Books in brief: The Rookie

October 13, 2016
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The Rookie by Stephen Moss (Bloomsbury, £18.99)

On which shelf should you display a book about one man’s valiant but ultimately futile quest to become a chess expert? Autobiography? Sport? Self-improvement?

Journalist Stephen Moss’s The Rookie, which captures the grim world of amateur chess, should be most accurately placed in misery-lit. The draughty bed-and-breakfast lodgings, the supermarket sandwiches, the bare, depressing playing halls, the musty maleness, the mental exhaustion, the self-loathing that follows defeat, the humiliation of being whipped by a child, the profound frustrations of mediocrity.

Moss played chess to an average standard as a boy. Suffering an existential crisis, he returned to the game decades later. His aim was to deepen his understanding, to enhance his strategic vision, to develop his tactical awareness: in short, to get better at both chess and at life. Along the way Moss immerses himself in chess history: we hear about former greats such as Soviet-Latvian Mikhail Tal and the only American world champion, Bobby Fischer. Moss also seeks inspiration from today’s professionals. Most struggle to make ends meet, winning paltry sums of prize money at weekend tournaments. They carry on regardless. For a certain sort of man, the completeness of chess, the focus on the board, is a comfort and bulwark against the chaos of life outside.

Moss nicely depicts disappointment, the wretched feelings that follow a clumsy oversight or a senseless manoeuvre. But amid his setbacks—and they are more numerous than his triumphs—we also get a glimpse of the unfathomable beauty of the game. And, following a dazzling combination, that wonderfully deluded sensation of achieving mastery over the 64 squares.