Tevis was born in San Francisco in 1928, and learned to play chess at the age of 7. When he was 9 he was diagnosed with rheumatic heart and Sydenham’s chorea and was placed in a convalescent home for a year. While he was committed there, his parents abandoned him and moved to Lexington, Kentucky, where they were originally from.
By 1978, Walter Tevis was two years sober, divorced, and had built his chess rating up from 1166 to 1421, a respectable club-level player. He had also survived two suicide attempts. “I tried to kill myself about 10 years ago,” he told The San Fransisco Examiner. “A few years later I was planning it again. Somehow it occurred to me that people were doing this all over just because they’re afraid to quit their jobs or divorce their wives. Change is more difficult than death for a lot of people. That’s silly, if you think about it. The thing is to go ahead and change, then if it doesn’t work you can always kill yourself later.” Tevis changed up his routine and moved to New York City to focus on getting his writing career back in shape. Two years later he published a science-fiction novel about alcoholism called Mockingbird; three years after that he published The Queen’s Gambit.
It seemed an odd choice to write about chess: By 1983, the fever that had swept America in the 1970s had mostly died down, and Tevis was someone who had made a name for himself as both a science-fiction writer and a chronicler of the world of gambling and poolrooms. But the writer saw The Queen’s Gambit as a fitting addition to his oeuvre. “Many players [of both chess and pool] are loners trying to escape from personal problems,” he told Chess Life magazine. “I like writing about people who are somewhat outcasts from society. … Highly intelligent, out of place characters. I like to write about alienation.”THE RINGER