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A Few Good Books...     



Almost every chess player eventually builds a library that concentrates on the game. In fact, its not unusual for a player to an active stack of books surrounding his or her study area and another stack "to be read." But, none of this keeps a chess player from adding even more books at every opportunity. Its an endless cycle.

A very good book.

If a player has natural literary bent, then the collection expands to include more than just instruction. Novels, short stories and anthologys all start appearing beside the more traditonal manuals. One of my favorite novels is The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov, the great Russian novelist. Its also the source of one of my favorite chess quotes and the orgin of the title of these pages:

"He glanced at the chessboard and his brain wilted from hitherto unprecedented weariness. But the chessmen were pitiless, they held and absorbed him. There was horror in this, but in this also was the sole harmony, for what else exists in the world besides chess?"

Another chess novel is The Queen's Gambit, by Walter Tevis. According to an unsigned reader review of the novel on the Amazon Books web site "This is a superb chess thriller, which may sound surprising. Tevis' descriptions of the rise to chess stardom of his heroine involve the reader in masterful chess battles which become totally engrossing -- even for the non-chess player. The characterizations are interesting, involving an orphan girl with a prodigy's gift for chess, but her coming of age as an adolescent away from the chess board is of less interest than her time spent moving the pieces. Tevis' genius in this book is to help the reader climb inside the head of a chess genius and see from her perspective the world of her sport. Highly recommended."

I'm not sure that I would call it a thriller, or even an exceptionally good book. The games don't seem all that realistic, neither, for that matter, does a female chess prodigy, especially from Kentucky. I can't imagine anybody not seriously interested in chess enjoying Bath's struggle. At best, chess is a difficult game to fictionalize to appeal to the mass market or the chess player. The mass market has all but written off chess and won't pick up a novel boosting the game as a central part of the plot. The chess player, on the other hand, will spend too much time criticizing the handling of the game to enjoy the literary work.

Nabokov overcame these problems sheer literary strength and not dwelling too long on any specific game. Fred Waitzkin was able to overcome the problem in his tour de force Searching for Bobby Fischer by writing a compelling story about his son's rise in the chess world that any chess player or soccer mom could identify with and understand, whether the chess player has kids, or whether the soccer mom knows how a pawn moves. So where does this leave us Tevis? He is a novelist of good, but probably not great, talent and a chess player of modest (Mr. Tevis is an admitted Class C player) ability. The Queen's Gambit tends to reflect both of these facts about Tevis. Did I enjoy the book? You bet! Will I recommend it? With the above caveats, absolutely.

The New York Times archives list several interesting pieces on Tevis, all apparently published around the time this novel was released. My previous links to these pages worked last week, but not today. I'm working on that, but search the Times index yourself if you can't wait.

Tevis may or not sound familiar to you. You are probably familiar with his work even if you've never heard of his chess novel. He was the author of The Hustler and its sequel, The Color of Money.

Arecent discussion on Chess-l resulted in a series of messages on chess literature that I found interesting. Here are the primary posts:

Date: Tue, 29 Apr 1997 17:42:00 -0400
From: "Rothman, Seth D."
Subject: Re: Chess Literature

This topic just came up and I came up with the following novels featuring or about chess:

1) The Eight by Katherine Neville
2) Incident at the Sicilian Dragon by William Kent Smith
3) Chess with a Dragon by David Gerrold
4) The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte
5) The Queen's Gambit by Walter Tevis
6) Under the Black Sun by Eric Woro
7) The Defense by Vladimir Nabokov
8) Through the Looking Glass . . . by Lewis Carroll

There are two other novels I know I've read but can't recall clearly. One was called "Grandmaster" and is about a young chess prodigy who is taken to live in a Tibetan monastery, where he develops abilities that enable him, as an adult, to become a secret agent of sorts. The book is similar to Lustbader's Nicholas Linnear novels. I don't remember who wrote it.

The other is older and is about a Fischer-like chess champion who gets embroiled in a mystery or a murder while at an international tournament. I think it was called the Dublin Pawn, but I'm not sure, and I can't remember who wrote it.
Can anybody help or add any others I may have missed?
These choices don't include short stories or books written or edited by Chess Players. A list of those might include:

1) The 64 Square Looking Glass ed. by Burt Hochberg
2) The Chess Companion by Irving Chernev
3) Karl Marx Plays Chess by Andy Soltis
4) The Bobby Fischer I Knew . . . by Arnold Denker
5) The Even More Complete Chess Addict by Mike Fox & Richard James
6) The Inner Game by Dominic Lawson
7) Finding Bobby Fischer by Dirk Jan ten Geuzendam
8) Karpov on Karpov: The Memoirs of a World Champion by Anatoly Karpov
9) Unlimited Challenge: Garry Kasparov an Autobiography by Garry Kasparov
10) Mortal Games: The Turbulent Gary Kasparov by Fred Waitzkin
11) Searching for Bobby Fischer by Fred Waitzkin

Some of these are more chess books than novels, but all include a fair amount of text. Enjoy.

Date: Fri, 2 May 1997 20:33:46 -0400
From: Richard Fireman
Subject: chess literature

I'm surprised no one has yet mentioned Brad Leithauser's novel of a few years back, "Hence." It received a fair amount of publicity at the time and was actually pretty good, though flawed (and the end disappointed, I thought)(but worth reading). Anybody else on the list read it?


Traditional Texts on Chess

What have you read lately? That's the line that starts many an email message to or from my friends on the internet. More than likely the conversation will soon drift over to chess books. My current pick in the "recent" pile is 40 Lessons for the Club Player, by Alexsander Kostev (Macmillian Chess Library, 1986), which now out of print. Its a great little book, very informative and very accessible, though the blurb on the back says its aimmed the 2000 level player. Look for it in used book stores or from dealers such as Jerry Kavanau who operates Bishop's Gate in La Jolla, California.

A Legend...

I've just received a copy of IM John Donaldson's A Legend on the Road, © 1994, International Chess Enterprises, the story of a young Bobby Fischer taking America by storm in 1964. The book is a highly entertaining account of Fischer's simual tour during his 21st year. It contains a whopping 151 games along with annotations, comments and asides. Best of all, IM Donaldson quotes our own resident expert Lew Hucks on Lew's victory over Fischer the day before the champion's 21st birthday. IM Donaldson calls the game, "...one of the more convincing defeats Bobby suffered on his tour." Does Lew know how to deliver a birthday greeting or not? What a guy!

Of particular interest to regulars on this page are Lew's own words about the moment of victory: "Bobby knocked the King over as he passed. I was momentarily stunned. I had to chase him half way around the hall to get him to sign my scoresheet. I had won before he had beat any of the other 64 players." (A Legend, p. 40.) Yes sir, that typical Hucks modesty. But why not? Lew was among a mere four who bested the best that day at the Roosevelt with the great Fischer walking away 59-4-9 for the outing. How can I be subtle about this? I can't. Buy this book. Great games; entertaining writing. What could be better?

Several web sites hold good reviews of chess books. Two of my favorite are Tim Harding's Chess Mail pages and Hanon Russell's Chess Cafe with the latter also offering the text numerous chess related historical documents. A third, which is quickly becoming my absolute favorite is Jermey Silman's excellent set of reviews at the I.C.E. site. Bertrand's Review pages offer the latest releases from chess publishers, though the reviews are less substantial than those on the sites mentioned earlier.