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