Lisa: A Chess Novel [EXCERPT]
By GM Jesse Kraai   
October 15, 2013
lisalead.jpgGM Jesse Kraai, featured on the July 2007 cover of Chess Life magazine, is now author of the new novel, Lisa. On his website, Jesse said, "Lisa was a story I had to write. I stopped playing chess. I stopped teaching chess. That was over three years ago. Now the book is finally coming out, in both ebook and paperback." He presents CLO readers with the following excerpt, in which Lisa begins her quest for a Grandmaster coach.

Walking kale crowded the narrow path to the grandmaster’s cottage. Eight feet tall, the perennial plant extended its many fronds like hands on long arms. Underneath them was a rich forest of annual kales, the frilly blackish green of dinosaur, the poisonous-looking bright colors of rainbow and the prickly stems of Siberian dwarf.

To get to the grandmaster’s door, Lisa had to squeeze her body around a wooden cart of horse shit that was harnessed to an enormous steel bike. The bike’s seat loomed behind her head like a fence post, forcing her on top of a dirty brown mat that said “Welcome.” Lisa knocked and waited. She tried to push her tank top down over her belly. But her flesh rolled away from her; the stretchy piece of cotton never stayed. Her pastel blue shirt was a ribbon around a present no one wanted.

“Grandmaster Ivanov?” Lisa could barely hear her own voice. Then she spoke with more force, directly into the door she had just knocked on: “My name is Lisa. I’m a chessplayer.” The floorboards squealed as the man came to his door. The right-hand side of his shirt had just been fisted into his pants. His belt buckle hung open, and soiled jeans slid down his lean frame.

The giant man finally looked down and found Lisa. He began to examine her. And it was then that Lisa first saw real chess eyes. They were cold and wet, like a healthy dog’s nose, impolitely sniffing at all the things she couldn’t smell herself.

Lisa’s sentences began to jump. “I found you with Google. My parents will never know I’m here. They get home late. School is just two train stops away. I want you to teach me. I won the Northern California Girls Championship. I got some study money. From the Polgar Foundation. I need to train. For the Polgar Girls Tournament. At the end of the summer. I can pay you.”

Lisa had waited for the shuttle with the other kids, just like every other day. The high wooden-shingled roofs of their private college-prep school were warm and ordered, like a summer camp. The boys jumped on each other, made the wave with their stomach muscles, and did the armpit fart. The girls stood aside, superior and mature. The rainy season was over, and school would end soon.

Lisa took the school shuttle to the train with them. She knew she could break the rules and simply walk the four blocks to the train station, through the dangerous traffic. But Lisa wanted them to know that she was going in the other direction. They would follow the customary path, and travel through the mountain to the suburbs on the other side, to Orinda, Walnut Creek and Lafayette. Lisa would go toward the water.

Lisa transferred at MacArthur Station. On the platform, a wrinkled woman yelled into the emptiness, “I’ve had enough of your candles! Purple, pink and black. I can’t take it. GET OUT of here!” Lisa looked around for the candles, but didn’t see any. After a while, it seemed like the woman wasn’t real; no one noticed her.

Then Lisa rode to Ashby Station, close to where she had found Igor’s house on Googlemaps. She saw a mangy rat precariously clutch a Starbucks cup in his big teeth and scurry off into the station’s thick vines. Black people stood on the street corners she walked by. They asked her for money. And now she stood close to Igor’s thick forearm hair. Purposeful veins travelled over a rippling network of muscles and tendons like elevated train tracks. Splotchy scars decorated his arm like tattoos.

Lisa maneuvered around the cart and backed away into the hands of the man’s kale. “Aren’t you going to say anything?” she asked. The man just stared at her.

Finally, he said, “I not teach American. No respect for game. Not since camp in Payson, Arizona. Is promise I make, to self.”

“The Polgar Foundation will pay you!” she cried. “They gave me money for a teacher!” But this did not move the man. He stood in his doorway like a tree, waiting for her to go.

As if Lisa were looking for a friend, she dove into her backpack. A princely unicorn looked out from the plastic cover of the pack that Jan had bought for her. He was pure white with a wavy black mane. Lisa had once thought him wise and powerful. Now he just seemed childish, especially as bright pink and gold flowers fell about him. Lisa arose from her backpack with a book. She straightened her back. Armed with her journal, she was suddenly poised and articulate, and she began to read aloud:

“I know I’m not that good. It’s not just that Emily Zuo wasn’t at the tournament—she would have beaten me for sure—it’s that I’ve never really studied the game. Chess was just one of those places my mom drove me to, some place where a teacher tries to lead us around, entertain us, always smiling. I don’t know what chess really is. I sometimes feel like there is more going on. I can’t see it. I only sense it. I win my games by taking stuff. I feel stuck there, even if I am good at it, like a beginning painter who only knows how to draw stick figures.”

Igor was silent, and Lisa continued reading from her book: “Ruth said that Igor talks to his pieces.” Here
Lisa looked up at Igor, as if he should know who Ruth was. “She said it in a way that made him seem crazy. But I think I might understand what he means. Maybe I’m crazy. They say he won’t teach anymore, that he’s angry. The parents try to trick their children into concentrating with chess. They say, ‘Chess is fun!’ But he says that chess will hurt. I tried to friend him on Facebook. Nothing. I left a message on his phone. No response. So tomorrow I’m just going to knock on his door.”

“What is book?” Igor asked.

“It’s a journal.”

“This journal, what is?”

Lisa looked down on the stupid book that the grandmaster pronounced “djurnaal.” It was flimsy and girlish in the dappled light of his dark green garden. The cover had once been very pretty, a watery pink that seemed to expect a later bloom of luscious red. But Lisa had defaced that veneer with black roses and a thick tangle of spiky vines. She had drawn them with care and deep feeling, as if many other girls had not decorated their shields with the same bloodflowers. Inside, thick and woody pages expected the fine calligraphy of a curving hand. “It’s supposed to tell you what’s important,” Lisa mumbled.

Igor turned around and went inside. He abandoned Lisa, without even giving her a chance. So she sat down. She didn’t wait for his attention. No, this spot of ground was as good as any other. Like a goldfish swimming around and around in a tank, every place was equally meaningless.

Eventually Igor came out, to shovel the green-and-brown shit from the cart on his bike into his garden. The shit had swirls in it, like chocolate ice cream from a dispenser. White maggots squiggled out of the muck and tumbled down the pile. A feral cat hunted something along the side of the fence. Lisa imagined a rat, breathing heavily in the brush, afraid to move.

Then she felt a weight on her shoulder. It was the biggest book Lisa had ever seen. “Do first five hundred mate-in-two, come back tomorrow. Please give book respect, is old friend.” Lisa stood up, but then had to stoop forward as she took possession of the overlarge black tome.

Find more about Lisa on including a schedule of readings and appearances. You can also check out Lisa's page on facebook.