The rise of a girl chess-prodigy--in a bright, crisp novel that's almost charming and touching enough to carry non-chess-players through the many pages of move-by-move gamesmanship. Beth Harmon, orphaned at eight after a car-crash, winds up in the Methuen Home in Kentucky--where, fed two tranquilizers a day, she soon develops a pill-popping habit that will dog her through the years. But loner Beth develops something else at Methuen too: while cleaning erasers in the basement (privilege of the best math student), she sees the gruff, taciturn janitor playing solo chess--and she's transfixed. Soon, sneaking to the basement at every opportunity, she watches, is at last allowed to play. . . and is promptly beating the janitor every time. (Their virtually wordless, oddly feelingful relationship is one of the understated delights here.) At twelve, however, Beth is adopted--by faded, childlike Mrs. Wheatley and her husband . . . who promptly disappears. School is grim (Beth's a plain ""brain""); money is short; Beth is reduced to stealing chess magazines and tranquilizers. But then, with $5 borrowed from the janitor, Beth enters her first local chess tournament--and is quickly earning prizes and celebrity as she and Mrs. Wheatley (a sadly endearing mother/baby) start traveling around the country, from tournament to tournament. There will be some downs along the way, of course: Beth's first loss stuns her; Mrs. Wheatley dies; affairs with fellow-players are unsatisfying; Beth strays into alcoholism--till she's rescued by bright, athletic, beautifully black Jolene, an old orphanage chum who helps Beth put a sound body around her sound mind. (Another unforced yet engaging relationship.) Still, the shape of the novel is essentially thin and predictable: Beth's hard-won rise to the very top at age 20, with a final showdown in Moscow against the legendary Russians. And the detailed chess-play--which dominates the novel's second, weaker half--will stymie non-aficionados, even if the chess-world atmosphere and the overall drama of chess-matches are made plainly vivid. (By contrast, the pool-hall detail in Tevis' The Hustler was easy to make widely accessible.) For serious chess-players, then: the novel of the year, at the very least--with special, enduring appeal to every young, ambitious, would-be Master. For others, however: an on-and-off beguilement.