Stories in 64 Squares

For me, chess is a lot like poetry. I think that it’s really beautiful and amazing and the world needs more of it. And when I sit down and try to read how to play chess or play chess better (much less actually play it myself), my eyes glaze over and I feel an uncontrollable urge to eat some candy and watch Happy Days reruns. Does this reflect poorly on me? I prefer to think that it’s just a matter of it (chess) being too tough. It takes work. When I’m reading I want a story, I don’t want work! 21. aRxe7+?! What in the checkerboard world does that mean? But, still, the attraction to chess remains. What to do?

This unhappy conflict has existed between my mind and heart for quite some time, until finally I found a solution: stories about chess. I could read entertaining writing, maybe learn a little bit about this ridiculously difficult game, and not hurt my brain too bad (and as I came to learn from these books, damage to my brain and psyche is apparently a very real possibility where chess is involved.)

The Immortal Game: A History of Chess by David Shenk is a perfect example of such a book. He describes the history of chess, it’s evolutions and many examples of players being driven to madness and ruin, all in readable, entertaining prose. There’s even some of that chess notation, but he breaks it up over the course of the whole book, beginning every chapter with a move from a classic match (the “Immortal Game” of the book’s title) that took place in London in 1851.

And there’s more!

The Turk: the Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine by Tom Standage - which relates the story of a machine which magically played chess (and won!) for 8 decades before getting burned up in a fire.

The Chess Artist: Genius, Obsession, and the World's Oldest Game by J.C. Hallman, a book that is “both an intellectual journey and first-rate travel writing dedicated to the love of chess and all of its related oddities.”

King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game by Paul Hoffman - another story of a chess player losing his mind, and then in this case trying to figure out how to keep playing without going crazy again.

Endgame: Bobby Fischer's Remarkable Rise and Fall from America's Brightest Prodigy to the Edge of Madness by Frank Brady, a recent look at the most famous American example of a chess player turning into what some might consider a bit of a nut-ball.

So, will I ever put in the time, the sweat and effort and furrowed brows, necessary to actually learn how to play this infernal game? Maybe I feel like I need a little less sanity in my life? Reading books like this almost motivates me to consider it... if I ever do, lots of the Multnomah County Library branches have chess groups that I could start visiting.

Until then, I’ll just stick with stories.