Zugzwang – Ronan Bennett's chess thriller

by ChessBase
12/9/2007 – "Zugzwang" is a story fraught with political treachery, murder, intrigue and passion. It is set against a background of the great St Petersburg tournament in 1914. Chessplayers will recognise the similarity between one of the main characters in the book, Avrom Rozental, and a certain participant in the real tournament. Here's an interview with the author Ronan Bennett and a must-watch video on the book.

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Ronan Bennett was brought up in Belfast. A youthful civil rights demonstrator, he ended up, at the age of 18, as a Republican prisoner in the notorious Long Kesh camp, sentenced to life by a special non-jury ‘Diplock’ court. Freed on appeal, he moved to England, where he was again arrested and spent 20 months on remand in Brixton Prison, London. On release, he studied history at King’s College, London, and gained a doctorate for his thesis on law enforcement during the English Civil War, 1642-49.

He is the author of four previous novels: The Second Prison; Overthrown by Strangers; The Catastrophist (shortlisted for the Whitbread Novel Award); and Havoc, In Its Third Year (winner of the Irish Novel of the Year). He also writes screenplays for film and television, including working in Hollywood for the director Michael Mann and Leonardo Di Caprio.

His fifth novel Zugzwang, has just appeared. Set against the background of the famous 1914 St Petersburg tournament, in which Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, and Rubinstein, among others, competed, Zugzwang is a thriller which the Times Literary Supplement says has ‘a complex plot and serious subtexts’. ‘The reader will... be full of respect for Bennett’s ability to provoke them. Zugzwang is an entertaining and serious work of fiction.’

ChessBase wanted to find out more about him and his connection to chess. The following interview appeared in ChessBase Magazine Vol. 120.

ChessBase: What is the novel about?

Ronan Bennett: Zugzwang is set in St. Petersburg 1914, and it’s a fictional story of political treachery, murder, intrigue and passion, set against a background of the great St Petersburg chess tournament. Chessplayers may of course recognise a similarity between one of the main characters in the book, Avrom Rozental, and a certain participant in the real St. Petersburg tournament.

You’re referring to Akiba Rubinstein, I think. Where does your interest in Rubinstein come from?

I find Rubinstein’s games highly instructive and enjoyable to play through. The precision, the devastating simplicity, his endgame technique. But he was also fascinating as a person. Years ago, in a short biographical note, I read about Rubinstein’s pathological shyness – during tournaments it was not unusual for him to make his move and then immediate get up from the table and go to hide somewhere until his opponent made his move. He was convinced his mere presence was utterly unbearable and he wanted to spare his opponent any discomfort. It was terribly poignant. Then, much later, I read an article by grandmaster Nigel Davies called ‘Master of the Fly’, which attempted a psycho-religious explanation for Rubinstein’s mental illness. I mentioned Rubinstein in my first novel, The Second Prison, but I wanted to write more about him, bringing him into the foreground.

Yet you’ve changed his name?

The novel is a work of the imagination. I start with Rubinstein but I go further than the facts. That’s what novelists dealing in real events do.

Why is the novel named "Zugzwang"?

Zugzwang fits the situation the main character finds himself in – it seems that every action he takes will lead to his downfall. Zugzwang is also a metaphor for the position the West finds itself in with regard to Islam – a subtext of the plot. I like to discuss contemporary issues by exploring the past. There are so many issues in Tsarist Russia that have a resonance today – the anti-semitism of that time, for example, chimes with the suspicion of Islam today.

Tell us about your connection to chess.

Chess was, to some degree, my saviour at a certain point in my life. I was on remand awaiting trial in Brixton prison in London. It was a tough prison and there were very few facilities. We were locked up for 23 hours a day. The boredom was excruciating. I read a lot, of course, but after a while, in those conditions, it was hard to enter the mental worlds the novels were trying to invite me into. The contradiction between my reality and the author’s imagined world was just too great. My lawyer was a Jewish man named Larry Grant, a keen amateur player and actually quite strong. Larry and I played a correspondence game, a King’s Gambit – he crushed me! But he gave me my first chess book – Irving Chernev’s The Most Instructive Games of Chess Ever Played. Before that I didn’t realise that you could record the moves of games. From that moment on, chess captured me.

How strong a player are you?

Pretty average – whatever that means. I play at the chess club of the Guardian newspaper and a little bit on PlayChess.com. My best result ever was in a simul against grandmaster Dan King (deep opening preparation!), when I got a draw. My only official tournament was a weekend tournament in London in 1980. I won my first two games and then in the third I sat down opposite a spotty thirteen-year old. By move 15 I was in trouble. All his friends gathered round to gloat. I resigned a few moves later. I felt so humiliated that I withdrew from the tournament. I’m one of those players who finds the pain of losing greater than the pleasure of winning. In spite of that I have retained an enthusiasm for chess, and in particular chess history. Today, I derive more pleasure from playing through well annotated games than I do from actual play.

What is it that fascinates you about the history of chess?

I was trained as a historian, so I suppose it links with that. But also there’s something romantic about 19th century and early 20th century chess. When you look at the old photos from those tournaments the players have a certain elegance. They had interesting hinterlands. And the chess of their time was fascinating too because compared with today the game was so uncharted – these people were thinking on their feet from the first, making discoveries, making blunders. And they were extraordinary personalities – Steinitz, Lasker, Capablanca…

I am also fascinated by the aesthetics of antique chess sets – I am a collector. I’m particularly keen on 19th-century English sets – Jaques, of course. I have a tournament size ivory Jaques set of which I’m particularly fond. I also like 19th-century French sets (Lyon, Dieppe, Regence), and the early 19th-century Selenus sets from Germany are very elegant and subtle.

You also write about chess in the Guardian…

I was having chess lessons from Daniel King, and from those sessions we came up with an idea for a column. Much is written for stronger players, but we felt there was a gap in the market for people who are ordinary enthusiasts – like me. The format is roughly ‘expert and amateur’. We look at a position, I give my take, and then Dan tells me what I ought to be thinking about. We give other kinds of advice too: what’s good in the book market, new DVDs, and so on. The column appears every Monday and we have been going for almost a year now. You can see them on this index page. We hope the presentation will be a bit more high tech soon.

We understand that you have a connection to Hamburg?

I wrote a screenplay ‘The Hamburg Cell’ for Channel 4 in the UK about the 9/11 conspirators and visited Hamburg several times to interview people who knew them. We filmed on location in Hamburg in early 2004, before moving on to the US. I remember it being cold.

     Click here to watch a beautiful video on Zugzwang


The latest novel by Ronan Bennett is available in English at Amazon:

Zugzwang: A Novel
by Ronan Bennett

Hardcover: 288 pages,
Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (October 30, 2007)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1596912537
ISBN-13: 978-1596912533

Price: $16.47

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