Review: Masters of Technique

0 | Chess Event Coverage
Masters of TechniqueThe great Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, who died last week at the age of 83, was known among chess players not only for his novels and essays, but also for his deep friendship with grandmaster J.H. Donner, which he described in great detail in his novel The Discovery of Heaven. Donner, too, was a gifted writer, who like no other chess player could capture the true essence of the game in all its beauty and ugliness. What's less well known is that Donner's prose was considerably less impressive when he wrote about fiction.

Reading Donner's Een Droomanalyse (A Dream Analysis, 1979) is shocking for anyone who grew up with Donner's marvellous book The King, which in Dutch chess circles is often referred to as the "chess bible". In Een Droomanalyse, which is actually a literary analysis of an earlier Mulisch novel, he writes in an unrecognizably confused and even childish style about literature. And so even with Donner, chess and literature once again proved to be in a rather unfortunate relationship with each other.

As a student of both chess and literature, I have - like many others before me - often wondered why great novelists such as Nabokov and Zweig wrote so unrealistically about chess, showing an almost embarrassing lack of knowledge of how the game is really played. Their famous chess novels (The Defense (1930) and Schachnovelle (1942) respectively) are masterpieces of psychology - chess psychology, even - but not, I'm afraid, because of their realistic depiction of chess life.

So it was with a huge amount of skepticism that I started reading Masters of Technique - The Mongoose Anthology of Chess Fiction. My skepticism turned out to be entirely unfounded - it's a great read. Masters of Technique, published by Mongoose Press, is a collection of modern short stories which, according to editor Howard Goldowsky's introduction, "richly and accurately use chess as a methapor." Most writers contributing to this volume have done so especially for this collection, and have done so completely voluntarily at that. Moreover, "every penny of profit from this book will find its way to charity." Clearly, this is a project quite unique in the world of chess.

Mongoose Press, based in Boston, U.S.A., is not so well-known in the chess publisher's world as, say, Gambit, Everyman or New in Chess, but many of their books are definitely worth checking out. Apart from Masters of Technique, there are two more titles I want to draw your attention to: Capablanca: A Primer of Checkmate, by Frisco del Rosario, and Chess Blueprints: Planning in the Middlegame, by Nikolay Yakovlev.

Capablanca: A Primer of CheckmateThe first is a creative and entertaining guide to various types of checkmate, illustrated by games of the great Cuban World Champion. One of the things I liked best about the book is Del Rosario's display of his vast knowledge of chess literature, confidently quoting from books ranging from the modern The Complete Idiot's Guide to Chess by Patrick Wolff to Nimzowitsch's classic My System. Del Rosario's advice on what to read is often very candid and useful:

Please, please, if you choose to read Capablanca's Chess Fundamentals, avoid the McKay edition edited by Grandmaster Nick DeFirmian, who inexplicably purged several of Capablanca's games while appending modern games of no greater instructional value. I've long admired de Firmian, a handsome local grandmaster, but what he did to Capablanca's book was wrong.

Chess BlueprintsChess Blueprints, written by Russian chess teacher Nikolay Yakovlev, is an ambitious book about middlegame planning and various aspects of chess in the form of puzzles and Q&A's. The book starts off conventionally enough by quoting the famous Steinitz-Von Bardeleben, Hastings, 1895 game, but takes a rather more sophisticated course soon after. Here's just one example, titled 'Clearing the field for the Horse', from the chapter 'Strongpoints and Weaknesses', that I found very well chosen. The fragment is from the game Proskurin-Botvinnik, Leningrad 1925:

Q. Evaluate 18.Bg5

18.Bg5? This leads to the weakening of White's position in the center. White is seduced by the threat 19.Bxf6 gxf6 20.Nd2, but this maneuver turns out to be a loss of time. As a result, Black not only gains the d4-square for the queen's knight, but also c3 for the king's knight. Therefore, White should have played 18.Bd2, so that 18...dxc3 19.bxc3 Nd5 could be answered by 20.Bb3.

18...dxc3 19.bxc3 If White persists with 19.Bxf6, then he will lose a pawn after the immediate 19...cxb2.

19...Nd5 20.Bd2 b4! Thus did the young amateur Botvinnik (...) carry out the maneuver to seize the central square d4. This method is typical for the Spanish game [Ruy Lopez] and has been tested successfully in similar positions. Another example is (...) the game Spassky-Taimanov, Leningrad 1956 (...).

I rather like this example, if only because I didn't know this particular motif myself! I suppose the drawback of many of the featured positions and games in the above books is that they are hardly original, stemming from well-known historical games, which makes it likely they've been used before in other chess improvement books. However, as the material is presented and explained in a very logical way, I still think the books are good value for money.

Originality is the rule rather than the exception in Masters of Technique, which we'll now turn to. As for originality, take the perspective of the main character in Michael Griffith's short story Zugzwang, a father whose sixteen-year-old son Wilbur, inexplicably to him, loves to play chess. He himself regards it as "some foreign game where you push little dolls around, punch an alarm clock, then write in code and wait".

Dressed up as the Queen's Rook for the parish fair's chess exhibition match, featuring his son as one of the players (a great scene in itself), he reminisces about his own teenage experiences during one such fair ("he can still see his hands disappearing under that luminous white sweater with the maroon megaphone across its front") and puzzles over his son's preferences:

The breasts of an angel in bloomers, or a bunch of nimrods in chess costumes - which would you rather bring to attention? (...) Wilbur's sixteen, and he spends his evenings hunched over a board or a book, jabbering about the Sugar-Tit Gambit of London, 1883, or the Two Nights of Morphine in New Orleans, 1858. At the mall, instead of scoping out girls' naked midriffs or harassing preppies from Houma or boosting candy like a regular teenager, he sets up in the atrium and matches wits against eight opponents at once.

Here's an author who describes the game both knowingly and critically, with an eye for detail and with a sense for that melancholy longing for a normal life all chess players occasionally crave. Griffith's story is one of the highlights of a book that's filled with curious and thought-provoking scenes in which chess plays some sort of prominent role. The scene described above in fact combines the two basic chess metaphors which Mark Taylor, a Professor of English Literature at Berry College, describes in his excellent Foreword: "Chess as life and life as chess - the literal and figurative application of chess to life."

Taylor's foreword, "an excursion through chess and literature", is a lucid, elaborate and clearly structured essay that distinguishes and explains various types of "chess literature": psychological chess novels, surreal chess novels (starting with Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland-sequel Through the Looking Glass), metaphysical chess novels and even science fiction chess novels. And of course, inevitably, "there are the ornamental uses of chess, the throw-away metaphors, the many adventures with their mysterious coveted chess pieces, the defecting Soviet grandmasters bearing secrets and other MacGuffins." Taylor concludes:

The technical quality of chess varies widely from the grandmasterly to the puerile. On one hand there is Los Voraces 2019: A Chess Novel (2004) which contains some 50 annotated games; the author is Grandmaster Andy Soltis. On the other hand there is the infamous example of the "pretty woman" who is "castling her adversary's Queen, and nestling herself in the causeuse to await his next move" in Ouida's Strathmore (1865). Regrettably, the latter quality is more common than the former and the Fool's Mate is the most common game in children's literature. Writers who would not dare describe professional sports without first securing accurate knowledge blithely ascribe a jejune understanding of chess to their fictional grandmasters.

This is not an isolated phenomena: characters castle out of checkmate, invent nonce names, or make impossible moves, such as opening with "King pawn to bishop three". Yet, what sport has come close to amassing the amount of technical knowledge of chess or demands so much effort for accuracy?

Masters of technique, by the way, isn't entirely free of such language itself. Chess jargon, though usually described "correctly" (from a serious chess player's perspective, at least), remains hard for even the best writers. In one of the book's most enjoyable stories, Patrick Sommerville's A Game I Once Enjoyed, the main character tells about his chess experience in jail in the following way:

We were both content to build up defense, although I was a step ahead, and passed on a couple of opportunities to throw a monkey wrench in his plans. Depending on the opponent, I sometimes would send a kamikaze bishop all the way down the line and go down a piece just to ruin any chance of a castle, but also to fool people into thinking I didn't know what I was doing.

Hm. Not a very skilled player, I'd say. The story itself is so unpretentious and full of beautiful and funny observations ("Young people should never get too thoughtful. No matter what they say, if they look serious, it's going to come out as horseshit") that it's easy to forgive the author these trifles - and come to think of it, the way of paraphrasing a chess game described above is of course perfectly common for most people who don't know more about chess than just the basic rules. We all started there.

Other stories, too, sometimes betray a not entirely convincing portrayal of chess reality. In Paul Eggers' moving story A Thinly Veiled Autobiography Regarding My Reasons For Giving Up Chess, set in 1969 during Fischer's rise to fame, the main character's brother, Rick Eggers, is sent to Vietnam as a Pfc. Upon hearing this news, Paul himself is studying one of Fischer's "brilliant innovations" with a Chess Informant #46. The thing is that Chess Informant #46 came out only in 1988. This could be dismissed as a typo if it weren't for the fact that the only other typos in the story are also related to chess books: the "Blackmar Deimer" (instead of Diemer), "Der Schachspeiler" instead of Schachspieler) and "D'Echecs Europa" (instead of Europe Echecs).

In most stories, however, these flaws are virtually absent. In the story I probably enjoyed best, Stephen Carter's magical-realist Samantha's Gambit, describing the mysterious disappearance of a bunch of chess-playing high school kids, a painfully accurate picture is drawn of the chess tourney scene we all recognize (and, often, dread):

Just before Alyssa entered the airless basement room for the fourth round, she saw the sign reminding her that her cell phone had to be turned off, or she risked forfeit. (...) Alyssa won her final game, by a hair, because her sixtyish opponent, who held the advantage nearly the whole way, blundered around move 60 (...). He shook her hand with ill grace and scurried from the room.. (...) By winning her last game, she had the satisfaction of tying for fourth, meaning she would get a check for about thirty dollars, not even enough for a single Hermes scarf: not that it mattered, because her parents would force her to put the money into her college account.

During the story it turns out a high school teacher is making life-like chess pieces out of missing animals and persons. (When the story's hero, Samantha, finds out about this, "she did what any self-respecting teenager would do with the information. She posted it on her Facebook page.") This original approach to integrating chess into the Buffy-like plot, like Michael Griffith's grotesque variation of the classical father-and-son story, is one of the coolest aspects of much fiction in Masters of Technique.

It works even in stories I didn't like, such as Katherine Neville's En Passant, set in 1873 in Victorian Oxford. The story is a strange mixture of fact and fiction, based in part on little-known facts about Alice Liddell, who as a little girl modelled for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and is now a chess-playing young woman having an affair with Prince Leopold, Queen Victoria's son.

Being a Carroll enthusiast myself, I had no trouble following the story line, but I'd be curious to know how readers unfamiliar with the basic facts would deal with the story's multiple changes of perspective, the many characters that are introduced in the space of single pages, the quotes from real documents and the allusion to existing literature on the subject, as well as the confusing display of actual facts mixed with more than a touch of wild imagination. I can't exclude the possibility that I've misunderstood the point of the story, and it's certainly original, but to me it just seemed a little too artificial and not very challenging from a chess-player's perspective at that.

There are two more 'historical' stories in the book. The first, simply titled Steinitz, by Steven Levery, is an intriguing account of the last period in the life of the first World Champion. The second is even more ambitious. Mark Coggins' The Adventure of the Black Bishop is a real Sherlock Holmes mystery in which the great detective turns out to be a more than excellent chess player. It is also the only story featuring actual diagrams. Writing any more about it would only spoil the fun.

In other stories in the book, chess is incorportated in the plot in a more self-evident, natural way. In Executors of Important Energies, by Wells Tower, the principal character, Burt, struggles with his Alzheimer-suffering father. It features wonderful moments, for chess players and non-chess players alike, such as when Burt's dad, not only losing his memory but also his chess skills, earns a hard-fought victory over a Washington Square chess hustler, Dwayne (whom he keeps calling Wade):

"To hell with orgasms," he mused, leaning into the table. "I'll take a clean rook-ending any day. I mean, Jesus, Wade, what is it? What is it that makes it such a joy to beat a man at chess?" "Music," the hustler said. "Artistry and shit. Now, tens?" (...) "Fischer said, 'Chess if Life'," announced my father. Dwayne ran his tongue under his lip. "Fischer said all sorts of stuff," he replied. "He said there were tiny Jews living in his teeth."

Katie Kitamura's Goodwill is also about a chess-playing father and here, too, the beauty of chess is coupled with its intrinsic sense of sadness and loneliness:

Most of the time my dad couldn't find anybody to play with. He'd play games out of a book and spend hours just sitting and staring at the board. Moving the pieces back and forth. he wasn't even that good at it. The only time I saw him someone he got his ass whooped. (...) He never taught me to play and that was something I always regretted. I understood why, though. Chess was the one thing that belonged to him, and he needed to keep it that way.

In Smothered Mate, by Edward Falco, the famous Lucena mate plays a prominent but subtle role in the game two friends, would-be lovers and victims of a horrible fire-bombing, play against each other. It is the most enigmatic and fascinating story in the book, craftily composed, with beautiful images such as the following:

She stood in the light from the window, the whole of her, body and mind, absorbed in the arrangement of black and white chess pieces on a board of sixty-four squares. Most of what she kept covered he had never seen, except for her arms, and from that, and from his own body, he could imagine the rest of the disfigurement.

Masters of Technique - The Mongoose Anthology of Chess Fiction is a true gem of both chess literature and 'normal' literature. Just like great chess games become greater as they're played over again and again, most stories in this collection are well worth reading more than once. I find it heartening and refreshing to see how chess and fiction can still be combined and produce great results. We can only wonder what J.H.Donner would have thought of it.