The Outer Limits of Chess

The June issue of Chess Life magazine contains a letter to the editor from IM Anthony Saidy concerning a book of essays by Aleksandar Hemon. I have been reading Chess Life since 1970 and this is the first time I can recall a letter mentioning a non-chess book of nonfiction by a writer known for fiction. After reading the letter by Dr. Saidy I immediately surfed to my library where I reserved the book online. After notification of the book being available I went to the library. I was amused by the cover of THE BOOK OF MY LIVES, which includes a blue alien looking creature with a big blue head and large eyes. As the librarian checked me out she looked at the cover and said, “How cute.” The significance of the “cute” blue creature would come late in the book.
From the cover I learned the author, “…has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a “genius grant” from the MacAuthur Foundation, the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature, the PEN/W. G. Sebald Award, and, most recently, a 2012 USA Fellowship. He lives in Chicago.” Also, “All the pieces were originally published in somewhat different form and have been revised and edited for this book.” Yet “The Lives of Grandmasters,” was previously unpublished. After considering reading this essay first I decided to start at the beginning.
The author was born in Sarajevo in the sixties and because of that fate placed him in Bosnia during the war. He writes movingly about the time preceding the war, and the chapter “Life During Wartime” puts the reader on the firing line. He applied to visit the United States under the auspices of the US Information Agency, writing, “I’d had an interview with the head of the Culture Center earlier that summer, but had expected nothing from it and pretty much forgot all about it.” After receiving a phone call, “…a woman from the American Cultural Center told me that I had been invited to visit the United States for a month…Indeed, I thought for a long moment that it was a prank call of some sort…”
The book begins with a series of questions; 1) WHO IS THAT? 2) WHO ARE WE? Something he wrote here struck me:
“Part of growing up is learning, unfortunately, to develop loyalties to abstractions: the state, the nation, the idea. You pledge allegiance; you love the leader. You have to be taught to recognize and care about differences, you have to be instructed who you really are; you have to learn how generations of dead people and their incomprehensible accomplishments made you the way you are; you have to define your loyalty to an abstraction-based herd that transcends your individuality.”
Reading this caused me to recall a song by Mike and the Mechanics, The Living Years: “Every generation/ Blames the one before/ And all of their frustrations/ Come beating on your door/ I know that I’m a prisoner/ To all my Father held so dear/ I know that I’m a hostage/ To all his hopes and fears/ I just wish I’d told him in the living years.”
Mr. Hemon uses a quote by a former POTUS to answer the question:
“George W. Bush, in a speech to the faculty and students of an Iowa college in January 2000, succinctly summed up the neoconservative philosophy of otherness in his own inimitably idiotic, yet remarkably precise, way: “When I was coming up, it was a dangerous world and you knew exactly who they were. It was us versus them and it was clear who them was. Today, we are not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there.” What can better describe the nightmare years of the Bushwhackers?
Reading this book brought to mind how large a part the game of chess plays in the lives of the people of Europe. For example, he writes about becoming a friend of, “…Isidora when I was in college. Isidora’s father was a well-known chess author, good friends with many a famous grandmaster, including Fischer, Korchnoi, and Tal. He reported from world-championship matches and wrote a large number of books about chess; the most famous one was for beginners: the Chess Textbook (Shovska citanka), essential for every chess-loving hosehold, including ours. Sometimes when I visited Isidora, she would be helping her father with correcting the proofs. It was a tedious job of reading back transcripts of chess games to each other, so they would occasionally sing the games, as if performing in a chess musical. Isidora was a licensed chess monitor, and she traveled the world with her father, attending tournaments.”
Later he writes about, “Those happy days before everything collapsed…participating in passionate soccer-related discussions and endless, manic debates prompted by questions like: “Does the grandmaster Anotoly Karpov own a superfast speedboat?” Soccer, or the name the game is known by in all the world excepting America, football, is also a part of what and who is the author.
When he received the call from the American Cultural Center inviting him for a month long visit to the US, he writes, “By that time I was exhausted by the onslaught of warmongering, and I accepted the invitation.” Around that time he was having a relationship with a young woman who, …”was working hard to get out of Sarajevo and move abroad because, she said, she felt that she didn’t belong there. “It’s not about where you belong, it’s about what belongs to you,” I told here, possibly quoting from some movie or another.”
In the chapter, THE LIVES OF GRANDMASTERS, he writes about a childhood friend, Ljubo. “By high school, however, Ljubo lost interest in rock ‘n’ roll and indeed in most things outside the realm of mathematics and chess. Ljubo, who was too slovenly and disorganized to do what Mladen did and thus avoid serving in the army, had a dreadful time as a conscript… Soon he was enmeshed in full-fledged schizophrenia. A couple of times he was locked up in Jagomir, a grim funhouse close to the city zoo on the outskirts of Sarajevo…Once, after Ljubo returned to his parent’s home from Jagomir, his mother called us and suggested we come over to talk to him and cheer him up…He was listless and slow, affected by strong antipsychotic medication. We listened in stunned silence as he spun his schizo-narratives. This time, he divulged to us the true story of Alekhine, who, in Ljubo’s rendition, descended directly from God himself and therefore partook in some sort of destiny-control mechanism, plainly visible to those who analyzed his games correctly. Somehow, Alekhine’s divinity had been transferred to Ljubo, who was thus in direct communication with God. We had no idea, he told us, about the things that were happening as we spoke, we had no way to grasp the maginitude of his still-unused powers. The Alekhine yarn was then threaded into his claim that the truly great grandmasters-those of Alekhine’s divine caliber-all eventually quit playing the game. Because the number of positions in chess, however immense, was finite, the true grandmasters eventually played their way through all the possible combinations, thereby reaching the outer limits of chess…”
This made me think of some of the s0lilquies I patiently listened to from players while working at the House of Shame. I also thought about someone from my past. He was a big fan of Jimi Hendrix and when it was announced that Jimi had died, he refused to believe it, telling everyone who would listen that Jimi had not died, but had gone to planet Zud, where he had struck the note that was on its way to Earth, so strong and powerful it would obliterate our planet when it hit. “But’s that’s OK, he would continue, “It won’t happen for billions of years!” Why do you think we called him Captain Trip?
My favorite part of the book, naturally, concerns his chess play in the US, and those he found with whom to do it.
“In the early nineties, after I’d moved from Ukrainian Village to Edgewater, I played chess at a place in Rogers Park called the Atomic Café. It was rife with all kinds of characters obsessed with chess. Between the games I would hang out with the idle players, small-talking, asking them a lot of questions, ever eager to extract bits of other people’s lives…There was a brilliant Indian computer programmer who, in the last few years I frequented the place, lost a number of jobs because of his chess obsession. He promised his wife at least once he would quit, but he could not help thinking of chess incessantly. Failing to stay clean of chess, he still came to the café, but declined all invitations to play, wasting just as much time kibitzing. Predictably, he ended up getting divorced. He told me so himself, the last time I saw him. He was driving a cab at the time, which he parked in front of the café to play all day, happily off the wagon and thoroughly uninterested in catching fares. All my chess friends seemed to be lonely men, continuously struggling to reproduce the painfully evanescent beauty of the game, never getting within sight of the bujrum border.”
It is in the heartrending final chapter the reader will learn the significance of the alien.


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