Game of Obsession: The Eternal Question of Chess

By Ajay OronaDecember 29, 2018

Game of Obsession: The Eternal Question of Chess

The Grandmaster by Brin-Jonathan Butler

SIXTEEN YEARS AGO, my friend Zarour and I paused our video game to witness his father and cousin hunched over a chessboard, their brows scrunched, their chins cradled in their palms. They resembled a painting. Their focus had somehow muffled the sounds of our video game, amplifying the stillness between them. Within minutes, I knew whatever they were playing demanded absolute presence of mind. I had to play. When Zarour’s father slid a black figure across the board for a checkmate, his cousin offered his hand and slunk away. I approached the table with a request: “Teach me to play.”

This began an addiction that drew me to boxing writer Brin-Jonathan Butler’s spellbinding new book, The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match That Made Chess Great Again, an exploration of the 2016 World Chess Championship, and the rivalry between reigning world chess champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway and Russia’s Sergey Karjakin. Butler’s quest to catch the eccentric Carlsen at the “height of his greatness,” leads him to a world that is at once as frightening as it is beautiful, and by far transcends the legacy of any individual chess player.

The tournament is the backdrop for Butler’s real motive: he wants to know what makes the young champion tick. Finding the answer, however, proves to be more difficult than Butler imagined, mostly due to Carlsen’s shy personality (at one point, Butler is told it would be easier for him to schedule a sit-down with Pope Francis at the Vatican). Butler skirts this issue by recalling his own relationship with chess, conducting interviews with “who’s who” in the chess scene and reviving historical anecdotes to fill in the blanks about Carlsen, and eventually, even lay to rest some unanswered questions plaguing the chess world about Bobby Fischer and other grandmasters’ descents into madness.

While the latter half of the title is clearly tongue-in-cheek, several factors at play in The Grandmaster reflect the geopolitics of the time. Carlsen, who had formerly confessed admiration for Donald Trump for his ability to outmaneuver opponents, uses the Trompowsky Attack for the first move of the game as a nod to the then-president-elect. Karjakin, who was originally from Crimea, “repatriated to Russia under the direct guidance of Putin” because his home state could not financially support his dreams of becoming the world chess champion. When asked how he feels about Russia’s annexation of Crimea, he retorted: “If I can’t go back home, my home will come back to me.”

As an outspoken supporter of Putin (quite the opposite of former world chess champion Garry Kasparov), one would imagine this as Karjakin’s opportunity to plug a positive comment about the Russian president. Yet, he doesn’t. The disturbing element is not Sergey’s glee, but ambivalence. Butler soon discovers that Karjakin is not alone among chess players in this approach to life. The grandmasters whom Butler studies exclusively care about chess.

The anecdotes at the opening of the book demonstrate the horrors of an unchecked fascination with chess. Butler shares two stories about Caliph al-Amin and King Charles I, separated by continents and eight centuries, both of whom were ensnared by games of chess when news of their imminent deaths were announced to them. The startling aspect is that neither man budged from his game but continued to play, entirely engrossed in “pondering his next move.” When King Charles I was executed, he brought his chessboard to the scaffold. The anecdotes are intriguing mostly because they create a sense of foreshadowing — leaving you to ask what they could reveal about Magnus Carlsen.

Butler takes his time to answer this question, which, truly, is his greatest strategy in The Grandmaster. He teases the reader just enough to stir the imagination and then backs off, like a boxer feigning and jabbing. This allows him to return to the tournament, which, until halfway in the novel, offers minimal entertainment value due to Carlsen and Karjakin reaching draw after draw. The spell is broken in game six when Karjakin stuns viewers by gaining the first victory of the tournament. Even then, the interminable nature of chess doesn’t make for riveting play-by-play commentary. Butler cleverly avoids this trap, opting to illustrate only the moves and strategies that matter in lucid and colorful prose.

Ringside language is peppered throughout The Grandmaster. In chapter four, Butler writes: “After four games of playing the careful counterpuncher to Carlsen's aggressions on the board, Karjakin, with a narrow advantage after the Giuoco Piano (Quiet Game) opening, was obliged to lead the dance.” The “counterpuncher” metaphor explains Karjakin’s strategy, but more importantly, creates a sense of inclusiveness, inviting the reader, even one unfamiliar with chess, to evaluate his style. Perhaps this is why even Carlsen uses boxing terms to explain his tactics against Karjakin during the pre-game conference: “In defense, he’s very, very good at finding resources even in difficult positions. He can defend. And I guess for me it’s a matter of when I get the chance I’ll try to punch him until he finally knocks over.” As in boxing, spectators cheer for action, and the image of Carlsen’s rook or queen barreling down the board is as close as anything gets in chess to an overhand right. Images like these refute the notion from Carlsen’s critics that he will soon crack under pressure, as so many greats cracked before him at this level.

The writing in The Grandmaster is most inventive when the language drifts from Butler’s comfort zone, prodding him to reach for descriptors from nature to narrate the action: “The following day, in their fourth game, Carlsen and Karjakin sat down for another marathon. Six hours. Ninety-four moves. Carlsen stalked his opponent, looking to exploit a limited material advantage, while Karjakin's strategy seemed to be something akin to building a sandcastle to dam an incoming tide.” Immediately evoking imagery that is familiar and assuring, Butler guides the reader to look away from the chessboard only to see chess more clearly. It is a trick he employs often, yet originally, throughout The Grandmaster, even reversing the effect to have chess mirror reality. As Butler plunges deeper into the dark recesses of the chess world, his work grows less about chess and more about the intersection between obsession and mental health.

In a conversation with documentary filmmaker Errol Morris, Butler points out the staggering number of chess players who lost their sanity in their crazed obsessive attempts to solve the riddle of chess. They discuss the film Searching for Bobby Fischer, and Morris scoffs. “He [Bobby Fischer] didn't have a choice between being a great citizen or a genius. What would you choose? John Q. Citizen or Franz Kafka? Kafka!” While Morris presents the difference between genius and mediocrity as a simple dichotomy, Butler casts a more sympathetic gaze toward chess players and their families. His curiosity about their lives and well-being steers The Grandmaster toward a richer and more nuanced conclusion.

Instead of falling into pure admiration of Carlsen’s talent, Butler grows concerned for the champion’s future and questions his ambitions. Recalling a 20/20 segment wherein Carlsen confesses that he savors seeing his opponents squirm more than he enjoys finding a checkmate, Butler contemplates the merits of chess, awestruck by how the sport simultaneously rewards the dark genius of its players yet leaves them brutally addicted to the game, and to various degrees, stripped of their sanity. The moment in The Grandmaster that captures the dark side of chess most tangibly occurs when Butler meanders throughout the tournament during a gridlock in one of Carlsen’s and Karjakin’s games. As he observes pockets of children and chess fanatics waging their own chess battles, Butler spots Fabiano Caruana, the second-highest-rated chess player in the world, among them, accepting challenges from spectators. This leads Butler to ask what he calls the eternal question of chess: “Was chess a sport or was it an art, a science, or, most tantalizingly of all, some kind of Bermuda Triangle of human intellect? Whatever you called it, seeing Caruana there — not simply watching or networking but playing — was further proof of just how unrelentingly addictive the damn game was.”

If chess cannot be categorized, then neither can The Grandmaster. The temptation is to classify Butler’s work as a sports novel due to its subject, but an honest classification would be cross-genre. Despite Butler’s stated objective “to do for Magnus Carlsen what Norman Mailer did for Muhammad Ali in The Fight,” The Grandmaster is most like Everett M. Skehan’s classic Undefeated: Rocky Marciano — The Fighter Who Refused to Lose, both in its coverage of a flat character gifted with unearthly powers and its simple but powerful writing style. Yet, in its complexity of plot and interweaving of disparate characters and themes, it most resembles Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths. Scenes such as the meeting with Fred Waitzkin, the father of Josh Waitzkin, the real-life protagonist of Searching for Bobby Fischer, evoke a Borgesian uncanniness as the reader is met with an image of both Josh and his father that is contrary to the classic film. The unsettling notion is not that they are entirely different, but have changed just enough to make them feel like strangers. It’s as if Butler flipped a familiar coin to reveal an unknown face.

The minor flaw of the novel is Butler’s attempt to make Magnus Carlsen a star. While not a knock to the writer nor Carlsen, the young champion simply does not cast a spell like Bobby Fischer, and he certainly does not possess the charisma of Muhammad Ali (besides Billy Crystal, who does?). Had Magnus been a boxer, no doubt The Grandmaster would have been his ticket to stardom. However, he plays chess. In a conversation with Neil deGrasse Tyson (one of the many celebrities encountered throughout the book), Butler asks if chess could ever be promoted like other sports. Tyson responds:

It doesn’t have the financial depth that most other things we celebrate do. And that’s a curious fact. I don’t know, does chess need better marketing? Do the singularly great players need to be weirder in their personality? Did Bobby Fischer need his weirdness to drive an audience […] I don’t know with chess. I don’t have the silver bullet here.

Butler’s hunch is that if chess could be sold, then Vegas would have done so by now. Thus, chess remains an unadulterated activity, part of the puzzle of humanity that fits perfectly into neither sports nor board games.

Reading Butler’s work as a chess player is something akin to an alcoholic watching someone fiddle with the citrus rind in their Old Fashioned and hearing the ice clink against the rocks glass. It’s dangerous, and impossible. Chess games will ensue. For those new to chess, The Grandmaster will function as both a cautionary tale of obsession and an exhilarating ride into a mysterious corner of the sports universe. What Butler has delivered is something much more intoxicating than a sports novel and immediately transcends the genre. It is sports writing at its finest.


Ajay Orona writes about travel, sports, automobiles, and literature. He lives in Claremont, California.

LARB Contributor

Ajay Orona writes about travel, sports, automobiles, and literature. His magazine, Tread, which he co-launched at Engaged Media, was named one of the “Top 30 Hottest Launches of 2016” and celebrates the crossroads between automotive adventure and outdoor lifestyle. His writing has appeared in Street Trucks, GeekOut, and Brownell’s Gunnery. He lives in Claremont, California.


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