The Greenbecker Gambit by Ben Graff – a novel of a man obsessed by the spirit of chess


Chess is a way of life, a way of seeing things, a way to deal with life. That is how Tennessee Greenbecker thinks in this novel where he believes that he is the true, if unrecognised champion of the world. It is a novel which tries to answer a question; what would happen if someone tried to disturb a world championship chess match. I am not a chess player, but in this book everything is related to chess, specifically by Tennessee, whose relative success in the game is his superpower as far as he is concerned. He is very concerned, obsessed, by what he sees as his world beating skill at the game. It overrides every other consideration in his life, his physical frailty and his mental health, except his side interest in setting fires. This novel takes the form of a stream of conscious, a narration of Tennessee’s thoughts and actions,  however unsavoury. It is always his views, his complicated thought processes that propel the story as he drifts round a London of cafes, hostels and pubs. This is an intense read in some respects, full of a difficult life, but with flashes of unintended humour on Tennessee’s part. It is a very personal book, written with great power from the mind of a fictional character. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual novel. 


The first phrase we hear from Tennesse is “Waiting for the body to burn is making me impatient”. It follows a number of quotations, including TS Eliot “human kind Cannot bear very much reality”. As Tennesse debates the merits and techniques of getting a bonfire to light, it becomes clear that he has experience of setting illicit fires. He consoles himself when he is forcibly moved on with the thought that he will be world chess champion. His night in a cafe is full of his thoughts of meeting Gabriel his brother, Bobby Fischer the chess champion, and his folder of chess strategies and great ideas for regaining his supposed position in the world of chess. There are hints of poor physical health, and his reactions to other people show a mental instability, but it is not a simple matter. This is a man who is fixated on missed opportunities, unfair treatment and most crucially, his expectation of challenging his nemesis to a world champion level match. His family, of which Gabriel is the only survivor, obviously had a great effect on him, especially his writer mother.   He writes of the kitchen where he grew up “Our kitchen smelt of paper and hope and words trying to connect and somehow failing”. Tennesse’s progress, or movement around London, is dominated by memories and ambition, and the squalor of his life is sad and somehow moving. 


This is a powerful read of one man’s descent, or thwarted ambition, and more. It does not have a lot of technical detail regarding chess, but it captures something of the spirit of the game in terms of thoughts about strategy and dedication to the skill of playing.  I recommend this book as an engaging read about one person’s thought process and view of the world, and as an extremely well written story of a life.