The Rookie

It’s inevitable that someone as antisocial as me rarely gets invited to parties, so I was surprised to receive an invitation to the offices of Bloomsbury Publishing, in a swanky Georgian terrace in Bedford Square, very close to the British Museum.

The event was the launch party for a new book about chess, The Rookie, subtitled An odyssey through chess (and life) by Guardian journalist Stephen Moss.

Stephen played a lot of chess as a teenager but, like many of his generation, stopped for twenty years, returning to the fray in 2007, and joining two clubs local to me, Kingston and Surbiton. In this book we follow him through three years on the UK tournament circuit, between 2012 and 2015, travelling by public transport, staying in cheap hotels and eating junk food. In the course of the book he also visits the Netherlands, Russia and the USA.

The book comprises 64 chapters, one for each square of the board. In the black squared chapters Stephen relates his chessboard triumphs and disasters, while on the white squares he considers the history, literature and philosophy of chess and interviews various luminaries of the chequered board.

It’s an entertaining and at time amusing read. As you’d expect from Stephen’s day job, he’s a perceptive interviewer as well as a fine writer. He hopes that it will not just appeal to chess players, but will “proselytise on behalf of a game that has slipped off the radar of the mainstream media”. Has he succeeded in his aim?

To be honest, we chess players don’t come across very well in the book. We’re ‘unconventional, unworldly figures’, obsessive, introverted loners who are probably on the autistic spectrum. According to Jon Speelman, we’re odd but not barking. Towards the end of the book Stephen’s team-mate at Kingston Chris Clegg dies. “… I felt that even more I was writing an elegy for an era of chess – the anoraked, pens-in-the-top-pocket, draughty-church-hall brand of the game played in the UK by men who, in some respects, had never ceased to be small boys.” Guilty as charged, on all counts, Your Honour.

Yes, the sort of chess I’ve played for the past half century is slowly dying. I’ve written about this before and will no doubt do so again. Congress regular Brendan O’Gorman tells Stephen the biggest problem, compared with, say, Holland, is the absence of players aged between 20 and 50. He’s quite right, but it would have been good to hear more about why this should be. (Regular Chess Improver readers will be aware that I know the answer to this question!) There’s much more Stephen might have written about. He might have looked more closely at chess organisation here in the UK and considered how we might move forward. But the book’s already a hefty 400 pages long: anything more would have been commercially unrealistic. I’m sure there’s scope there for another volume looking at chess from a different angle.

As an obsessive, introverted loner myself, perhaps I should point out a couple of things. On p345 two sentences quoted from my Chess Improver post on Chris Clegg (linked to above) were attributed to me. Although I wish I’d written the second sentence I was in fact, as you will see, quoting John Foley, and was only personally responsible for the first sentence. I’m told that this is not the only misattribution in the book. Stephen claims to have made a slight improvement in his standard of play during his chess odyssey, having been graded 133 in July 2012 and 142 in July 2015. In fact he had been graded 142 in July 2010 and 143 in July 2009, so the evidence that he actually made progress is not especially convincing.

If you’re a chess player, should you read this book? Yes, as long as you don’t take it too seriously. Regulars on the tournament circuit will have fun trying to identify Stephen’s opponents from his descriptions of them (or they might, as I did, cheat by looking up his grading record online). Will it find a significant outside readership? Despite Stephen’s hopes, I suspect not, and I don’t think it would convince many of them that they, or their children, should take up serious competitive chess. It’s not a book I could recommend to parents considering whether or not they should arrange tuition for their children and sign them up for tournaments. But he tells it the way he sees it, and there’s a lot of perhaps uncomfortable truth about the nature of English chess in there. There’s also much which gave me pause for thought, and which might, who knows, inspire a series of further blog posts.

One problem Stephen seems to have with his chess that I can relate to myself is his uncertainty as to whether he should play safe, boring positional chess or aggressive initiative chess. His other problem is his inconsistency: while he can play the occasional bad game or make the occasional blunder, he is also capable of playing well above his grade, as you’ll see in this game from his visit to Wijk aan Zee.

Richard James

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About Richard James

Richard James is a professional chess teacher and writer living in Twickenham, and working mostly with younger children and beginners. He was the co-founder of Richmond Junior Chess Club in 1975 and its director until 2005. He is the webmaster of chessKIDS academy (www.chesskids.org.uk or www.chesskids.me.uk) and, most recently, the author of Chess for Kids and The Right Way to Teach Chess to Kids, both published by Right Way Books. Richard is currently the Curriculum Consultant for Chess in Schools and Communities (www.chessinschools.co.uk) as well as teaching chess in local schools and doing private tuition. He has been a member of Richmond & Twickenham Chess Club since 1966 and currently has an ECF grade of 177.