Sunday, April 06, 2008

Chess Fight Club, Part I

A couple of weeks ago, after I’d interviewed the debonair British espionage writer Charles Cumming (Typhoon, The Spanish Game) for The Rap Sheet, he challenged me to a round or two of chess. It seems we’re both big fans of the game. We didn’t actually schedule the match, but also didn’t have to wait long to begin it, thanks to ex-CIA agent-turned-novelist Barry Eisler.

I first met Eisler in Las Vegas back in 2003, when he was at Bouchercon promoting the U.S. paperback release of Rain Fall, his debut novel and the one that introduced his Japanese-American assassin, John Rain. We literally bumped into each other in a corridor at the Riviera Hotel and Casino. Since then, I’ve encountered him at various conventions and conferences, and I shared a few glasses of Scotch with him at ThrillerFest last summer, when he and fellow Penguin authors Cumming and Nick Stone got together to celebrate Stone having won the Thriller Award for his novel Mr. Clarinet.

Eisler e-mailed me recently to say that he was flying through London, following some promotional and editorial work he’d done for his Dutch publisher in Amsterdam. He would be doing an event at Books Etc. in North London’s O2 Centre, touting the UK release of his latest novel, Requiem for an Assassin, and asked that Cumming, Stone, and I meet him for dinner afterward. I quickly rang up Cumming and told him to bring along a chess board, bandages, and a white flag. Former boxer Stone would supply the gum shield. My own training for this engagement consisted of reading Ronan Bennett’s Zugzwang, a fiendish thriller based around a chess game, as well as re-reading Typhoon, hoping to get inside Cumming’s mind a bit.

I left a bit early for the O2 Centre. I enjoy the atmosphere of North London, and was in fact there recently to attend the launch party for Laura Wilson’s novel Stratton’s War. Many authors, including those who write about the spy game and who pen historical mysteries, seem to live in this area of the British capital. It’s also been a favorite setting for espionage novels. Finchley Road, off which the O2 Centre is located, leads to the Jewish area of London, Golders Green, which allegedly contains several Mossad safehouses. As I drove down Finchley, my mind drifted back to a conversation I had a couple of years ago with American writer Robert Littell, who had used Golders Green in his 2006 novel, Legends, and who’d told me about a chess strategy that might come in handy this day.

I was smiling by the time I parked my car at O2 Centre and found Books Etc. Inside, grinning as well, was Cumming, who taunted me by waving his chess set as if it were a trophy. We were soon seated together, and then joined by mystery woman and my fellow Shots contributor Ayo Onatade, another big Eisler fan. Soon after that, my cell phone commenced ringing, with Nick Stone apologizing that he was stuck in Paris due to the recent debacle at Heathrow’s Terminal 5; we’d have to go on without him.

Eisler arrived at the bookshop sporting a dark T-shirt and brown sports jacket. He looked tired, but was soon energized when around 80 readers arrived to listen to him talk and sign copies of his books. Eisler hasn’t done a book tour in the UK, so an appearance like this was a major occurrence for his hardcore British fans. A witty speaker, Eisler not only talked about his writing habits and the Rain series, but was excited to discuss the filming of that series in Japan (as reported by Mike Stotter). On this topic, I decided to throw him something of a curve. In my namesake Ali G’s style, I asked whether he was disappointed by Dustin Hoffman’s portrayal of his assassin, John Rain, and what it felt like when Hollywood mangled one of his books. He looked dumbfounded at first, but then started to laugh as I explained, “You know ... Rain Man with Tom Cruise ... ”

After his talk, a long line of people formed in hopes of Eisler signing their books. While we waited for him, Cumming told me a little about an interesting Internet writing project he’s involved in called “We Tell Stories,” and to which he contributed a tale called “The 21 Steps.” “The story has had 80,000 hits in 12 days,” Cumming explained. “It was commissioned by Penguin as a homage to John Buchan’s [The] Thirty-nine Steps, to be written specifically for Google Maps. Five other writers from the Penguin stable are also involved, including Toby Litt and the pseudonymous Nicci French. Newsweek, The Guardian, and Süddeutsche Zeitung [one of Germany’s largest daily newspapers] have all written about it, and it has been discussed on more than 350 blogs.”

It was at this point that Cumming noticed Bennett’s Zugzwang peeping out of my book bag. This was of course part one of my psy-ops strategy to destabilize and worry Cumming prior to our match. Being well-read in the espionage genre, I know a thing or two about covert techniques. But my plan was not working, as Cumming cheerfully told me that he knows Bennett well and that the author writes a chess column in The Guardian every Monday (in conjunction with British Grand Master Dan King). Bennett apparently won a tournament in Cumming’s chess club, and is probably the strongest player in that club. It was now starting to look as if Cumming might have a chess background to rival my own. “My chess club is called the Jose-Raul Capablanca Memorial Chess Society,” Cumming said. “Set up in 2004 after my return from Madrid. We have five tournaments per year with about 30 participants. Capablanca was a Cuban Grand Master, rated one of the top five players of all time. He did very little preparation, instead relying on pure talent and instinct. The Cuban government made him a diplomat so that he could travel the world playing chess--and winning--in the name of Cuba.”

It seemed to me that Cumming was also playing the psy-ops game, which was hardly surprising, considering his contacts in Britain’s SIS and his public school background. I realized then that I might have a real fight on my hands.

After Barry Eisler finished his signing, he invited Cumming and me to join him, along with a small cadre of his avid reader fans, at the J.D. Wetherspoon bar, nearby in the O2 Centre. And while Eisler chatted there with his new friends, plus Ayo Onatade, Cumming and I ordered a couple of pints of Guinness and set up our chess board. I saw that my opponent had brought tournament clocks, but I told him to put them away, as this would be a non-time challenge. Turning up my smile again on Cumming, I told him that I’d play black this game, which gave him the advantage. And I again mulled the strategic advice Littell had shared with me:
I adore chess. It is a killer game, it’s not checkers, nor like a card game ... Chess players look calm and collected, but in their mind they are out to castrate their opponent. ... My way of playing is exactly that--to kill my opponent as brutally as I can.

And my idea [for a difficult opponent] is to make only eight to 10 moves, then scratch my head, and then look up at him, then scratch my head, then look up again with a worried expression and then say, “Well, done.” [Laughs] And then [I’d] resign, and shake his hand, ... leaving him confused as to what I had seen ahead of the game. He would then either smile and fake that he saw what I had seen ahead, or just look stupid and confused, so diabolical minds think alike.
Speaking of diabolical minds, Cumming put his on display right away when, after looking over the board, he suddenly announced that “I’ll play black,” and twisted the board around. Hey, who am I to argue with one of Britain’s top espionage writers?

I watched his first move, and responded immediately. At this point, Eisler tore his attention away from his admirers and, in our direction, said, “Looks like a grudge match.” He knew how seriously both Cumming and I take chess. What he didn’t know is that this was all part of my Littell-inspired strategy to shake Cumming’s confidence. I was now convinced that my opponent might be the strong player, and I’d need every clever move in the book--and then some--to triumph.

(Part II of this story can be found here.)


Uriah Robinson said...

I have just finished reading Death In Breslau by Marek Krajewski in which the detective Eberhard Mock is very keen on chess.
Although I don't think I will ever be able to play again without thinking of Mock's Variation.

Anonymous said...

In Cumming's novel, A Spy by Nature, the lead character, Alec Milius, cheats at chess...