Chess, Sex and a Good Car Chase

2/9/2014 – Imagine a book on chess, set in the 16th Century in Constantinople, populated with characters like Queen Elizabeth I, Michelangelo, Ignatius Loyola, Suleiman the Magnificent, a 15-year-old Ivan the Terrible and Henry VIII? Written by a novelist who normally specializes in outrageous action scenes. Matthew Reilly's book The Tournament was wildly successful in Australia last year. Now it hits our shores.

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Chess, Sex and a Good Car Chase

By Matthew Reilly

It is a very strange thing, when you’ve written a dozen bestselling action novels to walk into your publisher’s office and say, “I’ve written a new novel set during a chess tournament.”

A few years ago, I did just that.

That novel is The Tournament. To give you a brief idea what it’s about: it is set in the 1500s and is told from the point of view of the then 13-year-old Princess Bess, later Queen Elizabeth I. In it, Bess describes attending a fabled chess tournament in Constantinople in 1546. On the first night of the tournament, however, a visiting dignitary is brutally murdered and as the tournament is staged, Bess’ real-life teacher, Roger Ascham, is called on to solve the ever-growing series of murders. The novel is populated with other real-life characters including Michelangelo, Ignatius Loyola, Suleiman the Magnificent, a 15-year-old Ivan the Terrible and Henry VIII.

My books are known for their outrageous action scenes: wild car chases, furious gunfire and the occasional detonation of a nuclear weapon. High-tech weaponry and gadgets abound. And here I was writing a historical novel featuring chess. What gives?

When I was 19, just out of school and enthusiastic about everything, I saw a very enjoyable film called Searching for Bobby Fischer. The film is not well known outside the chess world and, indeed, it did not do very well at the box office when it was released in 1993. However, seeing the film inspired me to read the book upon which it was based. It was written by Fred Waitzkin and it detailed the trials and tribulations he encountered watching his son, Josh, a gifted young chess player, play in junior chess championships in the United States.

Years later, I read another book written by Josh Waitzkin himself, now an adult, called The Art of Learning. In it, Waitzkin (who sounds like a remarkably well-adjusted young man) gave his own views on the events described in his father’s book and the rather unpleasant attention he received at chess tournaments following the release of the movie version of it.

I loved reading about competitive chess. I would go on to read Bobby Fischer Goes to War by David Edmunds and John Eidinow. (Don’t worry, despite the preponderance of his name in these titles, I am not a Fischer groupie. There is much more to chess than Bobby Fischer.) And at some point I sat back and asked myself: ‘When was the world’s first chess tournament?’

I looked it up and discovered the event staged in London in 1851. This was okay, but, dramatically, I wanted something further back in history. And so I hit upon the idea of describing a chess tournament that, for some reason, had been lost to history.

I settled on the mid-1500s, a time when the world was balanced on a hinge point. The most powerful ruler in the world, Suleiman the Magnificent, sultan of the Islamic empire in Constantinople and arch-rival of the western European kings, would invite every king to send his best player at chess to compete in a tournament to determine the champion of the known world. Michelangelo would be commissioned to build the chess pieces on which the tournament would be played. Sex and murder would ensue. And the players, in this simpler time, would be superstars. Thus The Tournament was born.

For readers of this magazine, the actual chess play described in the book will appear rather basic. There are reasons for this.

i. I write for a mass audience, many of whom are intimidated by chess.

ii. My publishers, no doubt, swallowed hard when they heard me say I’d written a novel set during a chess tournament. But as I stressed to them, while the story is set during a chess tournament, it is not about chess: it is about a little girl who will become a great queen. The tournament is simply a dramatic tool to bring together a group of interesting historical figures.

iii. I couldn’t alienate regular readers by describing technical chess tactics when many of those readers wouldn’t even know how a knight moves.

But then, by setting my story in the 1500s, I had predated modern chess strategies by several hundred years, so I also freed myself from describing Sicilian Defences and Queen’s Gambits (I did not, however, free myself from puns in newspaper reviews of the novel: my favourite headline was ‘All the Pieces Fit in Reilly’s New Gambit’ in The Sydney Morning Herald).

Having said that, I quite liked challenging myself to write about chess in such a way that the mass reading audience would find it not only accessible but also thrilling. The chess matches in my book, I like to think, are riveting contests. I was also pleasantly surprised when, during my recent Australian book tour, many readers told me that after reading the book they had started playing chess again, often for the first time since childhood.

To me, there is something intrinsically pure about chess. It is the ultimate battle of wits. Each player begins a game with the same pieces capable of the same moves. And there is no element of luck. This is important for me. I should state very clearly at this point that I am not a great chess player. I do not know the various openings or defences, but I delight in the fact that they exist. Chess has a wonderful history.

And it was the history behind chess that drew me to write about it in The Tournament. As I delved into the history of chess, I saw how, as it crossed into Europe from Persia, the nature of the pieces on the board changed to reflect the hierarchy of medieval European society. Take, for example, the rook. We see rooks depicted as castles, but the word rook actually derives from the Persian word ruhk, which means chariot. In the first forms of chess, rooks were chariots that raced down entire ranks in powerful, sweeping moves.

Likewise, the queen was not always a queen. Initially she was the king’s minister. But somewhere along the way, he became a she, and suddenly the most powerful piece on a chessboard was the only female one. This interested me. I could go on: bishops can move only diagonally. Is this a metaphor for the circuitous moves made by wily cardinals in European courts?

And what about pawns? They are lowly foot soldiers brought from their farms to fight and die for a wealthy landlord. Although, as I say in the book, we love pawns; we love their smallness and their never-say-die loyalty; how often, in a tight endgame, is our king left to fight with only a few loyal pawns by his side?

There is a story in the very pieces on the chessboard, and I love that. And so now I watch with baited breath as The Tournament is released in the UK. I am an Australian who has dared to write about England’s greatest monarch and I hope British readers enjoy my interpretation.

Having said that, I am quietly hopeful, for the book was released in Australia in late 2013, and it was wildly successful. Indeed, it was the biggest-selling adult fiction title in Australia for the whole of 2013 – with not a single car chase to be seen!

That’s right. The biggest-selling novel for the entire year was a book set during a chess tournament. And that cannot be a bad thing.

The Tournament is published by Orion Books on 30th January.
Copies will be available from Chess & Bridge for £16.99.

CHESS Magazine was established in 1935 by B.H. Wood who ran it for over fifty years. It is published each month by the London Chess Centre and is edited by IM Richard Palliser. The Executive Editor is Malcolm Pein, who organised the London Chess Classic.

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