Black and White and Read All Over

For chess enthusiasts (and those who love them), I want to pass along a few good moves ... in terms of what to read.

On a recent coast-to-coast flight, I devoured Zugzwang (now out in paperback), the first and only chess thriller I've ever read. It's by the talented Irish novelist Ronan Bennett. A chess game, based on an historical match and accompanied by illustrations showing the positions of the players, is built into the plot, which revolves around a plan to assassinate the czar during an international chess tournament in St. Petersburg in 1914. I spent six years as a correspondent in Russia, so I know "Peter," as the city's friends and admirers call her, pretty well. I thought that Bennett's physical and historical descriptions were first rate. Zugzwang, for the uninitiated, is a German (not Russian) chess term for a point at which any move a player can make just worsens his position. Patrick Anderson favorably reviewed the novel for Book World last fall.

Also, British journalist Daniel Johnson has just published White King and Red Queen, a nonfiction account of the role of chess in the Cold War. He begins with a brief history of chess in Russia, including a description of the actual chess tournament on which Zugzwang is based. Johnson then recounts how the Soviet leadership attempted to rebuild the country's chess capacity after most of its top players emigrated during the Revolution and civil war. A key figure in this effort was N.V. Krylenko, the commander in chief of the Red Army and a strong amateur player. When, in 1928, Stalin announced the first five-year plans for the economy, the general moved his pawns, too.

"We must organize shock brigades of chess players and begin immediately a five year plan for chess," Krylenko announced. I just love that quote; it says so much about the Soviet mindset.

White King and Red Queen captures the personalities as well as the heavily politicized international rivalries of the early Soviet grandmaster Mikhail Botvinnik, the great Cuban player Jose Raul Capablanca, the emigre Alexander Alekhine and many others, right up to Viktor Korchnoi, Boris Spassky, Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov. All in all, a very entertaining, edifying lens on the Cold War.

Compared to Zugzwang and White King and Red Queen, I was disappointed by Kasparov's memoir, How Life Imitates Chess, now available in paperback. It aims to be a high-class self-help book, but the insights into intuition and decision making are not nearly as well explained as in Malcolm Gladwell's Blink, and a lot of the advice ("the attacker always has the advantage," "we push ourselves to greater exertions if we have a competitor") struck me as questionable or banal. I say this despite considerable admiration for Kasparov, both as a chess player and as a quixotic voice in Russian politics.

I have not read Katherine Neville's chess-related thrillers, The Eight (1988) and the newly published The Fire. Art Taylor, who regularly reviews mysteries for Book World, devoted a recent column to them and clearly admired the older book more than the sequel. The author is speaking this Sunday, Nov. 30, at 5 p.m. at Washington's Politics and Prose bookstore.

And there is more to come. I'm particularly intrigued by Andrei Codrescu's The Posthuman Dada Guide, which will be published in April by Princeton University Press. The publisher calls it a "Dadaesque guide to Dada," the anti-war (and anti- almost everything) cultural movement that swept Europe in the wake of World War I. The book begins with an imaginary chess match in a Zurich cafe in 1916 between Tristan Tzara, the daddy of Dada, and Vladimir Lenin, daddy of communism.

-- Alan Cooperman

By Alan Cooperman |  November 28, 2008; 6:00 AM ET Alan Cooperman
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During recent courses that I taught at George Mason University, we explored the way that many writers of detective fiction used chess as an important (even central) motif, ranging from Poe's contrasts of chess to the act of deduction in "Murders in the Rue Morgue" to Raymond Chandler's use of a chessboard as a symbol of the action in "Red Wind" and throughout a number of other works. Chandler himself famously used one chess piece as a commentary on the action in "The Big Sleep" :

"There was a problem laid out on the board, a six-mover. I couldn't solve it, like a lot of my problems. I reached down and moved a knight...."

Just later:

"I looked down at the chessboard. The move with the knight was wrong. I put it back where I moved it from. Knights had no meaning in this game. It wasn't a game for knights."

In more recent detective fiction, I'd particularly like to recommend "The Yiddish Policeman's Union," a book whose mystery centers on a chess prodigy, with author Michael Chabon exploring extensively the connections between the game and this genre.

And thank you as well (of course!) for mentioning my review of The Fire here.

Posted by: arttaylor | November 29, 2008 8:04 AM

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