A championship chess match and more, as Butler (The Domino Diaries: My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway's Ghost in the Last Days of Castro's Cuba, 2015, etc.) illuminates the possibilities and limitations of commodifying a game that has been an obsession for so many for so long.
For those who don’t play, popular interest in chess might begin and end with Bobby Fischer, or maybe it extends to the matches of man-vs.-computer, Russia’s Garry Kasparov against IBM’s Deep Blue, as the former entered popular folklore as “the John Henry of chess.” It likely doesn’t encompass Norway’s Magnus Carlsen and Russia’s Sergey Karjakin, whose 2016 battle for the world championship was hailed in advance as “a coming-out party for chess”—and is the focus of this book. ESPN had somehow turned professional poker into a spectator-sport sensation, and the feeling was that chess was next, on the verge of popular attention it had rarely received since Fischer. The biggest challenge for the author was that “I’d never encountered more impenetrable people to interview than Magnus Carlsen and Sergey Karjakin, presumably the game’s greatest ambassadors. I’d been given the impression I’d have had an easier time arranging an audience with Pope Francis.” Though the tension of a game may be exquisite, even excruciating, for those who know what they are watching, there’s only so much you can write to describe the interminable intervals between moves. So Butler writes all around his primary subject, going beyond the championship and the two competitors to investigate spectators, journalists, other prodigies and the fates they’d met, those who knew Fischer, and other aspects of the interrelationship between chess and New York, where the championship was held, and other events that were transpiring then and there, most significantly the coronation of Donald Trump. It’s a bravura performance by the author, who recognizes that if more people cared about that championship, this would have been a very different book.
An entertaining book that contains everything you never imagined you wanted to know about chess.