Review of The Grandmaster

The Grandmaster by Brin-Jonathan Butler – Simon & Schuster pp210 On Sale Date 11/06/2018

*Please note that an earlier version of this review contained some information on factual inaccuracies which I have since learned have been corrected.  Therefore I have slightly altered the review, though the main thrust remains unchanged.

This book is the story of the match and contains no games or analysis.

Every few years it seems that there is an effort by the mainstream to engage in some sort of crossover with chess.

Often it’s in the form of a movie, such as Pawn Sacrifice, The Queen of Katwe, The Luzhin Defense, and many others.

Occasionally it is a TV show such as Endgame which makes the effort, and from time to time this happens in the form of a book, such as Searching for Bobby Fischer, or this latest effort from Simon and Schuster, The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match that Made Chess Great Again.

In the opening pages of the book we learn that the author was tasked by Simon & Schuster to write a book about the upcoming (at that time) match between World Champion Magnus Carlsen and the challenger Sergey Karjakin.

His editor wanted the book to contain the answers to three questions.

  1. Why is Magnus Carlsen not more of a household name?
  2. What is the secret to his greatness?
  3. How can he continue to do it?

The publishing house wasn’t looking to have a chess writer take the lead on this since they were looking for a more mainstream approach to the story.  However, what the editor at Simon & Schuster didn’t know at the time was that the author was an enthusiastic casual player.

From the standpoint of the reader this last fact is important, at least in my mind, because it saves us from the often awkward attempts at describing chess that non-players tend to make.

Anyone who has ever read an article in their local paper where a journalist is trying to describe what happened at a tournament or exhibition knows what I mean.

That said, as both an amateur historian of the game, as well as an avid tournament player and journalist I find myself going through a mental checklist during the consumption of mainstream content where I constantly remind myself not to judge the author’s lack of chess knowledge too harshly.

After all, these crossover pieces are meant not just for the hard core initiate of the royal game, but for the “chessless” as well.

So if a director or an author doesn’t have the most nuanced approach to rendering their tale, I try to let that go as much as I can because I find that the overall mission of making chess exciting and accessible to those who don’t understand it at even a lower tier club player level can be a herculean task.

I found the title of the book to be clunky.  It’s nothing more than a forced attempt at word play with the “Made Chess Great Again” subtitle.  The match of course started just a few days after the election of Donald Trump.  Since the book isn’t finalized I’ll hold out the sliver of hope that the name will be changed prior to the first run of publication!

By this point you may be thinking that I don’t seem to like the book very much.  However, the main reason that I wanted to get those items out of the way quickly is to ensure that the rest of the review can focus on the book itself, which I actually thought was quite good.

One thing that I noticed early on in my reading is that the author seems to be a practiced interviewer.  He’s a long time sports journalist, so possessing this skill makes a lot of sense.  As a result there are a number of excellent exchanges that take place with various chess personalities through the course of the match.

At the end of the first chapter the author is attending the gala that opened the match, and he’s having a conversation with Robert Hess.  During the conversation he asks Hess if Magnus is the best player of all time and the answer that comes back is priceless as Hess points out that while according to ratings Magnus is the best, the fact is that his [Hess’s] high school physics teacher certainly knew more about physics than Isaac Newton ever did, but that doesn’t mean they were more talented than Newton.

Later on when he’s speaking with Judit Polgar she compares high level chess to bungee jumping, drawing a parallel between the thrill combined with the stress.

What I love about these conversations, and many just like them, is that the author, not possessing a perfect understanding of competitive chess himself, seems to seek out metaphorical comparisons with which to assist the casual reader.  While at the same time, I, the farthest thing from a casual reader, thoroughly enjoyed the new approach.  This was so much different from the normal repetitive questions that have become so common when reading chess content produced by chess-specific authors.  I found this to be a much needed breath of fresh air.

I also found Mr. Butler to have several quite interesting turns of phrase.  Granted, I wasn’t reading the final version of the book.  What I read and am reviewing are uncorrected proofs, so there are some occasionally clunky language issues which should be corrected in final editing, but that didn’t take away in the slightest from Mr. Butler’s ability to turn a phrase.

We’ve all read mainstream journalists take on Kirsan and his story of alien abduction.  Often that is used to marginalize chess players as a whole, but  Mr. Butler clearly states that it is Kirsan himself who may have some issues rather than the chess community at large.

That brings me to an extremely important point that I want to touch on in this review.  Yes, the author mentions that chess players have been known from time to time to descend into madness.  Fischer coming unhinged is mentioned, along with others such as Paul Morphy, Carlos Torre and Akiba Rubinstein.  However, he doesn’t overly emphasize this for the shock value factor.

I have lost track of the times that a content creator from outside the chess world has sensationalized Fischer’s mental illness or Kirsan’s claim of alien abduction and made that the central focus of whatever they were trying to do.  In this case those things are mentioned, and then fold into the background of the story where the belong.

Keep in mind that in his “The Mozart of Chess” profile on 60 Minutes Magnus was asked if he ever feared losing his mind the way Fischer did and he very honestly answered that while he didn’t think it was likely to happen to him, he did keep that thought in the back of his mind.

While the main focus of the book is to recap the 2016 match, Mr. Butler also includes a number of other interesting chess information, including discussing various other chess personalities, as well as his own family history with the game.

So with all of this said I can’t help but enthusiastically recommend this book.

Again, from the point of view of a chess person it’s important to our community when the mainstream makes an effort to put out chess content that we not judge them too harshly for their lack of specialized knowledge.

So does the author manage to answer the three questions?  He does!  Read the book to discover how!

Finally, I will close with this…when I first saw that this book was going to be published I saw an awful lot of comments from the chess world along the lines of “Ugh…why?  That match was so boring.”  In fact, I myself said on the Chess Book Collectors Facebook group that if not for the Queen sac in the final tiebreak that this match would have been confined to the dustbin of history.

But when I sat down to read this book I went back and I looked at those games again.  Yes, there were some relatively quick and bloodless draws.  But most of the draws were fights, including some where one side or the other was dancing on the razer’s edge of defeat.

I would urge anyone who is going to read this book to do the same.  Revisit the games with the fresh eyes of someone two years removed from this time in history and see how hard fought those games were.

I hope you all buy this book and support the efforts of publishers who want to make chess more accessible to the general public!

Til Next Time,

Chris Wainscott

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