Chess passion: Mark Ozanne's novel "Chess Fever"

by Johannes Fischer
10/12/2021 – Stefan Zweig's "The Royal Game" and Vladimir Nabokov's "Lushin's Defence" are the best-known novels about the destructive power chess can have. In "Chess Fever", a fine novel about youth, growing up, creativity and lots of chess, the English author Mark Ozanne describes the passion for the game in less sinister fashion, but much funnier and much closer to the mind of a chess player.

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Passionate declarations of love abound in literature, but passionate declarations of love for chess openings are rare. Sam Renshawe, narrator and main character of Mark Ozanne's Chess Fever, dares one anyway:

"King's Indian Defence – light of my life, my soul, my sin. Not a chess opening but a way of life. King's Indian Defence. Those three words describe all that is most noble in chess: the sacrifice of everything considered valuable – space, structure, material – in exchange for an Arthurian attack on the white king. Triumph after persecution and suffering." (Mark Ozanne, Chess Fever, Conrad Press 2019, p. 11)

This passage, an echo of the beginning of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita ("Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lo-lee-ta: the tip of my tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta.") reveals a lot about Sam: he admires Joyce and Nabokov and studies literature, but is first of all a passionate chess player.

At the beginning of the story Sam is playing on board three in the last round of the Open Tournament in Novi Sad, which is taking place parallel to the Chess Olympiad 1990, and with a win Sam could finish at the top. Moreover, Sam's beloved King's Indian is on the board - and even a line that Sam has analysed for weeks to prove that the novelty he found in this line is sound.

This novelty could now bring him victory in the arguably most important game of his life. Which is some compensation for the fact that Sam arrived at the board twenty minutes late and with a severe hangover, because the night before he had too much slivovitz with Kolia, a musician and a "proud Serb, proud Yugoslav", with whom Sam was philosophising about life, love, chess and music late into the night.

These issues continue to preoccupy Sam during the game, and while his opponent ponders about the unexpected development of the opening, Sam recalls the beginnings of his chess career and how Bobby Fischer's 60 Memorable Games awakened Sam's passion for the King's Indian:

"Some books have the power to rearrange your consciousness, while the true masterpieces change your life. Manche Bücher haben die Kraft, dein Bewusstsein zu ändern, aber die wahren Meisterwerke ändern dein Leben. [...] Das Buch schlug mich in seinen Bann. Es änderte meine Sicht auf das Schach, aber änderte mich auch als Mensch: Ich war nicht mehr länger jemand, der Schach als Hobby hatte, sondern ein Schachspieler." (S. 12)

In Sam's school days, chess became an all-consuming passion for him, but during his studies, he got a grip on it. Until it suddenly flared up again and is now endangering not only his studies but also his relationship with his girlfriend Lauren. Sam only thinks about chess, he would rather play a chess tournament than going on a holiday with Lauren, and when she is talking to him, he cannot stop thinking about the King's Indian. Until Lauren finally has enough, ends the relationship and goes to Berlin. But chess also endangers Sam's studies, as his thesis is nowhere near as fascinating as the King's Indian with all its possibilities.

These are the conflicts Sam faces as the story begins: Will he win the decisive game in the last round of the tournament? Will he succeed with his novelty in the King's Indian? Will he save his relationship with Lauren? Should he go to Berlin after the tournament and hope for reconciliation or should he play another tournament? Will he finish his thesis and his studies or will he sacrifice both to chess?

Chess passion, often in its destructive form, has been depicted in many books and films. The best-known examples are Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game and Nabokov's Lushin's Defence, and the more Netflix series The Queen's Gambit. But hardly any novel has portrayed chess and chess passion in chess jargon and flow of thought as realistically, as authentically and as close to reality as Ozanne's Chess Fever. And not only the chess passages are convincing. The book is lively, witty, full of charming self-irony and numerous literary allusions. A fine description of the fascination of chess and a beautiful tale about youth, growing up, love, creativity and passion. Chess players in particular should like it.

Mark Ozanne, Chess Fever, Conrad Press 2019, ca. 13.00 Euro

The blurb about the author reveals the following

Mark Ozanne is a graduate of Exeter University and has written previously on the relationship between board games and literature. He has spent many years working as a political and security analyst for companies operating in the Middle East. He lives in Paris where he spends most of his free time in his local chess club.

To conclude, a famous King's Indian from Bobby Fischer's My 60 Memorable Games, the book that Sam Renshawe so admired:

 

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Johannes Fischer was born in 1963 in Hamburg and studied English and German literature in Frankfurt. He now lives as a writer and translator in Nürnberg. He is a FIDE-Master and regularly writes for KARL, a German chess magazine focusing on the links between culture and chess. On his own blog he regularly publishes notes on "Film, Literature and Chess".
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