Lisa: a chess novel

by ChessBase
11/15/2014 – Jesse Kraai, 42, has a PhD in philosophy and is also a strong, active chess player who got his GM title in 2007. Jesse took three years off of the game to write his first novel about a female chess enthusiast with Asperger Syndrome and her Russian émigré chess coach. The book has been greeted very enthusiastically by American GMs and IMs. Review by Glenn Mitchell.

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Lisa: a chess novel

A glimpse into the (sometimes) gritty soul of chess

Review by Glenn Mitchell

GM Jesse Kraai took a break from tournament chess to write his first book, Lisa: A Chess Novel, an interesting coming of age story about a teenage girl diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. Lisa is misunderstood and treated cruelly at times. Chess becomes her obsession, one in which she becomes thoroughly stuck for a time.

Even before I read the glowing reviews from IMs and GMs for the book on Amazon (among others Josh Friedel, Sam Shankland, Emre Enginarlar and many of Jesse's friends and associates – worth a read) I concluded that there was much in this novel to recommend it for the avid chess player.

There are two protagonists: Lisa and her coach, GM Igor Ivanov. I don’t know how much of GM Ivanov in the novel depicts how he interacted with students and how much is a pastiche of Russian émigré chess coaches but I definitely like him. Lisa is less likeable.

As a fictional character, GM Ivanov is fascinating. I switched back and forth between the Kindle eBook and the version of the story. The latter was by far the better experience. GM Kraai’s imitation of a Russian accent made listening to the story a true delight. The character of GM Ivanov came alive for me as a result of his narration. I could easily visualize GM Ivanov on the Church’s Chicken weekend tournament circuit, alternately playing chess in one city and then riding along to the next city on a Greyhound bus, vodka-besotted. You can read a small sample of the book at Amazon and listen to a sample of the Audible reading here.

Chess players from the San Francisco Bay area will appreciate the many small touches that help lend the book more authenticity. Even if, like me, you are not from the San Francisco Bay but you have been an avid member of the American chess community, you will find comfort in the mention of familiar people, places, and events.

Lisa is an interesting character. As I mentioned, she’s not altogether nearly as likeable as the other characters in the novel. She is very clearly troubled. The diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome is a passing reference and it does not really fit her all that well. Clearly Lisa, like many individuals battling mental illness, suffers from more than just one challenge. There are passing references to self-mutilation and anti-depressant medications. That fits well for the fictional Lisa. The label of Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) would fit, too. Better than Asperger’s.

The passing references to Asperger’s is just one example where the reader is jarred out of the novel because the certain elements of the story do not fit so well. The same with the decision to fictionalize Lisa’s interaction with GM Ivanov at a time when the actual GM was already dead. Readers who know that GM Ivanov was living in Utah before he passed, was married, and had many students will again be jarred periodically out of the novel. Blending real and fictional characters is a daring move. It is unfortunate that the result was not completely successful here. Using a completely fictional coach would have kept me more fully immersed in the novel.

Lisa goes from being self-absorbed with her personal journal to being obsessed with chess. She struggles in school and cannot get past the ninth grade because of attention deficits and behavior problems. Her interaction with her parents is similarly challenged. The only people Lisa shows respect for in the early chapters are her chess coaches. First, a woman named Ruth and then GM Ivanov. Chess is her gateway to anything even approaching peer interaction. There she does make some interesting friendships. I liked the young women she meets and their shared experiences.

Jesse Kraai playing Varuzhan Akobian in round two of the 2010 US Championship

Many reviewers find Lisa’s experience to be a reflection of the chess world. I would say instead that it is an interesting pastiche from a subculture within the chess world. Just as with the novel and movie depictions in Searching for Bobby Fischer, the general impression in this story is that talented chess players are generally social misfits with a quirky genius. It is true that a reader can attend nearly any chess tournament and find enough examples of significant mental illness to populate a chess novel. But – and you do get glimpses of this in Lisa: A Chess Novel – you will also find that most of the players are normal, well-adjusted individuals. I didn’t see where Lisa came to that realization and nearly all of the reviews I’ve read have also missed this same point.

This is GM Kraai’s first novel. Lisa: A Chess Novel makes some mistakes that are typical for beginning novelists. There are long passages where GM Kraai is too obvious in his attempt to give the book a literary feel. This is another jarring experience for the reader and there were moments when the descriptive prose got so long and so forced that my attention wandered and I even became frustrated and impatient to get back to the main narrative.

The reference at the end of the novel to Emma and Jane Austin is another element that didn’t quite fit. Instead of a gratuitous literary reference, my reading experience would have been enhanced more by knowing what happened to GM Igor Ivanov. The character just tells Lisa “One last lesson,” they go for a polar bear swim in San Francisco Bay, she curses and jumps out of the icy water, and then her coach just continues on swimming around the pier. My reaction was to hear GM Ivanov’s voice in my head ask, “OK, Lisa, what happened next?” This scene is typical of the entire ending. It’s like the author just ran out of story. We learn that Lisa goes on to have a few students, but that just wasn’t enough of a character arc for me. I was left wanting to know more about how Lisa got on in life.

So now we come to the recommendation. Is Lisa: A Chess Novel a satisfying read? I would say – imperfections and all – chess players will find much to like. Even the “chess-less” will find the story of how Lisa grows as a result of her interaction with GM Ivanov to be an interesting story. It’s obvious that GM Kraai worked hard on his first novel. There are many memorable moments in the book that lead me to give it an enthusiastic recommendation. I look forward to reading his next novel as a result.



  • "If you're a fan of good chess and good prose, you should pick up Jesse's new book" – Bruce Pandolfini, famous chess coach.
  • "Two thumbs up. This is the most realistic chess novel ever." – Chess Writer Dana Mackenzie
  • "Lisa will give non-chessplayers a glimpse into what living in this bubble is really like." – Grandmaster and chess writer Josh Friedel

About the author

Jesse KraaiJesse Kraai, 42, was born in Santa Fe, received his B.A. from Shimer College in 1994, his M.A. in philosophy from the University of Jena, Germany in 1996, and his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Heidelberg in 2001. His dissertation examined the influence of Georg Joachim Rheticus on the development of Copernican theory.

Kraai reached grandmaster status in chess in 2007, the first American-born player to achieve the title since Tal Shaked in 1997. He won the 1987 National Junior High School Championship, tied for first in the 1988 National High School Championship, and won the Denker Tournament of High School Champions in 1989 and 1990. In 2007, he won the chess state championship of New Mexico for the fifth consecutive year. Jesse took three years off of chess to write Lisa.

Reports about chess: tournaments, championships, portraits, interviews, World Championships, product launches and more.


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