Paul Broekhuyse

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

There’s that weird ex­pe­ri­ence where you catch an un­ex­pected glimpse of your­self in a mir­ror, or hear your voice on an an­swer­ing ma­chine, and in­stinc­tively try to dis­tance your­self from the im­pos­tor in your midst. You won­der: Are you me? Do I re­ally come across like that? Am I re­ally one of these peo­ple?

Read­ing this book was a bit like that. Author Stephen Moss is a jour­nal­ist and chess en­thu­si­ast, like me, and he pro­vides a sear­ingly hon­est de­scrip­tion of the strange sub­ter­ranean cul­tural ghetto that is tour­na­ment chess, a world we both in­habit. With each page I would cringe with recog­ni­tion as Moss doc­u­mented a haunt I knew far too well.

It’s a world of awk­ward males, where good man­ners, smooth con­ver­sa­tion and de­odor­ant can be in short sup­ply. It’s a world of im­pov­er­ished grand­mas­ters earn­ing a pit­tance while couch-surf­ing be­tween tour­na­ments, and le­gions of try-hards labour­ing to be­come big­ger fish in a tiny pond.

In his mid-50s, Moss sets out on a quest to lift his game and be­come a “se­ri­ous player”, though whether that means mas­ter or strong am­a­teur de­pends on his lat­est tour­na­ment re­sult. It’s a quest un­der­taken by armies of play­ers around the world, and al­though he is based in Eng­land, with its sig­na­ture idio­syn­cra­sies, Moss presents a in­stantly recog­nis­able por­trait of the tour­na­ment scene through­out the West­ern world.

In The Rookie he de­tails his hum­ble ef­forts against fel­low patzers in mi­nor week­end tour­na­ments — in some cases, he even gives us the moves — and post-game de­brief­ings with his coach. There are ven­tures to big­ger tour­na­ments such as Hast­ings or Gi­bral­tar, bump­ing into grand­mas­ters in the tour­na­ment toi­lets and can­teens, but al­ways play­ing in the lower leagues. There are mi­nor tri­umphs and ma­jor dis­as­ters, but more of the lat­ter.

Moss doc­u­ments well the re­mark­ably ad­dic­tive qual­i­ties of the game for a cer­tain sub­set of the pop­u­la­tion; re­mark­able be­cause, as he rightly points out, for many tour­na­ment chess is a sur­pris­ingly painful, ex­haust­ing, soul-de­stroy­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. As it was pithily put to me by a strong Rus­sian player who em­i­grated to Aus­tralia in the 1990s: “Chess isn’t a game — it’s a f..king dis­ease.”

Losses hurt, and no loss is more painful than throw­ing away a “won game”: those times when a bad move or three ru­ins a game you had long ex­pected to win, of­ten the re­sult of com­pla­cency. Moss plays plenty of those. The Rookie: An Odyssey Through Chess (and Life) By Stephen Moss Blooms­bury, 408pp, $39.99 (HB)

Chess is sin­gu­larly cruel in this re­gard; in few other con­tests can a sin­gle bad de­ci­sion waste hours of painstak­ing slog. In footy or tennis, for ex­am­ple, a missed tackle or poor fore­hand might swing a close con­test, but it takes more than one mis­take to lose a tennis match when you’re two sets up or a league fi­nal where you’re 20 points in front. Not so in chess, or life.

Moss takes us on a fas­ci­nat­ing jour­ney

Bobby Fis­cher in 1971, shortly be­fore peak­ing as world cham­pion in chess

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