First Moves
September 20, 2007

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon

You can’t in any real way call Michael Chabon’s latest effort—a hybrid of alternate history and mystery called The Yiddish Policemen’s Union—a chess novel, but a reference to Emanuel Lasker does pop up in the very first sentence of the book and a chess position found next to the victim in question haunts our protagonist, hardboiled detective Meyer Landsman, from beginning to end. Chess players will recognize—either from the description of the position, or the nod to Nabokov in the acknowledgments (full disclosure: Chabon thanks The Chess Artist as well)—that the position is some kind of puzzle or problem, and the gist, of course, is that something about the problem will help solve the larger mysteries of the book.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is set in a fanciful all-Jewish Alaskan district called Sitka—what the world decided on, one supposes, instead of Israel after World War II. Three million Jews make up the “Frozen Chosen.” The bomb was dropped on Berlin instead of Japan, and while Sitka has produced a world chess champion, Bobby Fischer is entirely absent, which is probably just as well. Sixty years later, the lease on Sitka is about to run out, the Jews are going to have to fend for themselves, and (here’s the hint to the chess problem) they’re all going to have to figure out what move to make next. Two months before the clock runs out, a body turns up—the body not just of a chess prodigy, but also the man who might have been their spiritual savior. Landsman gets dragged into the case, and like all good detectives he must ignore his superiors, risk his friendships and his life, confront the mafia, and stick his nose deep into the noir tradition to untangle a false version of the history that sheds a good deal of light on the true version.
This is a fine novel—as literature. But don’t be fooled into thinking that this is a hard read. Chabon has mastered the braiding of pleasure and ambition—which is probably why he won the Pulitzer Prize. He has a good handle on chess, too—good enough so that the solution to his puzzle will probably surprise you, which is only as it should be.

         ~J.C. Hallman

Golden anniversaries

IM John Donaldson tells us of two 50th anniversaries occuring this year. One is William Lombardy’s 50th anniversary of winning the 4th World Junior Chess Championship in Toronto with an 11-0(!) score. The event was held August 3-17, 1957.

The second is Dallas 1957, held November 30-December 14. This was an eight-player, double round robin consisting of Gligoric, Reshevsky, Larsen, Szabo, Yanofsky, Olafsson, Najdorf and Evans. It was the strongest round robin held in the U.S. since New York 1924 and New York 1927 and the two Piatigorsky Cup tournaments in 1963 and 1966. It featured essentially every top active player outside of the Soviet empire (plus Szabo).

Calling Guinness

The House of Staunton (HOS) has recently completed the world’s smallest handmade chess set. The chessboard is 25 millimeters by 25 millimeters in size, or just under 1 inch by 1 inch. The current record holder is 1.25 inches by 1.25 inches, so the HOS set smashes that record by 20%. It is made from boxwood and ebony. Shawn Sullivan of HOS says, “The pieces aren’t the prettiest, but when you’re dealing with wood that is half as thick as a grain of rice, one can not be too picky.”

The Guinness Book of World Records representatives want HOS to challenge the world record at a major event and get media coverage. Currently, plans are to exhibit the set at the National K-12/Collegiate Championship in Houston, Texas this December 7-9.