through the middle-European, Russian and American chess scenes, interviewing grandmasters, tracking down living legends, even mixing it with homeless chess hustlers in Washington Square. He delves entertainingly into the game’s great personalities, its storied past and its uncertain future. He wonders why so many crazy men play chess but so few sane women do, and whether computers will “solve” it all one day. He also probes, with impressive nuance, the individual psychologies of various grandmasters and their reasons for pandering to this most unresponsive of mistresses.
There’s Nigel Short, the foul-mouthed former prodigy who still burns for the game. There’s Keith Arkell, “the archetypal English chess pro, in his fifties but fighting on, living mainly on this winnings, getting by on not very much”. There’s Vladislav Tkachiev, the charismatic French-Russian-Kazakhstani grandmaster notorious for playing games blind drunk and organising online beauty parades for female players. And there’s the sad case of Bobby Fischer, a fractured fairytale Moss re-assembles through shards of conversations with those who knew him, in good times and bad.
Moss outlines the precarious lot of the typical grandmaster, forced to couch-surf or endure crappy hotel rooms at foreign tournaments, bulking-up on complimentary bistro breakfasts and desperately playing for prizes that barely cover their costs. “Relying on over-the-board earnings, living in fairly basic accommodation, travelling constantly and staying in nondescript hotels is not a lifestyle that suits the married person, which is why so many chess pros are male, single, sometimes still living with their parents into their thirties, a bit dysfunctional ...”
He does overdo the starving-weirdo theme a bit. There are lots of normal people who like chess, and some great success stories. Moss mentions but does not labour the counter-examples: grandmasters such as multimillionaire investment banker David Norwood or noted economist Kenneth Rogoff. But the starving weirdos do exist, and the question is why.
Does the inexplicable allure of chess reside in the fact that it’s “a sealed world with a clear set of rules and one overriding objective that appealed to people who found life, ‘real’ life, challenging”? Or is it, as Dutch master Hans Ree suggests, simply that it’s a game “beautiful enough to waste your life for”? And there’s grandmaster Danny Gormally’s more prosaic explanation: “Chess players are notoriously lazy and basically incapable of doing anything else.” I suspect the jury’s eternally out on that one.
At the end of his three-year quest, Moss has improved, but only a bit.
“It didn’t solve my midlife crisis,” he admits, “... but just occasionally I play a game I’m proud of and my heart leaps a little.”
My own epiphany came with the acceptance, at 40 or so, that I was never going to be a grandmaster and, no, I probably wouldn’t be riding through Paris in a sports car with the warm wind in my hair all that often, either. I would win some games but lose lots, too, and it didn’t matter a damn.
And suddenly, perplexingly, I began to enjoy my chess like never before. is The Australian’s chess writer.