Lynn: I’m not sure why but I love books with chess as an element of the story. Maybe it’s the rich history of the game or the idea of sharp intellects engaged in intense mental combat or maybe it’s just that I am a lousy chess player and admire those who play well. Whatever it is, the instant I saw the cover of Grandmaster (Farrar 2014) I was ready for play to begin.
Freshman Daniel Pratzer is struggling to find his place at an elite private school and he joins the chess club hoping to make friends. When the senior co-captains invite Daniel and his Dad to a father-son chess tournament, Daniel is surprised as he is just a beginning player and his Dad had never shown any interest in the game. Then the boys reveal a much bigger surprise. Daniel’s father is a grandmaster and was one of the most promising young players in America 30 years ago. The pressure was so intense that he gave up the game and hasn’t moved a piece since. Daniel, furious, goes home to confront his father and learns that even his mother knew nothing about this father’s chess history. At first his dad refuses to even consider the tournament and then he agrees to compete.
As the weekend tournament begins, the tensions rise and pressure increases on everyone. As the matches continue, Daniel pieces together his father’s secret story and along the way learns a lot about himself, his dad, father-son relationships and the price of competition.
Klass gave me a lot to enjoy with this unusual book. Besides the whole chess scenario setting, there were some really interesting characters, many of whom were adults – something not common in American YA. Watching Daniel unravel the mystery of his father’s past and begin to see him as a real person – not just as the balding work-focused accountant was a real pleasure. And for those who think the depiction of some of the other fathers on the team was a bit over the top – well, judging by some recent encounters I’d say it was a bit too mild if anything. I also found Daniel’s blooming relationship with Liu quite charming and it was a lovely counterpoint to the intensity of the chess tournament tension. Everything is accomplished in the weekend of course, which is speedily tidy, but I was completely willing to go along with it and with Daniel’s somewhat rapid maturing. It worked for me in the course of this completely engaging story. Check and mate!
Cindy: I could just flip my king over and concede this post to Lynn who masterfully covered the fine points of this novel. But I will add that this chess story will be a good read-alike for Rich Wallace’s Perpetual Check (Knopf 2009) that also features a highly driven, competitive father. Teens who are as interested in the psychology behind these driven personalities, no matter the hobby turned obsession, will find much to think about in The Kings Are Already Here (Houghton 2003) by Garret Freymann-Weyr that peeks inside the world of chess and ballet. My favorite nonfiction book about the history of chess and how to play is sadly out of print in the US, but if you can get your hands on a copy it is gorgeous and is an interesting read. Chess: From First Moves to Checkmate by Daniel King (Kingfisher 2001) made the BBYA list the first year I served and had the above linked starred review from Booklist. And go figure, the author (last name of King) is an international grandmaster.
I really enjoyed Grandmaster…there’s lots to love as Lynn has reported. If you missed our post earlier in Mystery Month about Mysterious Unreliable Characters, check it out for my comments about my very favorite David Klass book, You Don’t Know Me.