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Chandler Cornered

Zugzwang. St. Petersburg 1914 - book review

A riveting story of treachery, murder, intrigue and passion.
by Ronan Bennett.
14.99 Bloomsbury 2007 ISBN 978-0-7475-8711-8

I was given this book to review specially for this column.

Here is a synopsis.

The story revolves around one Dr.Otto Spethmann a psychoanalyst.
The setting is St. Petersburg a few weeks before the great
1914 Chess Tournament.

A murder is committed on page one. O.V.Gulko is the victim.
The police turn up at Spethmann's office because unknown to
him, his daughter Catherine has been using his office to hide
and lay terrorists.

One of the doctors patients is the great polish chess player
Avrom Chilowicz Rozental. In his acknowledgements the author
admits there was a great chess tournament in St. Petersburg in 1914
and the reader will have to decide who Rozental is.

(By page 5 I figured out it was Rubinstein. So I'll call Rubinstein,
Rubinstein from now on. I do not know why the author did not use
Rubinstein's name. He names Lasker, Capablanca, Alekhine, Marshall...)

After the policeman has left a couple of terrorists turn up at
Spethmann's office, steal Rubinstein's file and give Spethmann
the winning move in a chess game he is playing with a friend.

In this position the terrorist suggests 35.Rg2.

This chess game is the running theme during the book.
Bombs go off, bodies turn up in the river, in a steamy couple of pages
the good doctor goes to bed with one of his female patients, people
get shot, women are disfigured, practically everyone Spethmann thinks
is a friend turns out to be an enemy and visa-versa.
During all of this the game continues.

What has Rubinstein and the 1914 tournament got to do with this?
Well the terrorists want to kill Tsar Nicholas II and think Rubinstein
has a great chance of winning the tournament. The winner will be
granted a private audience with the Tsar so the terrorists
have a Rubinstein double who will kill the Tsar.

Rubinstein meets his double and cracks up. This is where the
psychoanalyst comes in. His job is to 'cure' Rubinstein in time
for the tournament.
This sounds far-fetched and silly but it's just way I have
explained it. The book has twists and turns that then double
back on further twists and turns. Unraveling these was quite
enjoyable, I was on the case quicker than the good doctor and
had it all figured out including how to win the game. (Zugzwang.)

The terrorists who suggested the chess move simply had to be
working with the police because Spethmann was being watched.
Working out and the goodies from the baddies was easy.
Mind you I'm good at these things. Years of Agatha Christie helped.

The only thing I found a bit hard to understand were the motives for killings.
I know nothing of life in Russia at that time. But killing innocent people
with bombs? No matter what the reason, no matter what the cause,
is still murder and cannot be justified.

Rubinstein is of course portrayed as an idiot whose whole
world is chess chess chess.

Writing a book? Need a fool? Pick any Chess Grandmaster.

In one scene people are being shot, yet Rubinstein is
looking for a Rook from the Capablanca - Marshall game
he was studying.
(Rubinstein threw the Rook across the room because
he did not agree with a Rook exchange).

That's it really, except to say the book appears to well researched.
It gives a good insight into the life and times of Russia in 1914.

It's enjoyable to read, though as a chess player I kept looking at the
character's names to see if there was a chess connection.
Non-chess players will enjoy this.
Chess players will see yet another chess hero turned into a freak.

(I am writing this on the same day I found out that Bobby Fischer had
passed away. Already the psychoanalyst's are out eager to see their name in
print as they carve up up a genius, label him and put him into a pigeon hole).

One gripe - the book is littered with diagrams as the theme game progresses.
One of the diagrams is wrong and shows an illegal position.

One page 196 this diagram is given.

The White Queen should be on g7.

OK a typo can sneak in anywhere but this one threw me.
I thought it was something to do with the plot and had to
re-read a few pages before I settled on it being an error.

For the sake of completeness here is the final table
of the preliminary 1914 tournament.

St.Petersburg 1914

4Marshall,Frank X01116

The top five then played in a double round final.
I wonder why the top six were not chosen?
(Then they would have to include Rubinstein
and his double was going to kill the Tsar.)

2Capablanca,Jose 0X11115
5Marshall,Frank 0001X2

A game referred to in the book was Salwe v Rozental, Lodz 1907
as being a masterpiece. Well it is and Black was Rubinstein.

[Click here to replay the game]
G.Salwe - A.Rubinstein

1.e4 e5 2.Nf3 Nc6 3.Bc4 Bc5 4.Nc3 Nf6 5.d3 d6 6.Be3 Bb6 7.0-0 Bg4 8.Nd5 Nxd5 9.Bxd5 0-0 10.h3 Bh5 11.g4 Bg6 12.Kg2 Qe7 13.Qe2 Kh8 14.a4 Nd8 15.a5 Bxe3 16.fxe3 c6 17.Bb3 Ne6 18.c3 Nc5 19.Bc2 d5 20.exd5 cxd5 21.Nh2 e4 22.d4 Nd3 23.Bb3 Rad8 24.Qd2 f5 25.c4 f4 26.cxd5 f3+ 27.Kh1 Qh4 28.Bc4 Qxh3 29.Bxd3 exd3 30.Rf2 Be4 31.Rc1 Rf6 32.Qb4 d2 33.Rd1 Qg3 34.Qe7 Rc8 35.Rfxd2 Qe1+ 36.Rxe1 f2+ 37.Qxe4 fxe1Q+ 38.Kg2 Qxd2+

A brilliant game by Akiba Rubinstein .

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