Writing Like a Chess Player

A few years ago, I was with Nora in New York, and as she was shopping at the vendors in the Union Square Park craft fair, I was watching a game of blitz chess out on the sidewalk, a full game with five minutes per player and twenty bucks on the line. A young man was in a seemingly weak position, and his older opponent charged in. The young man, having set the trap, then made a quick, unseen move, reversing the game to his own victory within the next two moves. He began to set the board for his next game, and said, “wouldn’t it be nice if it were so simple…”

I was an awful chess player in junior high and high school, but I played a lot, and still retain some affection for it even though I haven’t touched a board in thirty years. It’s like math in that way. It’s just intellectually elegant in a way that few other endeavors can touch, and you occasionally remember that you used to be able to do it, now that life has become less clear.

I just read a book about chess that actually felt like that game in Union Square: Sasha Chapin’s All The Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything. He lulls you in, then snaps you to attention with something you hadn’t expected.

On its surface, Chapin’s story is one of obsession, the ways in which chess becomes so compelling to him that he often loses track of the rest of his life. Work, girlfriends, food, sleep, all secondary to staying up for yet another game of online chess. In fact, he describes those other things with such a light touch that they become unimportant to us as well. Now he’s in Kathmandu, now in Bangkok, now in New York, now in Toronto, now in St. Louis. Now he’s with Courtney, now with Elena, now with Sundae, now with Katherine. None of those are shown to us in enough detail that they matter at all, and we start to zone out, wallowing in his languid inner life. Then, without warning, the easy monologue reveals the blade:

Lacking any responsibility, I went to bed at 6 am every night, watching the gelid early morning crawl across my filthy feet. Seventy percent of my diet was salty snacks in shiny bags. It got to a point where I realized that I was walking quickly around my apartment because I was fleeing my own smell. (43)

That’s the sharpest description of lonely despair I’ve ever read, its suddenness like a bishop rushed forward from the back rank to change the tone of the game.

Chapin does that quite a lot in this book, letting us imagine that we understand something—his inner life, a relationship with a coach, what chess means—and then in a bold stroke, showing us that we don’t. He plays that way, too, with a desire for the impulsive reversal, the incontrovertibly brilliant strategy. As with his writing, it means that he isn’t paying all that much attention most of the time, but once in a while, comes to life.

Badly played chess is kind of like badly played life. Real problems are dealt with poorly or not at all, while much effort is expended on avoiding imaginary danger. (34)

Being the kind of writer I am—a memoirist, I guess— has always struck me as a little sad, because it means that I’m constantly wondering whether any definable portion of my experience is marketable. I’m forever observing myself from a mercantile perspective, noting whether any of my minor melancholies or brief decomposures might be salable. Essentially, I’m a parasite on my own life. (67)

…if there’s one thing that particularly distinguishes us [as humans], it has to be abstraction. The way we take our fleshy, silt-covered world and cover it with metaphors, maps, formulas, and poems—how we incessantly make wickedly complicated models of everything we live in. According to us, the sea is wine-dark, the earth is composed of metropolitan areas, and some numbers are irrational. (89)

Los Angeles is where dreams die. All day, the waiters realize that they’ll never be actors, and the actors realize that they’ll never be famous, and the famous slowly dry out under the nearly narcotic sun that falls on all the facades of the hot, sprawling city, clustered together in bright clumps like dirty candy. (172)

Like chess and baseball and soccer and bass fishing, Chapin’s book cries out for this kind of highlight-reel coverage, a few transformative moments lifted from what might otherwise seem like drudgery. A different kind of writer would help us see the steady beauty within the quiet. A different kind of writer would play a different kind of chess.