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‘The Grandmaster’ makes all the right moves

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“Chess is everything: art, science and sport.” – Anatoly Karpov

The game of chess is one with an ancient history. The game has been played for hundreds of years by millions of people from all corners of the globe. It is buoyed by its universality and its basic meritocratic structure – the more skilled player almost always wins.

You would think such a game would have deep appeal to the American psyche. That isn’t the case, however – not since the too-brief domination of the world stage by Bobby Fischer back in the 1970s has the United States paid much attention to the game.

But when the World Chess Championship landed in New York City in 2016, Brin-Jonathan Butler was there for it. His chronicle of that battle between Norwegian wunderkind Magnus Carlsen and Russian Sergey Karjakin - the first WCC contested on American soil in two decades - is titled “The Grandmaster: Magnus Carlsen and the Match That Made Chess Great Again” (Simon & Schuster, $26).

It’s an insider’s look at a match that was considered almost a foregone conclusion at the onset before turning into a battle for the ages featuring one of the greatest finishes in chess history. It is also an examination of the history of the game as well as the state of chess today, both here and abroad.

It was the first week of November in 2016. The recent Presidential election had New York City in tumult. But at the city’s South Street Seaport, a different kind of energy was bubbling. For the first time since 1995, the championship of the chess world was going to be decided in the United States.

On one side was the Norwegian Magnus Carlsen, the reigning world champion. Carlsen was viewed as a potential breakout star, a player who could serve as a face of the game. On the other was Sergey Karjakin, a Russian whose star power didn’t match Carlsen’s, but whose tenacious game and competitive streak earned him a spot at the table.

Both men were elite competitors, but Carlsen was expected to triumph without much difficulty. What happened instead was a hard-fought, grueling match – one that made it all the way to sudden death.

Alongside his tension-soaked recounting of the championship faceoff, Butler spends time investigating the game itself. We learn about its history in the United States in general and in New York City in particular. The role of computers in the game - from the first rudimentary programs to the supercomputer Deep Blue to the unbeatable chess simulators of today - is investigated. Butler speaks to people who orbit in various chess circles – chess club owners and hustlers alike. He explores the relationship that certain famous figures had with the game – the esteem it held in the eyes of notables like Stanley Kubrick and Humphrey Bogart.

And looming over it all is the shadow of Bobby Fischer.

No conversation about chess in America is complete without acknowledging the legacy of the country’s greatest player. Whether discussing Fischer’s meteoric rise, his turmoil-filled heyday or his tragic and precipitous decline, the boy from Brooklyn’s influence on the game cannot be overstated. He was this country’s giant, a de facto Cold War weapon under unspeakable pressure who eventually (some would say inevitably) cracked.

Brin-Jonathan Butler made his bones as a boxing writer, producing pugilistic prose biographical and autobiographical alike. He has written about Cuban legends like Guillermo Rigondeaux and American icons like Mike Tyson. If it sounds like he has a bit of Hemingway about him, well, his 2015 memoir “The Domino Diaries” is subtitled “My Decade Boxing with Olympic Champions and Chasing Hemingway’s Ghost in the Last Days of Castro’s Cuba,” so yeah – there’s plenty of Papa here.

What seems on the surface to be an odd fit is actually ideal when you think about it. While chess is a cerebral exercise and boxing is a physical one, the two share common ground. There’s the visceral, man-to-man nature of both; at their core, both are contests of will. Both are about exerting your strength over your opponent. Both necessitate strategies far beyond what the layperson observes upon the surface. And both are extremely difficult to master at the highest level.

What Butler does so magnificently in “The Grandmaster” is capture the intensity inherent to high-level competition. Just because Carlsen and Karjakin don’t physically come to blows doesn’t mean that brutality is absent. Chess of this magnitude is as combative as any other competitive endeavor; there’s a reason that chess is so often utilized as an analog for warfare.

“The Grandmaster” is compelling reading, both in terms of the depth of its subject matter and the spare muscularity of its prose. It is both paean and exposé, a both-sides deep dive into a world that not many truly understand. While the chessboard might only exist in black and white, Butler’s book offers up unexpected shades of gray.

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