GM Kraai Releases "Lisa: A Chess Novel"

GM Kraai Releases "Lisa: A Chess Novel"

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Fellow chessplayers,

Chess has been a private part of my life. What I mean is that my non-chessplaying friends could never really appreciate what I was doing. So I hid it away. My chess novel, "Lisa," is my attempt to tell them, through a story. In so doing, I hope you find not only a good Christmas gift for the non-chessplayers in your life but a reflection of yourself and our game.

I took more than three years away from chess to write "Lisa." I needed to step away, to look at chess from the outside and think about Bronstein’s question: What is chess?. When you read this I will be playing in my first tournament in years, the Western States Open in Reno, Nevada.

(editor's note: Jesse won that tournament, in a blitz playoff over GM Sergey Kudrin and contributor GM Melik Khachiyan!)

In the following scene Lisa spends some time with new friends at the Polgar tournament. 


Below is an excerpt:

That evening, at the Main Event, the girls loaded the air hockey puck with a wad of gum at the rim, hoping for an ecstatic spin. They gave stories to the pool balls, finding secret alliances among the anonymous spheres. They enchanted the bowling ball with a spell before pushing it down the lane with their socked feet. And they made fun of the boys who took their video games so seriously.

Cheese and bread burned into one another, and the black smell bit into the hairless nostrils of the young girls like nicotine. They shot high above themselves, eating more and more of the divine pizza. Too powerful to imagine sleep when they returned to the hotel lobby, they sent Igor and the other adults up to their rooms. Go to your drowsy books and TV screens. Once free, Lisa said, “Hey guys, let’s get some Cokes!” Lisa wanted to subvert Igor, that domineering bastard. And she wanted a Coke.

The Asian girls for whom a Coke would have been a rebellion did not get one. Instead, they ate Sang Lee’s dark chocolate. They said it was the good stuff.

“Hey Saheli, Let me buy you a Coke, c’mon.” Lisa wanted her friends to share in the terrible guilt and accusation Igor had put upon her. She could agree to exercise. She felt that in her body. She could feel her body being molded, and punished into a better form. But it was obvious that Igor was being a jerk about the Cokes and food. I mean, it’s just a Coke, right? And she wanted to get lit with her friends, sharing this truth.


Me teaching at Castle Chess Camp this summer (photo courtesy camp Facebook page and Fun Fong)

Saheli politely said no. But Lisa kept pressing. “It’s not pure,” Saheli finally said. Lisa and the four North Asian girls found this both fascinating and silly, while the two other Indian girls, Eesha and Bodda, woggled their heads. “What’s that thing you guys do with your head?” the North Asian girls and Lisa asked. The Indian girls told their new friends about the head woggle. Lisa asked many questions about their Brahmin ways. She wanted to be pure, and belong to an intellectual people who distanced themselves from the muddle of the everyday world.

Lisa said, “It’s like you guys have a tradition. I don’t have one. That’s why Igor is giving me the Russian tradition.” The girls became silent.

Bodda asked, “Is he like a master of something? All the coaches ask him questions, as if he has some kind of power.”

Lisa said that Igor was the strongest player ever. And that he was teaching her his secrets. The girls all wanted to know more about her teacher, and gathered around her. But Lisa was shy, and said that she couldn’t tell them the whole truth at one time; she wasn’t strong enough yet. She had to tell them in pieces.

Trying to impress, Lisa told them how Igor could play blindfold, without a set, and that he was helping her carve her own inner board. She told them about Tal and the mysticism of Dionysus. Lisa felt like somebody, with the undivided attention of her gifted friends.

But Lisa wanted more. She wanted to be their equal. She said, “Igor taught me how the central squares are heavier, and how the wavelengths of chess bend around them, the way light from a distant galaxy bends around the sun. It’s mathematical.”

“Wow,” Sang Lee said. “Like the field equations? Mass tells space/time how to curve and curved space/time tells mass how to move?”

“Precisely so,” Lisa answered. Desperately hoping her shameful ignorance would not be discovered, Lisa began telling her new friends about her deepest and most vulnerable experience. She said that she felt the pieces as parts of her soul. And that she talked to them.

Saheli, usually quiet, became excited: “Chaturanga!” she shouted. Everyone stared at her in disbelief as she got down on the floor and did something like a pushup. “It means the four supports in Sanskrit, you know, Old-Indian.”

But the girls, led by Lisa, said, “Umm, no, that’s a pushup.”

Saheli responded, “No, no, it’s not a pushup. It’s a position of the yoga where you feel your four limbs and their stretch through the body. You feel and strengthen yourself.” Her audience didn’t understand what she was trying to say. “Chaturanga is the original name for chess,” she continued, “named after the four supports of the army: infantry, cavalry, elephants and chariots.”

The group shouted, “But there are no elephants in chess!”

“But there are,” Saheli said. “The infantry became the pawns, the cavalry the knights, the elephants the bishops, and the chariots the rooks.”

“What about the queen, she’s the most powerful piece!” the group shouted.

“But the queen was not the queen, she was the raja’s adviser. And the adviser could only move one square.” After a silence, Saheli continued quietly, “Your teacher is very wise, Lisa, he knows the secrets of the ancient Indian tradition; he knows that chaturanga is yoga for the soul. Yoga isn’t just about improving your body, and chess is not just an exercise for your brain.”

“That’s so Hogwarts!” Michelle Quan said. “And so long ago, maybe like two hundred years.”

“More like two thousand!” Saheli answered. “And now chaturanga has come back to India, and Anand is World Champion.”

“Hogwarts is a school,” Lisa said. “And school sucks. Chess is much deeper and more beautiful than school.”

Lisa felt she had said too much, and blushed. Now she was the outsider, sitting next to the strivers.

Saheli looked into Lisa’s eyes and quietly said: “School can be pretty dumb. Right? I mean it doesn’t really seem like the teachers are interested in what they’re teaching. It’s always about some test. Most of the other kids are hopeless. And the boys are always so dumb.”

After a pause, Lisa asked: “So why do you do it then?”

“It’s only for a little while,” Saheli said. The other girls nodded. “Then we’ll go to the best colleges in the world. ’Til then we’ll prove ourselves at the Math Olympiad, on the violin, in the spelling bee and at chess.”

Lisa was overwhelmed, and she shouted, “You play the violin too?!”

“Not so well, but Christine wins all the competitions.”

Lisa looked over to Christine Chen—she had been sitting right beside her the entire time, peering quietly. “That’s Hogwarts!” Lisa sighed. She had wanted to pull up her long sleeves, so sticky and wet in the warm Texas night, and show her new friends the scars on her arms. But she kept them covered, kind of like how Jeffrey hid his war tattoos. She wanted to tell them that she sucked at school. But she admired them so much that she couldn’t. And she resolved to try again, at her new school, starting next week.