes occurs not only through an act of intuitive introspection, as Paul Ricoeur, philosopher of the art of Recognition, tells us, but through a longer detour involving language, the capacity to act, the emergence of moral responsibility. The self, accusative and reflexive pronoun accesses its own identity through the Other it encounters, thus only by understanding itself as other: this is how the acts- works that a person places in the world are born, and which are the indirect manifestation of its identity. It is not so simple to understand what we can excel at, this is what Ricoeur states: the encounter with the Other helps us to understand our meaning in the world.
When a genius shows us his works, he amazes us: the Will of his Doing is followed by the Happening of our Perception, which we grasp with our senses, reason and feeling, whether it is Coco Chanel’s little black dress, or standing next to Semmelweiss while she washes her hands adding disinfectant, or in front of the Starry Night, or listening to Blackbird singing in the dead of night by The Beatles.
In English the word Wonder also means Wandering, Wandering, in short Alice goes to Wonderland, with a play on words; she goes to the world of Wandering, to understand who she is in the world, and she hears the riddle “‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!”
Wonder is for Anglo-Saxons something that has not only to do with the sense of seeing, but with our movements, it makes us lose, distract, deconcentrate from the main road. And in order to generate wonder, the invitation is to leave the best-known paths to embrace the unknown ones, which we simply do not know. Even an inner journey, as we did locked away at home during Covid-19, and discovered the power of our resilience, imagination, creativity and will.
And so our possible daily masterpiece, in this wandering in Wonderland, is to get up every morning with a good reason to celebrate our Non-Birthday as the Mad Hatter does at the Tea Party where Alice participates (Figure 2). A wonderfully simple reason. To celebrate every day of life. And brilliant, only it comes to mind too infrequently.