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Walter Tevis ’49 ’57: The mind behind popular ‘Queen’s Gambit’ series

It’s one of the biggest things in entertainment.

And it is all from the mind of UK alumnus and professor Walter Tevis.

“The Queen’s Gambit,” the most-streamed show ever on Netflix, is based on his 1983 novel of the same name. Tevis, who was inducted into the UK Alumni Association Hall of Distinguished Alumni in 1989, was born Feb. 28, 1928, in San Francisco and moved with his family to Madison County at age 11.

Walter Tevis in 1958

“The Queen’s Gambit” follows the life of an orphan chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, in Lexington during her quest to become the world’s greatest chess player while struggling with emotional problems and drug and alcohol dependency. The title of the series refers to a chess opening of the same name.

Tevis earned a bachelor’s degree in English in 1949 and a master’s degree in English in 1957. While at UK, he worked in a pool hall, inspiring his 1959 debut novel “The Hustler” and the character “Fast Eddie” Felson. Paul Newman played “Fast Eddie” Parker in the 1961 film version of the novel and the sequel, “The Color of Money,” the latter earning Newman the Academy Award for Best Actor. Tevis’ 1963 novel, “The Man Who Fell to Earth,” was also made into a movie in 1976 starring David Bowie, and remade in 1987.

He served in the Navy in the Pacific Theatre during World War II. After earning his degrees from UK, Tevis taught at Science Hill, Carlisle and Irvine schools. Tevis later taught creative writing at UK, as well as Southern Connecticut State College, Northern Kentucky University and Ohio University in Athens, where he was a distinguished professor and was selected by students as one of the schools most popular instructors.

In 1978 he moved to New York City to become a full-time writer. He wrote short stories for many magazines including Redbook, Saturday Evening Post and Playboy.

“I write about losers and loners,” he told the New York Times in 1983. “If there’s a common theme in my work, that’s it. I invented the phrase ‘born loser’ in ‘The Hustler.’ In one way or another I’m obsessed with the struggle between winning and losing.”

Walter Tevis in 1983

Tevis was living in Athens, Ohio, when he died of lung cancer on Aug. 9, 1984.

But his work has found a new audience thanks to the success of “The Queen’s Gambit.” And Lexington businesses are capitalizing.

21C Hotel in Lexington has The Harmon Room, which features mid-century modern furniture, bold wallpaper and a larger-than-life overhead chessboard installation inspired by Beth Harmon’s visions on the show.

Brian Pulley, director of sales and marketing with 21C Hotels, said the purpose of the project was to attract attention to Lexington as a travel destination based upon the popularity of the show and to highlight the fact that Lexington, Kentucky is Beth Harmon’s home. “We were able to create an experiential hotel stay that transports the guest to the era and style of the show,” he said.

21C Hotel in Lexington has made The Harmon Room to capitalize on the success of “The Queen’s Gambit.”

“I have been collecting furniture from that era for the last three decades,” Lucy Jones, preservationist and one of The Harmon Room’s designers, said in a release. “It is pure joy to bring to life the rich scenes from the page and screen.”

Interior designer Isabel Ladd was equally enthused to join the project.

“When I watched ​The Queen’s Gambit​,” said Ladd, “I would stop and rewind just mesmerized with all the color and pattern play.”

The Kentucky for Kentucky store has a Fairfield High School Chess Team shirt for sale, and Visit Lex has The Queen’s Gambit Guide to Lexington.

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