The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match That Made Chess Great Again
By Brin-Jonathan Butler. (Simon & Schuster, 224 pages, $26.)
If you can forgive the author and publisher for a misleading subtitle, you might actually enjoy “The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match That Made Chess Great Again.”
It’s a rare book about chess that’s not aimed at chess players. There is no game analysis, and no board diagrams. And while the “Match” in the subtitle is the World Chess Championship held in New York City in 2016, that event serves as the backdrop for the book rather than its focus.
The slim volume is the result of an assignment. The publisher asked the author to explore why defending world champion Magnus Carlsen — perhaps the coolest, hippest champion in chess history — wasn’t a household name, how he became the highest-rated player ever, and how long he could remain on top.
Brin-Jonathan Butler chooses to answer those questions by cataloging the oddballs, prodigies, celebrities who are hooked on the game, hustlers and other eccentrics who frequent chess clubs or chess-centric corners of public parks. He’s a lively writer, and by profiling these characters he delivers an entertaining romp through the U.S. chess world. Bobby Fischer, of course, takes center stage, but Butler also presents others who are familiar to chess players but who won’t be to most readers — like Judit Polgar. One of the best chess players in the world in the early 2000s, Polgar and her two sisters were raised as part of an experiment by her father, who believed geniuses are made, not born.
As for the book’s title, it never really fulfills its promise. You’ll learn precious little about Magnus Carlsen or how he became so great. And it’s simply not true that the 2016 match “made chess great again.” I covered the match for the Star Tribune, and while it featured some wonderful games, it did nothing to alter the course of chess history or to elevate the game’s popularity.
Besides, those of us who play chess, awed by its infinite depth, complexity and beauty, know that chess has always been great.
Dennis J. McGrath
By Bragi Ólafsson, translated from the Icelandic by Lytton Smith. (Open Letter, 120 pages, $14.95.)
Maybe it says something about human nature that it’s so hard to leave a story unfinished, or unresolved. Or perhaps it is testament to Bragi Ólafsson that, after giving a reader many opportunities to set “Narrator” aside as inscrutable and even a little irritating, the pages nevertheless continue to be turned. You simply have to find out what happens. The balance of the book changes in your hands, slowly shifting to more pages on the left than on the right, and still, you have no clue where the story is heading.
Granted, when the pages dwindle to too few to reveal much resolution, you’re in too far. The book must be finished, if only on the off chance that G. — the man in whose mind the entire novel takes place — gains some satisfaction by the final paragraphs. The book covers a day in G.’s life as he chances to glimpse Aron Cesar, who used to go out with Sara, whom G. loved without hope. G. decides to shadow him, if only to confirm his worst thoughts about how this lout — for Sara is long gone — has turned out.
The plot seems fantastical — yet who hasn’t given in to imagining what might have been, with an indulgent emphasis on thinking the worst of someone? Maybe that’s the thread that keeps a reader reading, that there is more in common with G. than we’d care to admit.