The grandmaster Magnus Carlsen and the match that made chess great again

Brin-Jonathan Butler

Book - 2018

"A firsthand account of the dramatic 2016 World Chess Championship between Norway's Magnus Carlsen and Russia's Sergey Karjakin, which mirrored the world's geopolitical unrest"--Publisher marketing.

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Simon & Schuster Nonfiction Original Hardcover
New York, NY : Simon & Schuster 2018.
First Simon & Schuster hardcover edition
Physical Description
ix, 211 pages ; 22 cm
Main Author
Brin-Jonathan Butler (author)
  • Chapter 1: A night at the Plaza
  • Chapter 2: The Prodigies
  • Chapter 3: Trompowsky
  • Chapter 4: Still searching for Bobby Fischer
  • Chapter 5: The Hustlers
  • Chapter 6: "Why can't he beat this guy?"
  • Chapter 7: A place that time forgot
  • Chapter 8: On the edge of the abyss
  • Chapter 9: "I am unusual, a little"
  • Chapter 10: Queen Judit
  • Chapter 11: Finding Josh Waitzkin
  • Chapter 12: 50.Qh6+!!
Review by New York Times Review

IS CHESS A SPORT? After days watching a championship match and "seeing what strain these guys put their bodies and nerves under," cramped in awful Staples chairs while trying to concentrate, Brin-Jonathan Butler concludes that chess "absolutely" falls into the category of sport. But by that logic, the written portion of the driver's license exam could be a sport, too, and, given my perfect record, I would be a better athlete than Muhammad Ali. Chess is not a sport, O.K.? If it were, there'd be a lot more head injuries and trash talk. Butler's definition of an athlete matters for the purposes of his assignment. In 2016, an editor asked him to cover the World Chess Championship between Norway's Magnus Carlsen and Russia's Sergey Karjakin, expected to be an epic battle, and suggested that the author approach the assignment in the spirit that Norman Mailer approached Ali vs. Foreman in "The Fight" and John McPhee covered Arthur Ashe vs. Clark Graebner in "Levels of the Game." Chess can make for compelling literature, especially in fiction ("The Luzhin Defense," by Nabokov, for example), because the game offers a battle between two minds, two personalities, two worldviews. But a game itself is only compelling to readers if we are made to understand and care about the players, seeing their moves as reflections of their characters. McPhee knew it: "A person's tennis game begins with his nature and background and comes out through his motor mechanisms into shot patterns and characteristics of play. If he is deliberate, he is a deliberate tennis player; and if he is flamboyant, his game probably is, too. A tight, close match unmarred by error and representative of each player's game at its highest level will be primarily a psychological struggle." Herein lies the trouble for "The Grandmaster." Since chess is not a sport by the standard definition, Carlsen and Karjakin do not turn their natures into motor mechanisms, thus depriving the reader of visible action. That, in turn, forces Butler to press too hard in describing the moves on the chessboard. "In the end," he writes of one crucial moment, "Carlsen was unable to stop one of Karjakin's innocuous pawns from strolling innocently enough into his malevolent promised land to emerge as an all-powerful, Lady Macbeth, vindictive-ashell queen at the end of the board." Butler might never have been forced to resort to such drastic maneuvers in prose if he had been given a better draw. Mailer had Ali, who never shut up and literally allowed reporters to slip under the covers with him in bed to conduct interviews. McPhee had Ashe, one of the most thoughtful and eloquent athletes of all time. Butler had no one. Neither Carlsen nor Karjakin would talk to him. They appeared briefly at news conferences but expressed little emotion. They never even complained about the terrible Staples chairs. To compensate, it seems, Butler takes the reader on journeys away from the tournament - to Cuba, to a chess shop where New Yorkers took refuge after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and elsewhere. But even the best of these vignettes serve to remind that Carlsen and Karjakin failed to carry their load. We understand why. Chess is intensely cerebral. It drives men mad, as Butler documents in vivid detail. But by remaining so deep in thought, Carlsen and Karjakin shut out their fans, shut out the author and shut out the reader. At the tournament's end, one man emerges triumphant, or at least relieved, the other dejected. The rest of us watch through one-way glass, unmoved. JONATHAN EIG'S most recent book is "Ali: A Life."

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [July 11, 2019] Review by Booklist Review

This is not the usual chronicle of a world-championship chess match. It has no diagrams, lists of moves, or strategy analysis. Instead Butler (The Domino Diaries , 2015) offers insight into what it takes to become the best chess player on the planet, as Magnus Carlsen did when he defended his title against challenger Sergei Karjakin in 2016. Butler was there, hoping to figure out why Carlsen, the highest-rated chess player in history, isn't as famous as Bobby Fischer and Garry Kasparov and what makes him the best ever. Butler offers arch descriptions of the event's spectators (a mix of scruffy, networking chess grandmasters, slickly dressed billionaires, and excited, chess-obsessed kids); shares his experiences as a street-chess hustler; and portrays great chess champions of the past, or more exactly, their record of descending into psychosis. What he finds is that the champions have in common not just phenomenal intellectual talent for chess but also a will to dominate opponents that borders on the sadistic. A vibrant and provocative look at chess and its metaphorical battle for territory and power.--Gilbert Taylor Copyright 2018 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission. Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Chess enthusiast Butler (The Domino Diaries) takes readers inside the 2016 World Chess Championship in this exciting, easily digestible biography. Butler watched 26-year-old Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen's grueling face-off against the recently repatriated Russian prodigy Sergey Karjakin, chronicling the hours-long matches that ended in draws, Carlsen's psychological trauma after losing the eighth game, and his historic sudden-death victory. Unraveling the mystique of the highest-rated chess player in history, Butler uses the ample time between moves and matches to explore Carlsen's biography and smug personality, searching for the key to his greatness. "While Magnus's talents might have been supernatural," Butler writes, "his motivations were as human as they come: namely, revenge." Through conversations with chess luminaries such as Bobby Fischer biographer Frank Brady and Judit Polgár, the greatest female player in history, Butler paints a vivid portrait of an addictive activity that straddles the space among sport, art, and science. Butler portrays a community in awe of the heroics of the young champion, the rare genius who may be appreciated in his own lifetime. This fast-paced, intense narrative gives readers excellent insight into the competitive world of chess. (Nov.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Review by Library Journal Review

Centering on the November 2016 World Chess Championship in New York and its finalists, Sergey Karjakin and Magnus Carlsen, this work by journalist Butler (The Domino Diaries) presents a readable examination of chess culture and history as well as a blow-by-blow account of the toll of winning a championship chess match. The driving question is who really has control, the game or the player? Spectators also wondered if Norway's Magnus Carlsen, who started playing chess at age five and reached grandmaster status at 13, might succumb to the downfall that has consumed legends of the game, such as Bobby Fischer. While primarily focusing on Carlsen, Butler also provides insight into the competitive play of Russia's Sergey Karjakin. Among those who watched the match include Neil ­deGrasse Tyson and Stanley Kubrick. In the end, Butler writes a visceral and riveting study of a game and its players at once austere, powerful, and imposing, yet simultaneously fragile and vulnerable. He perfectly captures the game's culture, as it's consumed by an ever-present valuation of worth, title, and rank. VERDICT A must for chess enthusiasts and the curious alike. A truly fascinating and beautifully rendered account.-Benjamin Malczewski, ­Toledo Lucas Cty. P.L. © Copyright 2019. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted. Review by Kirkus Book Review

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. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.