Masters of Technique

  Edited by Howard Goldowsky

Mongoose Press
2010, hardback
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 under 40'

"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 " 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.

Following 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."

Meet 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."

But this 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."

Naturally, 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.

Andy's other Short Reviews: Route "Book at Bedtime"

Al Riske "Precarious"

Lorraine M. Lopez "Homicide Survivors Picnic"

Guy Cranswick "Corporate"

Johnny Towsend "Zombies for Jesus!
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Authors: Katherine 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 book,  Engaging Pieces: Interviews and Prose for the Chess Fan, was published by Daowood and Brighton, in 2007.