Literature is the knowledge of how it is to be a person other than yourself, made compelling through story-telling and the artistry of the writing. Amidst the many riveting characters and fascinating works this creative endeavour has produced, chess players occasionally feature. But how successfully? And here's a question: is literature the right medium to understand The Chess Player anyway?
Nabokov's Luzhin is a certain recognizable type, it is true: awkward, introverted, obsessed - but is it convincing that such types see chess boards everywhere; in ceilings, floors, windows, doors? And the novel, at least in the translation I read, had none of the linguistic sparkliness that Nabokov's later novels written in English would go on to achieve. And frankly I found it a bit boring.
Zweig's Chess fares somewhat better. This story compares two contrasting characters: the debonair, worldly man forced by imprisonment to turn to chess; and the naturally grubby-minded introvert, shunning all that life has to offer for the sake of a game, a creature born with a hunchbacked soul, crabbed and unenviable. There's almost a comparison with how a chess game can witness a clash of style; perhaps at the highest level a battle of chess philosophy.
But what about the happy, quirky, mischevious types - Aronian, McShane, et al? What about the thoroughly barbaric extroverts -Kasparov the leading example? The humour, the mystics, the female players? If a non-player asked you: "What's it like to be a chess player?" would you reply: "Oh, read this novel - it gets it spot on?"
Well, before this week I would just have shrugged and said: you can't know what it's like to be a chess player unless you are one. But that was before I watched this video of a man, armed with his first coffee of the day, at an unnaturally early hour in the morning, powering up his computer and recording his stream of consciousness as he logs on to the ICC:
It's all there. The confusion, the hope, the passing blips of depression, the head scratching, the fight, and finally the jumping over the moon. What's it like to be a chess player? YouTube has the answer. 1-0, literature. And for the follow-up question people like to ask, "why do we play?", skip to 6:55 and turn up the volume. That's it. Brilliant.