All the Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything

All the Wrong Moves: A Memoir About Chess, Love, and Ruining Everything

by Sasha Chapin


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"A briskly told coming-of-age memoir...Chapin has a fine eye for the game's beauty...In the course of his entertaining odyssey, Mr. Chapin offers a Zen-like secret to chess, and to living."
Wall Street Journal

Sasha Chapin is a victim of chess. Like countless amateurs before him—Albert Einstein, Humphrey Bogart, Marcel Duchamp—the game has consumed his life and his mind. First captivated by it as a member of his high school chess club, his passion was rekindled during an accidental encounter with chess hustlers on the streets of Kathmandu. In its aftermath, he forgot how to care about anything else. He played at all hours, for weeks at a time. Like a spurned lover, he tried to move on, but he found the game more seductive the more he resisted it.

And so, he thought, if he can't defeat his obsession, he had to succumb to it.

All the Wrong Moves traces Chapin's rollicking two-year journey around the globe in search of glory. He travels to tournaments in Bangkok and Hyderabad. He seeks out a mentor in St. Louis, a grandmaster whose personality is half rabbi and half monk, and who offers cryptic wisdom and caustic insults ("you're the best player in your chair"). His story builds toward the Los Angeles Open, where Chapin is clearly outmatched and yet no less determined not to lose.

Along the way, he chronicles the highs and lows of his fixation, driven on this quest by lust, terror, and the elusive possibility of victory. Stylish, inventive, and laugh-out-loud funny, All the Wrong Moves is more than a work of history or autobiography. It's a celebration of the purity, violence, and beauty of the game.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780385545174
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/13/2019
Pages: 224
Sales rank: 161,672
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

SASHA CHAPIN is an award-winning journalist and recovering chess enthusiast. His writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, BuzzFeed, and Hazlitt. He lives in L.A.

Read an Excerpt


The 600 Million

Perhaps the surest sign that you’re in love is that you can’t stop talking. You find yourself announcing the name of your beloved at the slightest provocation. Given any oppor­tunity, you engage in a vain attempt to explain your infatua­tion. Everything else seems unworthy of a single moment’s attention or discussion. No matter how shy or stoic you are, real affection demands expression.

And this is no less true when the object of your affection is the game of chess. In other words, when you’re me.

But this poses a bit of a problem. It’s tricky to explain the appeal of chess to someone who doesn’t play. Unlike the beauty of other sports, the majesty of chess is some­what opaque to the uninitiated. Basketball, I’m sure, has infinitesimal subtleties I can’t fully appreciate, but when I’m watching a game, I can still sense that LeBron is doing some­thing really cool. The sheer physicality is imposing—the taut calves, the curves carved in the air by the ball meeting the basket. Not so with chess. All you do is look at two nerds staring at a collection of tiny figurines.

And yet, my love of chess demands that I continue, that I somehow communicate why chess captivates me in ways that nothing else ever could. Why I’ve neglected food, sex, and friendship, on many an occasion, for its charms. Why nothing—not love, not amphetamines, not physical danger—makes my heart beat harder than the process of cornering an opponent’s king.

If you think this is crazy, I agree. But it deserves men­tioning that I’m not the only crazy one. Albert Einstein and Humphrey Bogart were similarly affected by the thirty-two pieces on the sixty-four squares. And, some centuries before that, Caliph Muhammad al-Amin, ruler of the Abba­sid empire, insisted on continuing a promising endgame as marauders penetrated his throne room, decapitating him shortly after he delivered checkmate.

I didn’t get decapitated, so my affair with chess really wasn’t so bad. All I got was the total consumption of my soul.

Like so many affairs, it began with an accidental flirta­tion that became an all-devouring union—two years during which I did little else but pursue chess mastery. Despite my obvious lack of talent, I leapt across continents to play in far-flung competitions, studied with an eccentric grandmaster, spent almost all of my money, neglected my loved ones, and accumulated a few infections. And I did it all for a brief shot at glory—a chance to take down some real players at a tournament in Los Angeles, where my place in humanity was determined, as far as I’m concerned.

Maybe if you come back with me, through those nights of chasing imaginary kings with imaginary queens, along my winding road to the San Fernando Valley, you’ll under­stand my love of chess. Maybe you’ll even understand why, according to recent estimates, one in twelve people in the world plays chess in some capacity. Maybe you’d like to know what’s been captivating well over 600 million souls while you were doing whatever you do.

Frankly, I didn’t feel like I was doing much until chess came along. Sure, there were momentary rages, dwindling loves, and, occasionally, a charming vista. But it was all part of an unformed sequence of anecdotes, through which I was stumbling sideways, grasping at whatever I could, whether it was some form of self-destruction or a nice afternoon walk. By contrast, when chess appeared, it felt like a possession—like a spirit had slipped a long finger up through my spine, making me a marionette, pausing only briefly to ask, “You weren’t doing anything with this, were you?”



Anyway, like most people, I became obsessed with chess after I ran away to Asia with a stripper I’d just met.

Courtney made an impression. Before I saw her face, at the poetry reading where we encountered each other, I heard the precise, cutting melody of her voice sailing above the room’s otherwise meek murmurs. And as soon as I saw her, it became clear, from both the way she looked and the way that everyone else looked at her, that she was the unelected supervisor of that evening. She had one of those sharp smiles that you could easily imagine encir­cling the necks of her enemies. She was slim and pale, with severe good looks. Everything she wore was obviously expensive: shiny black boots, shiny black pants, and an extravagantly fluffy white sweater that shed hairs every­where. The room around her slowly became dandered.

Even before we spoke, her presence added a little bit of much-needed electricity to the otherwise un-fascinating evening. The poetry reading was boring. And I went there knowing I would be bored, because I didn’t care about experimental poetry. But I figured that I should go for vague professional reasons. I had recently started a career as a free­lance writer, having published a couple of sensitive essays that had earned modest local acclaim. And in my mind this meant, somehow, that attending tedious literary events was now my sacred responsibility.

She and I met when I started flirting with a friend of hers, whose social pleasantness I mistakenly took for some sort of invitation. Courtney saved me from embarrass­ment by swooping in and derailing the conversation with an avalanche of pointed queries and cleverly backhanded compliments. At first, I had no idea whether she liked me or could even tolerate my presence. She seemed entirely self-contained, like there wasn’t anything I could possibly add to her life, which may have been true. I asked her what she thought of the poetry, expecting a mushy statement of rev­erence of the sort I’d received from everyone else I’d asked that question.

“It was mostly shitty,” she said.

After a few minutes, I got a little better at keeping up with the staccato conversational rhythm that was her spe­cialty, but I still felt nervous. Until, that is, she started mas­saging my knee under the table, apropos of nothing, after we had consumed a helpful amount of alcohol.

Following our first intimate moments, a few days later, I told her that it kind of sucked that we hadn’t encountered each other earlier, because I was moving overseas in two weeks. When she asked me why, I told her the same silly thing I told everybody: I was going away to Thailand so I could write in solitude. At this early stage in my career, I said, I should devote myself to my craft, rather than deal with the constant distractions of my busy life in Toronto. Whether or not I believed this myself I’m not sure, but it was obviously untrue. Writing was going well. I was pro­ducing at a reasonable rate, and I was getting paid pretty generously.

Moreover, since I had never been alone in an unknown country, I had no reason to suspect that it would improve me in any way. Really, the decision was based on fear. I’m kind of an insecure person, and whenever I’m stationary in life for more than a few moments—whenever I’m settled in any lifestyle at all—I start becoming suspicious of the validity of my very being. In this case, I couldn’t stomach the fact of remaining in Toronto, getting paid to put my feel­ings on the Internet while working at a fancy pasta restau­rant. There had to be something more out there, something more noble or treacherous. And while I did have some good friends in the city, I wasn’t entirely sure why they liked me anymore. Perhaps the decisive factor, finally, was that I had some money saved up, which traditionally means that I’m about to do something stupid.

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