Why ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ rang a bell and helped launch a career

When he learned the popular Netflix series was based on a novel, Doug Moe suddenly remembered he'd reviewed it nearly 40 years ago.
A photocopied newspaper clipping of Promoting A Pawn Milwaukee Journal Book Review 1983 Doug Moe
Courtesy of Milwaukee Public Library.

When the limited series “The Queen’s Gambit” was released last fall on Netflix and became a huge hit — viewed by 62 million households in the first four weeks, according to the New York Times — the title rang a distant bell with me every time I heard it.

And I heard it a lot, though I still haven’t seen the miniseries, which focuses on a young girl who masters chess while battling personal demons.

Madison’s own chess prodigy, Awonder Liang, praised it in a recent column, telling me, “You should totally watch it. I watched the first episode and got hooked.” But just why “The Queen’s Gambit” sounded familiar eluded me — until recently.

It was when I read that the miniseries is based on a Walter Tevis novel of the same name that it came to me. I thought: “I believe I not only read that book, I think I reviewed it.” If I was right, that would have been close to 40 years ago.

Last week, I called the Milwaukee Public Library, and a helpful librarian — are there any other kind? — tracked down the answer.

The first piece of writing I was ever paid for was a December 1978 book review in the Milwaukee Journal. That fall, I’d been in my last year at the University of Wisconsin–Madison when I got the chance to go to Chicago and meet one of my writing heroes, the novelist Thomas McGuane, to interview him for the Badger Herald student newspaper. When McGuane’s fourth novel, “Panama,” came out a few weeks later, the reviews were harsh, and — I felt — misguided.

I wrote a review and sent it to Henry Kisor, the book editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, the tabloid I read every morning over coffee at the Kollege Klub because five days a week it published columnist Mike Royko on page two. Kisor wrote a personal note back, saying he didn’t accept “over the transom” reviews. “Too much danger of logrolling,” he wrote.

But he praised my review, and that was enough encouragement for me to send it to the Milwaukee Journal and its book editor, Robert W. Wells. Wells wrote back that they didn’t often accept freelance reviews — same reason — but added, “I am going to make an exception this time. You will receive a check for $30 upon publication.”

Hard to articulate what a thrill that was. I was now a professional writer.

It was nearly as big a kick when, a month or so later, a book arrived in the mail from Wells — “A Walk Across America,” by Peter Jenkins, and he wanted to know if I would review it. I read the book, sent in my review, and Wells responded. He thanked me, adding, “Luckily, I caught the error in the title.”

Yes, in my first assigned review, I got the book’s title wrong. I called it “A Walk Across the Country.”

Wells corrected my mistake, and the publishers used a quote from the review on the cover of the paperback. I thought Wells might not ever send me another book, so I wrote to him proactively, suggesting a profile of UW–Madison creative writing professor Kelly Cherry and a review of her new 1979 novel, “Augusta Played.” Wells assigned it, and that went better. Over the next few years, the books kept coming. I remember “Desolate Angel,” a Jack Kerouac biography by Dennis McNally, and “The Curse of Lono,” a wild Hawaiian adventure by the inimitable Hunter S. Thompson.

The book Wells sent that meant the most to me was “American Mirror,” a collection of magazine pieces by the distinguished novelist and journalist W. C. “Bill” Heinz, best known to Wisconsin readers for his collaboration with Vince Lombardi on the bestselling “Run to Daylight.” Heinz wrote me a letter of thanks after my review appeared in the Milwaukee Journal in 1982. We started a correspondence and I eventually visited him in the beautiful hillside home he shared with his wife, Betty, in Vermont.

Heinz was a captivating storyteller. He talked of meeting Hemingway in Europe during World War II, and interviewing Joe Namath on the campus of the University of Alabama. His most memorable story was about the physician who contacted him after Heinz wrote a profile of a heart surgeon in LIFE magazine. The physician was struggling to write a fictional account of his time overseas in the Korean War. Heinz wound up collaborating with the physician, Richard Hornberger. They used a pseudonym when the novel was published. You may know it. They called it “MASH.”

Wells retired from the Milwaukee Journal about the same time — 1986 — that I signed on full-time at Madison Magazine. I probably reviewed two dozen books for Wells, but never met him, never even spoke to him on the phone. I laugh now, but back then I was intimidated by editors. I was desperate to succeed and scared, I think, that I wouldn’t.

Last week, the kind librarian in Milwaukee sent me an email with an attachment of a book review published March 20, 1983, in the Milwaukee Journal.

Headlined “Promoting a pawn,” it was my review of “The Queen’s Gambit” by Walter Tevis.

I’m glad to see I liked the novel. If only I’d suggested someone should make it into a miniseries.

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