Lisa, Jesse Kraai’s Great American Chess Novel, is now available through Amazon.com! Even more than the Great American Chess Novel, it’s the Greater San Francisco Bay Chess Novel. Astute readers will notice several local personalities in the novel — Jesse does nothing to conceal them.
Perhaps the biggest surprise, and the biggest gamble, in Jesse’s novel becomes apparent from the early pages. I won’t even bother to conceal the surprise, because you can see it right there in the book’s Amazon page. One of the two protagonists of the novel is named Igor Ivanov … and this is no generic Igor Ivanov. It is Jesse’s attempt to bring the Russian-Canadian grandmaster back to life. His biography is faithfully incorporated into the novel, incuding his dramatic defection from Russia to Canada in Gander, Newfoundland, in 1980.
The real Igor Ivanov died in 2005. The fictional Igor Ivanov has merely gone underground for a while, but Lisa (the other protagonist) seeks him out and finds him living in a bad neighborhood in downtown San Francisco, where she convinces him to become her chess coach. The fictional Ivanov has been living a healthier lifestyle and has somewhat tamed his personal demon, vodka.
This fictional Ivanov is a fascinating figure, and readers will doubtless want to know how accurate the depiction of him is. I cannot tell you. I never got to know the real Ivanov, and played against him only one time. I don’t know to what extent Jesse’s portrayal is based on personal knowledge, and to what extent Jesse has incorporated generic elements of other Russian chess emigres into Ivanov’s character. It is surprising, and discouraging, to see the fictional Ivanov’s extreme disdain for American players. I can only assume that this reflects Jesse’s experiences, because he has played at the top level with Russian emigres many, many times and has probably had many candid conversations with them. I have played lots of Russian emigres, but not at the top level, and have never sensed this kind of contempt from them. Perhaps I am merely naive.
As I said, Jesse includes several other very thinly veiled real people in his novel, mostly from Bay Area chess, and I won’t spoil the fun by telling you who they are.
The main protagonist, and title character, “Lisa,” is completely fictional. However, the tournaments she goes to are very real — the Central California Championship in Fresno; the 2010 Polgar Girls Championship in Lubbock, Texas; the 2010 World School Championships in Halkidiki, Greece. The chess in the book is real, too. Ivanov’s second assignment for Lisa is to read Tal’s book on the 1960 World Championship match between Tal and Botvinnik. Several games from that match are given in the footnotes. ChessLecture subscribers will know that Jesse recorded a whole series of lectures on the Tal-Botvinnik match (also in 2010), so it’s clear that his own fascination with that match has found its way into the fictional Ivanov’s teaching. ChessLecture subscribers will recognize other Jesse-isms sprinkled throughout the book. (Again, I won’t spoil the fun by telling you what they are here.)
Given the hyper-realism of some aspects of the book, their juxtaposition with the fictional elements was sometimes a bit jarring for me. I do not expect that this would be a problem for what Lisa calls “chessless” readers. I do think that chessless readers will have other problems with the book. First and foremost is the contempt Lisa has for them. How long will readers want to stick with a book that basically calls them worthless philistines? It would be easy to excuse Lisa on the grounds of youth, but her adult mentor doesn’t do much to challenge her. Okay, he does challenge her a little bit, by exposing her to music and mathematics, the two other mountaintops next door to chess, but in essence her worldview is his.
I feel as if I’m emphasizing the negative here, so let me end with some very favorable comments. I think that Jesse’s attempt to portray a person on the Asperger’s spectrum is very daring and to some extent successful. I like the fact that he doesn’t tell you what is going on with her right away. In fact, I think he does a great and very convincing job of portraying adolescent psychology. I also like the way he shows the reader all the different cultures involved in chess these days. He even people talking in untranslated Hindi and untranslated Arabic!
Also Jesse does a really good job in the last 40 pages or so of tying Lisa’s personal growth to her experiences over the chess board. If the novel is going to have any success beyond chess readers, it has to use the game as a route into something deeper. For the longest time I was very skeptical whether Jesse was going to pull this off, as he seemed completely contented to focus entirely on the chess world. But the last few chapters veer off into a completely different and surprising direction, one which suggests a real possibility for Lisa’s re-integration into the larger world and not in a sappy, Disney-esque way either. If any of the “chessless” readers actually get to this part of the book, I think that they will be rewarded for their patience.
For the bottom line, I think I have to give this book three separate evaluations.
For Bay Area chess players: A must buy, it will be great fun to look for your favorite personalities here. Also for ChessLecture subscribers past and present, ditto. You’ll enjoy seeing your favorite American sensei channeled into the (occasionally foul) mouth of a Russian.
For other chess players: Two thumbs up. This is the most realistic chess novel ever. And it provides an interesting perspective on one of the biggest demographic movements in chess history, the emigration of Russian grandmasters to the West.
For “chessless” people: If you can get past being insulted on about every other page, and you’re prepared to skip over a few random chess diagrams and game scores in the footnotes, you might find a story here that is more compelling, raw, and thought-provoking than, say, Karate Kid.