Quest or Obsession?

This review has been printed in the October 2019 issue of Chess Life.  A penultimate (and unedited) version of the review is reproduced here. Minor differences exist between this and the printed version. My thanks to the good folks at Chess Life for allowing me to do so.

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Chapin, Sasha. All the Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything. New York: Doubleday, 2019. ISBN 978-0385545174.

Sasha Chapin’s All the Wrong Moves (Doubleday, 2019) is, on first blush, a fairly conventional tale of a young man’s obsession with chess. Chapin first approached the board as a troubled teen, and in the book’s early chapters, he recounts his early dalliances with the game on his school’s chess team.

Already in these initial pages we find the two competing elements of Chapin’s life in chess. He describes the “ecstatic flight from [him]self” that he discovered in the game, and the growing importance it held in his day-to-day living:

… I lost interest in all of my other typical activities. The brief thrills of breaking the law or almost breaking a condom felt like shallow flutters compared to the sustained joy of playing over one of Bobby Fischer’s masterpieces. (24)

But for all of the pleasure that chess provides him, Chapin also discovers that he’s not a very good player. While he can deal with losing to other “chess nerds,” a series of ego-crushing defeats by his older brother is a step too far. Chapin swears the game off (33), assuming that it’s “just one of those things I liked when I was a kid, like cartoons, or Sartre, or weed…” (Here, as above, we see Chapin’s repeated sensationalism in action.)

Chapin’s “remission” ends when, during a hastily arranged reporting trip to Nepal, he encounters street hustlers in Katmandu. Predictably he loses, but the obsession returns, and while Chapin wonders if it’s not due to the effect the heat is having on his mood stabilizers (45-6), soon he is passing up the pleasures of the flesh to play chess on the Internet.

The bulk of All the Wrong Moves is devoted to Chapin’s abandoning himself, sometimes against the advice of his better angels, to chess. He starts with a local club in Bangkok, followed by a painful loss at the Bangkok Open that prompts him to withdraw from the tournament. He heads to New York and then Toronto, intending to exile himself from the game, but instead falling deeper and deeper under its spell.

Here the story takes a turn. Chapin meets a woman and comes to make a bold decision. Instead of fleeing from chess, and in an effort to overcome the shame he felt in his divided attention, Chapin rips off the band-aid. He effectively “goes pro,” trying to improve seriously over the course of a year, and with the goal of defeating a player rated 2000.[1]

This quest – and it’s clear that Chapin has shaped his tale as a quest – takes the author to Saint Louis for a month, where he hates everything about the city save the Chess Club and his lessons with Ben Finegold. He plays rated games in Toronto, New York, Hyderabad, and finally Los Angeles, where a win over an A player and a draw with an expert brings the journey to its completion.

Quest narratives like Chapin’s are not only about actions and deeds, but also meaning and growth. The hero is supposed to have learned something, become different and wiser, in his travels. What is the net result for Sasha Chapin after his sojourn in the chess world, and what should we take from it?

There is no small difficulty in reviewing a memoir. Any criticism runs the risk of reading like bad psychoanalyzing, and as someone who writes about chess for a living, it’s tricky to avoid expecting too much from a trade book aimed at non-specialists. Still, with these admonitions firmly in mind, we might hazard the following reading.

There is a chasm in Chapin’s tale between the descriptions of the joy he finds in chess, and the agony losing brings him. On the one hand, he senses and articulates quite well the beauty of the game (25, 52, 88-90), but the pleasure he finds pales in comparison to the self-loathing wrought by defeat.

For much of the book Chapin simply cannot abide the blows to his ego brought on by losses. After a child beats him, he says “I feel nothing but rage, and I am its only object.” Later he decides that perhaps “the essential ingredient to good chess play was self-hatred… I made sure to be as sad and uncomfortable as possible.” (103, 107)

It is odd that of all the methods Chapin employs to try and win more games, the most logical – study – never appears in the book. In 224 pages there is no mention of chess books or videos, no effort expended in showing readers the day-to-day work of chess improvement. Instead we get tales of days-long Internet blitz benders, which are fun, but which do little to improve his play.

And it’s not as if Chapin is unaware of chess literature and culture. He name-checks Aron Nimzowitsch, Jonathan Rowson, and Peter Svidler during his August 13th appearance on Ben Johnson’s Perpetual Chess Podcast. He ominously cites “the Database” (47) as something that the best players have to master. So why doesn’t any of the hard work of improvement appear in the book?

Part of this omission may have to do with his audience. A memoir that details weeks analyzing the Sveshnikov probably won’t tear up the best-seller list, and Chapin admits on the Podcast that he made an authorial decision to “compress” the technical content.

But I suspect that the lack of focus on training has more to do with the almost Manichean framework of Chapin’s tale. Chapin is a believer in talent – you either have it, or you don’t. He incorrectly thinks that Magnus Carlsen is “infamous for not needing to study quite as hard as other high-level players” (77) due to his innate talent, while he laments his personal lack of any such gift.

The upshot, on this account, is that you can’t hate yourself for not being great. (77) Hard work and deliberate practice, the kind originally championed by Anders Ericsson can only paper over a lack of talent. So it’s not Chapin’s fault he’s bad at chess – it’s his inability to create mental images (43), his lack of God-given ability, or his opponent’s odorous distractions (153), but never the fact that, at least in the book, he doesn’t seem to actually try to improve.

There is more than a bit of magical thinking on Chapin’s part. Is it rational to move to Saint Louis for a month to take lessons with a GM? Certainly it’s good for the book. The pages on Finegold are delightful, and the koan-like lessons he recounts are memorable. But it also may be the case that the bitter truths Finegold tries to impart – have less fun! never sacrifice! don’t lose all your pieces! marriage is ok! – are self-fulfilling for Chapin’s understanding of the game’s value, and his along with it, as wholly measured in wins and losses.

Stranger still is the decision Chapin makes to travel to Hyderabad, taken as part of a desire to find “some way to speed things up a bit – some way to sell my soul to chess itself – some great and costly hero’s errand [he] could embark on, with epiphany as its reward.” (142) So he decides to play a tournament in India to “find Caïssa,” the goddess of chess, in the place where chess was born. Nevermind that Caïssa is a Greek dryad, or tree nymph, in William Jones’ poem!

Chapin’s “pilgrimage” makes for good reading, but what effect does it have on his chess career? He plays a few games with poor results, gets violently ill, and is forfeited out of the tournament. Something shatters in him; as he writes in a key passage,

I looked myself in the eyes. I was greenish, tired, and covered with a grimy residue of boomtown pollution commingled with sweat. … How would the rest of this go? I wondered. Like, the rest of my life? Probably like this, because this was it. How cute. Running from one distraction to another. Finding any defined life unbefitting of a never-ending sense of grandiosity. Neglecting a good woman in favor of a form of comfortable self-imprisonment. Just like a few girlfriends prior, whom you’d abandoned so you could experience mental episodes in peace. This is how you are. You know all this stuff. And now you’re spending all of your time learning it all over again. Super, super cute. Welcome to Hyderabad. (167)

The final pages on the Los Angeles tournament are almost anti-climactic after his Hyderabad revelation. While Chapin is happy to draw a player rated 2040, he seems almost relieved to tragicomically lose his last over-the-board game. Why? Are Finegold’s teachings, and in particular, his koan-like “secret to chess” – the capstone to the book which I will not spoil here – a mantra to bring peace to patzers everywhere?

It’s clear that the final pages of the book are meant as a grand denouement, a big reveal. Chapin achieves some kind of equanimity where everything – wins, losses, brilliancies and blunders – are all “mostly fine,” but the side effect is that the passion drains from Chapin and from his chess. Is this indeed enlightenment, or is it resignation?

I am of two minds here, and so I leave it to the reader to decide which is more true. (Perhaps both are?) But the second possibility raises a troubling question for chess players. Is it possible to love chess without excelling at it? Is it ok to be obsessed with a game that, for all of its pleasures, will break your heart again and again and again?

For Chapin, the answer seems to be no. But if we shift our thinking a bit, and understand the object of our infatuation with chess less in terms of wins and losses, and more in terms of beauty and meaning, the answer (even on Chapin’s own account) may be yes.

There are pages where Chapin hints in this direction (54, 84-89), towards viewing chess as “the most human thing you can do,” as violence made beautiful through abstraction and sublimation. But he never gets to the key point, namely, that to be human is to be a creature in search of meaning.

Tarrasch was right when he said that chess, like music and art, has the power to make us happy. But more to the point, chess, like its more respected cousins, can orient a world. It doesn’t happen automatically or for everyone – an act of apprenticeship is required, as Deleuze said of Proust’s apprenticeship to signs in his Search for Lost Time – but I would bet good money that more than a few of my readers understand what I mean.

I will not speculate on why Chapin does not make this final connection, but it may explain why he misunderstands the example of Marcel Duchamp, to whom he dedicates a full chapter of All the Wrong Moves. Chapin takes Duchamp’s self-abandonment to the game as the model for his own quest, but ultimately deems him a failure who wasted his creative powers.

I think Chapin underestimates Duchamp’s achievements. Far from being “never excellent, as Chapin claims (69), Duchamp was of master-level strength, a member of the French national team and the winner of both over-the-board and correspondence tournaments… none of which, it turns out, is relevant to the question at hand.

Duchamp’s “gambit,” his abandoning the art world in favor of chess, can only be understood as a personal quest for meaning. Because chess could not be commercialized, because it was beautiful like art but without economic value, outside “social position,” as he told Time in 1952, it took hold of him, giving him an axis mundi around which to build a life. Even if he had never won a game, that would be enough reason to give himself to Caïssa and become her servant.

We are now far afield of the typical “book report” review some may have expected. My trip into the weeds has been an effort to take Chapin’s book seriously, and to do it justice. It is a raw, intimate, unvarnished look at one man’s journey through the chess world, and it’s a good read to boot. Many of us, myself included, will see more of ourselves in it than we might want to admit.

I found the end of All the Wrong Moves unsatisfactory and unfinished. That may be more about me than about Chapin’s book; in any event, my feeling was meliorated in no small part by Chapin’s appearance on the Perpetual Chess Podcast, where his eventual return to chess is left open. For his sake, I hope he finds a way to give it a go.


[1] Note that there’s slightly more to the story here than the book lets on. Chapin was supporting himself as a feature writer during these months, publishing pieces on Eric Hansen and the 2016 World Championship Match among others, and on the basis of a feature that eventually became Chapter 3 of All the Wrong Moves, he had already secured a publishing contract for the book under review.

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