Masters of Technique
Edited by Howard Goldowsky
First collection of chess fiction
A number of the individual authors have won awards for their previous
work. Amongst the writers are Pushcart Prize winners, The Story Prize
winners and also, Wells Tower was name as one of The New Yorker's '20
"Only once did I come close
to beating him. He'd had some cocktails, and he blundered, moving his
queen into the path of my knight. I sacrificed the piece, and he
slapped me on the mouth..."
Reviewed by A.J. Kirby
I picked up this collection under the misguided idea that I'd be
entering a closed world populated by jargon I'd only half understand,
like the time I stumbled into the chess club at school by mistake.
I was wrong.
The "closed world" I envisaged couldn't have been further from the truth. The editor of Masters of Technique,
Howard Goldowsky couldn't have been more welcoming, his Introduction
acting like an offer to put my feet up as he gently described his aims
for the collection before launching into the stories proper. This, he
writes, is "...an example of what chess fiction should be: master-class
writing that richly and accurately uses chess as a metaphor." A bold
claim, I thought, but I discovered I was willing to give it a try.
on from this is Mark N. Taylor's thoughtful Foreword, which illuminates
the history of chess in fiction. In it, he discusses the metaphor of
chess as a narrative, and thus ideally suited for stories. Chess, he
writes relates to our desire to give order to, and make stories of our
lives. It is: "...the desire to compose and relate our stories to each
other, to understand life in terms of a logical sequence of
causalities, choices, and consequences."
Trust Martin Amis (as
quoted by Paul Eggers in this collection) to throw a spanner in the
works: "One of the greatest things about chess is its refusal, not its
readiness, to serve as a paradigm for anything else, as Freudians,
Marxists et al have frustratingly found. Chess is what it is and not
another thing. It is only a game."
And yet, these conflicting
viewpoints gave me a good grounding with which to approach the book as
a whole. This is a varied collection, both in terms of the individual
story's relationships with the game, but also in the quality of the
work. After a false start in the disappointing En Passant by Katherine Neville and Stephen L. Carter's Samantha's Gambit, I was suddenly plunged into one of the most interesting stories in the book, Michael Griffith's Zugzwang,
The term Zugzwang, as Griffith helpfully explains, "describes a
situation where one player is put at a disadvantage because he has to
make a move – the player would prefer to pass and make no move."
Sam, a former professional wrestler, current manager of the garbage
dump, father of Wilbur. "What Sam had foolishly imagined was that the
son would be more like the father..." and at first,they are, as the
father and son engage in (hilarious) wrestling bouts in the front room:
"These battles grew more pitched, more byzantinely plotted, and on the
night when Sam would have liked to stop time, they were rattling the
floorboards and bouncing off the chairs when Simons Cuthbert, rookie
cop, burst in, his nightstick cocked and ready."
incident proves to be Wilbur's last wrestle. He takes up first music,
then chess, despite Sam's efforts to make him take part in more manly
pursuits such as football ("Get your helmet on and pull up your
trousers, boy.") and wrestling.
In the end, in order to explain
his life choices to his father, Wilbur sets up a game of chess at the
parish fair. Only, its not played on a board, but on a stage, and
actors will be playing the parts of the pieces. Sam is forced,
zugzwanged, into dressing up as a rook for this life-sized game of
chess: "He'd be dressed like a pudgy turret, doing a job usually
handled by a thumb-sized hunk of plastic..." This comic denouemont,
which has very definite echoes in the work of John Irving, is
beautifully and comically pitched.
But in the end, Sam's
zugzwang is revealed as a good thing. Finally, Sam "feels a bizarre
tingle of reconnection, of recollection, of helpless love. This has all
been for him. For the first time in forever, he understands his boy
perfectly. Wilbur has given him a glimpse of the game he loves."
some of the stories are set in war time or times of conflict. The royal
game is, after all, a game which represents a battle between two
opposing armies. A Thinly Veiled Autobiography Regarding my Reasons for Giving up Chess,
by Paul Eggers, is a stand-out in this category, primarily for its
wonderful poetic language and poignant recollection of the death of
"Pfc. Rick Eggers," who was "killed in action October 12, 1969."
But perhaps the most common stories within Masters of Technique
are those which revolve around the loss of mental capacity through
dementia, or Alzheimer's. And the most uncommon of these stories is Executors of Important Energies
by Wells Tower. Tower, who The New Yorker magazine named as one of its
top twenty authors under forty years of age this year, certainly proves
himself an adept writer here. This was my first encounter with the
author who seems to have a remarkably chess-like name – for this rank
amateur, the rook was always the tower, or the castle – and I was not
disappointed. Tower is a master of tone. Reading this passage on the
second page of the story made me feel I was in the hands of a writer
who was thinking so many moves ahead he was playing a different game.
Here, Tower describes the narrator only once coming close to beating
his father at chess:
"He'd had some cocktails, and he blundered,
moving his queen into the path of my knight. I sacrificed the piece,
and he slapped me on the mouth. I ran into the bathroom and punched
myself several times to ensure a lasting bruise. When I emerged, he
didn't apologize, not exactly. But he said he'd give me anything I
wanted not to tell my mother about it. I said I'd take a computer and a
CO2 BB gun. My father drew up a contract on his firm's letterhead, and
I signed. We bought the gun that day."This is then followed up
with: "My father was already forgetting my name when I mentioned to my
mother, a few years back, the time he'd slapped me over the chessboard.
Yet a few weeks after that, I received in the mail a copy of our old
contract, along with a bill for $1,200 – reimbursement for the computer
and the BB gun, for which my father had kept receipts."
Masters of Technique
is a surprisingly accessible read, for chess fans and literature fans
alike (so I guess editor Goldowsky has done his job, even if that means
I have to overlook the messy editorial mistakes which crop up on a
fairly regular basis). The subtitle of the book, The Mongoose Anthology of Chess Fiction,
may put some readers off, but I would urge all fans of short fiction to
ignore this. Dispose of the outer sleeve of the book if needs be. Just
read it. It's a check mate and certainly had me won over.
|A.J. Kirby is
the author of three novels; Bully (Wild Wolf Publishing, 2009); The
Magpie Trap, and When Elephants walk through the Gorbals, and a new
volume of short stories, Mix Tape (New Generation Publishing, 2010).
His short fiction was most recently featured in the Legend Press
anthology Ten Journeys.
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Neville, Stephen Carter, Michael Griffith, Paul Eggers, Wells Tower,
Patrick Somerville, Edward Falco, Steven Levery, Michael Weinreb, John
Wheatcroft, Katie Kitamura, Mark Coggins.
Editor: Howard Goldowsky is an avid chess fan and student of the game. He lives
in Canton, MA, with his wife Marci, daughter Erika, and son Tyler. In
his spare time he works as a freelance chess journalist. His first
Pieces: Interviews and Prose for the Chess Fan, was
published by Daowood and Brighton, in 2007.