A former British Chess Champion (2004-2006) considers the connections between chess and life—and finds many.
Rowson (Chess for Zebras, 2005, etc.), who now plays only occasionally, delivers a narrative sometimes thickened with quotations and allusions, both from literary and intellectual figures (Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Emerson, Dylan Thomas) and from popular culture (The Velveteen Rabbit, The Wire, Groundhog Day). His text is a somewhat motley mix of memoir and self-help. We learn about his boyhood beginnings with chess and various games (good, bad, and ugly), his marriage and son, and his decision to return to school to get his doctorate. Rowson divides his chapters (more than 60) into subheadings that bear such titles as “Ceasing Hostilities,” “How to Give Praise,” “The Politics of Puppets and Muppets,” and “Race Is Not Black and White.” His advice ranges from trenchant to amusing—e.g., a wonderful section about applying chess strategy to changing an infant’s diapers. The author also offers bons mots (“chess players are like sniffer dogs”), some of which could appear in just about any self-help text (“We are more like glass tables than we typically imagine. Mostly we are solid, but we can and do crack up”). Along the way, Rowson deals with politics, religion, mistakes, artificial intelligence, and the traits that champions possess, among many other weighty matters. Perhaps the most affecting—and modest—moments are when he writes about accepting your status and about decline and death. “I am probably Scotland’s strongest-ever player, but with all due respect to fellow Scots, in chess terms that is a bit like being the highest mountain in Kansas,” he writes of his career. “I never threatened to be the very best British player, and I was never world class.”
Accounts of significant chess experiences lightly salted with self-regard and sometimes peppered with platitude.