Sunday, October 02, 2011

Book Report 1: Los Voraces 2019

I'm a big reader. The largest thing I own isn't a bed or a TV, its a 1200 volume library. It is also the very worst thing I own if you ask my friends who helped me move here four years ago. I'll tend to read everything and indeed, I honestly understand Klingon psychology better than I understand someone past the age of 7 who can't read.

Unsurprisingly perhaps over the last several months I've been reading chess books. But not only things like GM Andy Soltis's Pawn Power in Chess, or IM Jeremy Silman's How to Reassess Your Chess. I've also been reading "chess novels" - books with chess as some sort of central theme. Sorta like the printed equivalent of Searching for Bobby Fisher.

The first I really read was Los Voraces 2019 by Grandmaster Andy Soltis. Now, you may remember that Andy was my 2nd favorite Grandmaster when I was a kid (and right now the only one of my favorite three who is still alive. But I don't like to talk about that!). A lot of us should be somewhat familiar with Andy's instructional books such as The Art of Defense in Chess. Some of you might be familiar with a couple of his history books such as The United States Chess Championship, 1845-1996. Apparently some people wish they weren't quite as familiar with Andy's Opening Monographs.

But Los Voraces 2019 apparently is Andy's first attempt at a novel after a lifetime of being an instructional writer and journalist. Originally written serially between September 2001 to September 2002 on, the book was put together in 2004. That copyright date actually gives the book some unintended humorous moments.

Los Voraces 2019 is the story of the Sheldrake Memorial Tournament held in a small New Mexico town where the rules for this tournament of the near future are "no seconds, no agents, no computers, no entourages, no pagers, no phone calls, and no outside contacts" until the tournament is over. Mr. Sheldrake is dead, but his will has given a prize fund of $20m for the ELO Top 14 in 2019, including the World Champion, to compete in a Round Robin tournament. But, one by one, as the tournament moves forward round by round, its participants start dying, often right in front of one another.

Our guide and narrator through all of this is the tournament's Arbiter. I'm sure some of you could see why that would appeal to me! The Arbiter is never named, and in my mind's eye I assumed he was Soltis himself following in the great tradition of those Grandmasters that became International Arbiters at the ends of their careers.

The book is not high on characterization, and I don't think its supposed to be, really. Andy is commenting on the stereotype of Grandmasters, and I think he hits several nails on the head, as well as a couple of sacred cows. You have the World Champion who thinks he's better than everyone (and everything) else. The 13 year old prodigy. The 27 year old ex-prodigy. The weird player who apparently doesn't speak English. Two women GMs who apparently hate each other so much, they physically fight whenever they're in the same room. The characters are not deep, but they're funny. And maybe just a tad insightful.

The book reads like an old-style mystery novel. The tournament goes on. Players die. And our hero the Arbiter, with the reluctant help of the local sheriff and a couple of others, try to figure out the whys and wherefores while simultaneously keeping the tournament going and the players calm enough to play.

The ending surprised me, but I'm easily surprised by these things.

The real joy of the novel came from Andy's attempts to inject a bit of what he saw as the future of chess contrasted by what he describe as the "retro" features of the tournaments. The Sheldrake Memorial has adjournments, a rule the Arbiter had to look up because it hadn't been used in 20 years. One of the nicest scenes is when he tries to describe some of the players to the sheriff:

"And I forfeited Popov once in a rapid-play tournament for using an EGD."

"Eeegie what?"

"It stands for eyeglass display, a kind of wearable computer. In this case it fed opening analysis to the lower part of his prescription frames. Sorta like movie subtitles."

"Ingenious. By the way are there any Americans in this American tournament?"

One. Todd Krimsditch. He thinks he's the next Bobby Fisher. But even today, Fisher could probably give him a pawn and move - and Bobby will be 77 in March."

Through it all chess is actually played at the Sheldrake Memorial and we get to see the actual moves and games through game scores, analysis done within the story line, and with diagrams - the only time I've ever seen that done.

Los Voraces 2019 is probably not a book you'd recommend to your sister to explain what you do on weekends. There are far too many in-jokes But if understand and appreciate algebraic notation, know what a Round Robin tournament is, and recognize the names Korchnoi and Petrosian (and know why these two men are anything but a mutual admiration society), I think the novel can be a lot of fun.

The book is available from interlibrary loan (my copy came from the Appalachian State University). It sells somewhat pricy for $30 on Amazon. Finally its actually available as an eBook from the Android Marketplace for $10, which I thought was neat.


Ken said...

Although I don't remember the plot, I remember thinking Stefan Zweig's The Royal Game was probably the best of all the chess fiction I've read. Some years ago I lent it to a friend, and never saw it again, but hopefully he enjoyed it, too.

There is also an excellent short story written by George R.R. Martin called "Unsound Variations" in the Pawn to Infinity collection.

Anonymous said...

I had completely forgotten about this book! It seemed kind of...well, weird may not be the best term, but captures the idea...when it first came out, but in any case it's certainly one-of-a-kind.

Incidentally, "Los Voraces" is a Spanish neologism meaning "the greedy ones" (or "the voracious ones"), which I'm sure was more intentional commentary by Soltis.

P.S. The Art of Defense was indeed excellent and almost unique as well.