Chess Fever

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ben.graff
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Chess Fever

Post by ben.graff » Tue Feb 04, 2020 7:56 am

Mark Ozanne has written a great piece in Chess this month on his new book, Chess Fever. In the interests of full transparency, we share a publisher. That said, I loved this novel anyway. I wanted to post a short review in a personal capacity. Nobody asked me to do this. I just think Mark Ozanne is a terrific talent. This is a book worthy of a large audience both within and well beyond the chess world…

Yugoslavia. 1990. A hungover Sam Renshawe is about to play the most important game of his life. “My clock is ticking when I arrive at the board, eyes half-open, tongue sandpapered, throat throbbing, brain trying to push out of my skull.”

Going into his fourteenth-round game with F P Mitrovic, Renshawe knows that victory will give him a share of second place in an international open. Yet all is far from well either at or away from the board. Having chosen to play this tournament at the expense of his long-term relationship, it seems that Renshawe has been sacrificing people for chess all his life. “When friends came to the door, Matthew Farmer with his pet football, I’d shuffle down to tell them I had homework to do, and burrow back into my room to be with Bobby. Before long they stopped coming…”

Renshawe’s PHD is going nowhere as studying chess is all consuming. He can’t even enjoy a meal with his partner without sneaking off to analyse a chess position under the bed covers. All the old excuses are there as to why chess commitments cannot be altered. “I entered it a long time ago when I didn’t know we would be doing anything that weekend. And now I can’t cancel it. I checked with the organisers.” I lied. The passages where Renshawe fails to quite take in what his other half is saying because he is thinking about chess, are brilliantly written and certainly prompted uncomfortable memories for me, as they doubtless will for many other players.

However, chess itself is hardly proving to be a rewarding mistress. Renshawe reflects on how the dream compared to the reality, the one time he qualified for the British Championship. “But they beat me up in Eastbourne. The grandmasters and masters, they eyed me up, and they knew straight away that I wasn’t one of them, wasn’t made from the same stuff, hadn’t done my time. And they wouldn’t leave me alone. They tripped me up at breakfast, they gave me a slap before bed, and they were waiting for me in the showers. They did me over in Eastbourne.”

Perhaps even more dispiriting for Renshawe was his encounter with a Spassky, well past his prime, in a French simul. After the event, in conversation, it transpired that Spassky had seen a move Renshawe hadn’t even considered and could reel off a whole host of variations, despite having been battling with many other players. “However, rather than inspiring me to become like him, it made me realise my human limitations, my mortality and the impossibility of ever changing it.”

At the core of the book is the game between Renshawe and Mitrovic. This is the best extended piece of writing on a single game I have ever read. I don’t want to write much about this here as that might spoil the reader’s enjoyment. It needs to be lived and experienced. It made my heart race as much as playing an actual game and there is no higher accolade than that. A real roller-coaster. As with the rest of the novel, the use of language is exquisite. To give an example, when Mitrovic faces a difficult choice, it is described like this. “I am pleased to see that his forearms are back on the table and that he looks like someone about to start an unpleasant but necessary piece of work, like the monthly deep clean of his butcher’s shop.”

I think many chess players will sympathise to a degree with Renshawe’s obsession. I had to suppress the unhealthy thought more than once that if I studied like he did, maybe I would be a better player. However, it is clearly no way to live. More seriously, the challenges of balancing chess against life, of seeing the game we love for what it is and what it isn’t, what it can offer and what else we need is beautifully conveyed. Renshawe certainly ends the book better placed to accept his limitations, to embrace a life that includes chess but is not wholly chess. He is ultimately altogether a better prospect as both chess player and potential partner.
Ben Graff
Author of 'The Greenbecker Gambit' and 'Find Another Place'

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JustinHorton
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Re: Chess Fever

Post by JustinHorton » Tue Feb 04, 2020 9:32 am

ben.graff wrote:
Tue Feb 04, 2020 7:56 am
In the interests of full transparency, we share a publisher.
That would be The Conrad Press, prop. James Essinger, co-author of a book with Jovanka Houska, seen here describing Chess Fever as "an absolute must-read".
"Do you play chess?"
"Yes, but I prefer a game with a better chance of cheating."

lostontime.blogspot.com

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JustinHorton
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Re: Chess Fever

Post by JustinHorton » Tue Feb 04, 2020 10:19 am

I was amused to find Essinger describing this book as "absolutely unputdownable" on Amazon. It was originally published by D&M Heritage who now appear to have been wound up - but don't worry, this unputdownable classic is now available elsewhere, specifically via The Conrad Press, prop. James Essinger.

(Curious, by the way, that Essinger should take issue with this review, which observes that we should be cautious of books produced via vanity publishing. I note that Essinger promises
a business model which allows authors to earn considerably more from their book’s success than the traditional publishing model.
This kind of phrase usually suggests "vanity publisher" to me, can anybody tell me different?)
"Do you play chess?"
"Yes, but I prefer a game with a better chance of cheating."

lostontime.blogspot.com

John McKenna
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Re: Chess Fever

Post by John McKenna » Tue Feb 04, 2020 3:41 pm

Don't know about that.

I'll reserve judgement about "chess fever" until coronavirus arrives in the playing venue....
To find a for(u)m that accommodates the mess, that is the task of the artist now. (Samuel Beckett)

Kevin Thurlow
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Re: Chess Fever

Post by Kevin Thurlow » Tue Feb 04, 2020 4:55 pm

Ben beat me to it, but here's my review...

I have to declare a slight interest as I have spoken to Mark at various tournaments. I haven’t studied any other reviews, so there may be some repetition.
The book is written from the perspective of Sam, who was a keen player as a junior, and has now returned to the game in a somewhat obsessive way. Even when he is having a bath, there is a pocket set floating next to him. He is doing no work on his PhD studies. He is playing in a side event at the Novi Sad Olympiad in 1990, and the action covers the crucial last round game. Interspersed with the description of this game are flashbacks to a relationship with a girl, who gets fed up that he is more interested in chess than her, so leaves, and a drunken night out the previous evening. The description of the game and Sam’s thought processes is really good and I suspect many players would think, “Yes, I’ve done that”. There are nice touches, like the description of the opponent capturing pieces and neatly storing them behind the clock. I particularly liked the description of the Hungary women’s team (the Polgar sisters) playing the Czech team. “They all look calm, as if they’re hosting the elder Czech ladies for afternoon tea, but beneath the sweet exteriors lies lethal resolve.” The event comes alive and so I checked up to confirm my suspicion that the author played at that Olympiad, which he did. There were indeed side events. The author has taken the wise advice to write about things you know. There were a couple of unfortunate typographical errors, “Mladic” for “Madl” at one point, and “forward” instead of “foreword”, but I don't know who to blame for that.
This is a slim volume (167 pages) but I enjoyed the story and it was well-paced. The ending was nice. The only issue is, who would buy the book? If you’re a reasonably competent player, you could recognise the personalities and peculiarities of those involved, but would you buy a novel partly about a chess tournament? If you don’t play chess at all, the title would probably put you off! The non-player would probably not understand the accuracy of the description of the player’s thought processes. I read the book in two sittings and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Pete Morriss
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Re: Chess Fever

Post by Pete Morriss » Tue Feb 04, 2020 6:29 pm

Presumably the title is an allusion (or homage) to this Soviet-era film, featuring Capablanca?

Kevin Thurlow
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Re: Chess Fever

Post by Kevin Thurlow » Tue Feb 04, 2020 10:22 pm

"Presumably the title is an allusion (or homage) to this Soviet-era film, featuring Capablanca?"

Brilliant spot! Thanks for posting that, I haven't seen it for ages. There can't be too many films showing Reti in action.

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