Wednesday, 22 July 2020

The Greenbecker Gambit by Ben Graff

The Greenbecker Gambit by Ben Graff
Published in the UK by The Conrad Press on the 3rd April 2020.

A Book With Vegetarian Characters

‘I only feel truly alive when the chess clock is ticking and the patterns on the squares in front of me are dancing in my head. Very little else gives me the same feeling. Nothing else, that does not involve a flame.’

Tennessee Greenbecker is bravely optimistic as he sets out to claim what he sees as rightfully his – the title of world chess champion. But who is he really? Is he destined to be remembered as chess champion or fire-starter? Either way, might this finally be his moment?

The Greenbecker Gambit is an unusual first-person narrated novel in which former child chess prodigy, Tennessee Greenbecker, repeatedly explains to anyone unfortunate enough to encounter him his theories on how his life has been destroyed by a State machinery that dare not allow him to reach his full genius potential. Tennessee is an amazing creation and I loved spending time in his company although it did take me a while to be drawn into his story. During the first couple of chapters, I really wasn't sure if The Greenbecker Gambit would be a good book for me because we initially only get Tennessee's self-centred boasting about himself and his achievements, and he is not a person with whom it is easy to empathise! Once the focus widened enough for me to understand the realities of his life in tandem with his own perception of it however, I was hooked and continued reading enthusiastically. This perception gap reminded me of another recent read, Grace And Serenity by Annalisa Crawford, where our narrator's mental health issues also result in social isolation and homelessness.

I loved reading the intensely awkward confrontations between Tennessee and his long-suffering brother who has found himself as a unappreciated lackey on many occasions and has just about come to the end of his tether. I could see how difficult it was for him to be so aware of how much practical help Tennessee needs, yet to always be so nastily rebuffed and denigrated. Tennessee of course sees only how grateful his brother should be for continuing to associate with such greatness!

The Greenbecker Gambit is also a novel of the seedier side of London and of the closed world of professional chess. I didn't feel I needed more than my basic knowledge of the game itself to keep up with the story, although perhaps a greater awareness of its past masters could have been useful. Tennessee obviously expected me to know my Fischers from my Kasparovs, but I don't think my haziness meant me missing out. Actually I probably learned quite a bit about chess history without feeling as baffled as Zugzwang (Ronan Bennett) left me. Overall though I think that The Greenbecker Gambit is a fascinating and memorable portrait of one very quirky mind, and I am a little in awe of Tennessee's capacity to dismiss reality in favour of his own wonderfully grandiose delusions.

Meet the author 

Ben Graff is a writer, journalist and Corporate Affairs professional. He is a regular contributor to Chess and Authors Publish. He is not a grandmaster but did draw with one once.

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