The quest memoir is a balky beast. To tame it as well as Canadian journalist Sasha Chapin does in “All the Wrong Moves,” you’ll need an obscure but preferably universal target of obsession — chess mastery, in his case — a vague discontent with your present existence, a lover or two, a guru and the globe-trotting freedom to pursue your quixotic quarry. Leaven the chase with comic doses of self-doubt, then sift out any epiphanies at odyssey’s end.
“It’s tricky to explain the appeal of chess to someone who doesn’t play,” Chapin concedes, yet he makes all the right moves in doing just that. The game’s “infinite tapestry” first hooked him when he joined the Pawnishers, his high school team in Toronto: Chapin fell so hard for the 64 squares that “it felt like a possession — like a spirit had slipped a long finger up through my spine, making me a marionette, pausing only briefly to ask, ‘You weren’t doing anything with this, were you?’ ”
That fascination spawned an addiction — Chapin’s nearly ruinous (see subtitle) two-year plunge down the rabbit hole of online blitz and live tournament chess. Mesmerized by the game’s “ecstatically various” combinations, he “spent almost all of my money, neglected my loved ones, and accumulated a few infections” to prepare for the Los Angeles Open, where Chapin (rated 1390) hoped to topple a player rated 2000.
Slow your roll there, board freak — didn’t the United States reach peak pawn when Bobby Fischer became world champ in 1972? Nope — chess commands the devotion of 600 million acolytes around the globe today, meaning 1 in 12 Earthlings play the game in some capacity. Chapin name-checks fellow fanatics Humphrey Bogart, Albert Einstein and ex-world champ Garry Kasparov, the latter exuding “a barely contained combination of rage and desire [at the board], as if he were an intemperate bull forced to sit and have brunch.” Earlier obsessives included a caliph of the Abbasid empire who refused to abandon a promising endgame when assassins burst into his throne room (he won the game but lost his head), and avant-garde French artist Marcel Duchamp, “a man whose chess problem was a lot like mine”: He spent most of his 1927 honeymoon at the local chess club in Nice. (Madame Duchamp retaliated by gluing every piece in his set to its board, then divorcing him six months later — chuckmate.)
Bullied and ostracized as a child — “nobody liked me,” the author confesses, and “they were probably right not to” — Chapin finds a measure of peace by pushing 16 miniature warriors around a black-and-white battlefield: “When I played chess, I felt, like, different. . . . None of my superficial attributes, which I so hated, translated onto the board. When I was checkmating someone, I shrank in importance compared to the pieces before me.” It’s chess hall as transporter room, and the oversharing wins us over.
A loss to his older brother triggers Chapin’s first renunciation of the game. He attends university, then falls in love with a stripper named Courtney, whose sharp smile “you could easily imagine encircling the necks of her enemies.” Among the latter is an ex-boyfriend who appears to be “monitoring” (Canadian for “stalking”) the new couple. So the lovebirds share a hit of psilocybin — dropping ’shrooms is a standard Chapin dating move — and decamp to Bangkok. There the relationship dissolves (shocker!) and Chapin lets himself get sucked back into the chess vortex, entering the Bangkok Open. Slaughter ensues: “I played worse than I ever had,” he confesses. “I began laughing a crazy, red-faced laugh. A tournament official threatened to eject me if I didn’t quiet down.”
On a reporting trip to Kathmandu, Chapin wanders down “an arbitrary lane” and gets trounced in 20 moves by a chess hustler named Tenjing. Back home in Toronto he uses the Queen’s Gambit Declined to beat a tournament foe, unleashing manic glee: “Diamonds filled the air, I was sure, which I could pluck out at any time.” But then comes a humiliating defeat at the hands of a “weird, weird kid” — a 10-year-old with the unnerving habit of getting up between moves and rubbing a small patch of the wall for 30 seconds or so.
Desperate to “figure out why I was so terrible,” our hero journeys to the chess mecca of St. Louis for enlightenment by koan-spouting grandmaster Ben Finegold. (Never play f3.) The secret of chess, please, Mr. Miyagi? You must play as if you want the game to go on forever, Daniel-san.
In the end Chapin ruins precisely nothing, unless you count a couple of botched writing assignments — one of which leads to love with his magazine editor, an empath named Katherine. (Chapin’s idea of pillow talk: “I concluded that spending time without Katherine was objectively nonsensical.”) Realizing that a chess nut’s best move is simply not to make that fateful first one, he finds solace in the example of fellow melancholic Paul Morphy, who torched the chess world for two years in the 1850s before abandoning the game for good: “The ability to play chess is the sign of a gentleman,” Morphy once said. “The ability to play chess well is the sign of a wasted life.”
Allan Fallow, a freelance book doctor in Alexandria, Va., is partial to the Levitsky Attack.
By Sasha Chapin
Doubleday. 240 pp. $24.95